Star Ford

Essays on lots of things since 1989.

Four crisis questions

After hearing hundreds of people talk through their suicidal thoughts, I will tell you the main questions that have helped the most – the ones that dig the deepest for a lot of people. These big four questions are:

  • Who are you?
  • Who hurt you?
  • What do you feel?
  • What is your quest?

When we are in a suicide crisis, it is not just because of one thing that happened recently or because of a few isolated problems; the questions span from the distant past to the distant future and relate to the whole arc of life. We are all here to grow into our unique selves and fulfill a unique purpose. I visualize this arc as a person between earth and the sky. The earth is our past; energy flows from the ground into us, and the earth life force is a supporting springboard. The sky is our future and our options and ideals; its life force is pulling and opening.

When we are inclined to suicide, the life force is broken somewhere between earth and sky; there is no thread connecting the two poles of the life force. People in crisis usually report a feeling of being trapped, drowning, and consumed by earth or water, or alternately they are floating with no ground and consumed by sky. Among other reasons, we can get this way because the robotic pressures of uniformity in our schools, families, and everywhere in the culture can crush the spirit and cut those threads. When the threads are weak and then we are suddenly victimized by a traumatic thing like rape, or lose a special person, there may not be enough resilience to reconnect the threads.

“Who are you” is a question that hurting people need to hear because it opens the non-judgmental topic of being an individual in the first place, and is a gateway question to the life force. Many people are living as a number on a scale – their grades or their income or some rating of success, or they are living as a tool for someone else’s boasting or manipulation. If I ask people if they are introverted, they might say they are too introverted and they have been working on being more social. But the question is not “what is wrong with you”; it is “who are you”. Knowing that you are introverted without saying it is the problem can be part of differentiating and honoring that the way of being is fine; also it starts to point to what you might be inclined to do with your life. Play the hand with the cards you were dealt since you can’t re-deal.

Some of the most commonly vilified human qualities are sensitivity, thrill seeking, and broad focusing. Sensitive children are so often told to get tougher and not to take things so hard. But these are the people who love universally and create harmony in the world, so it is a tragedy that our culture teaches sensitive people to hide.

Thrill-seeking children are told to stop, stop, stop – stop doing everything in your nature to do. “Be safe, don’t be you.” But we need people to take risks and push limits. It’s true that a thrill seeker could die while parachuting or some other risky thing, but it a bigger tragedy if they can never live as themselves in the first place.

Broad focusing people are told to stay “on task” all the time and achieve pre-determined goals – other people’s tasks and goals, not theirs. But to be truly alive, these people need to see connections between everything, and to create.

Other identifying questions can reveal logic versus feeling, independence versus family, creative versus receptive, and many other things. Just asking the question shifts away from right and wrong (a robotic question) towards being a unique human.

Along with being vilified, people who are a step away from the normal can get labels like borderline, autistic, or ADHD and be given medications which help in some ways but also may be geared towards making them less themselves. Medications like that sometimes “work” by making people less in some way – less scattered, energetic or receptive, so they fit society better but are less able to be in the earth and sky energy flow.

“Who hurt you” is a question that helps separate a person from what happened to them. It is important to name abusers and parents and others who applied pressure, and know that those things happened to us, but we didn’t do them. It is important to list both the big victimizing things like rape along with the ongoing patterns of minimizing that often are legal or even celebrated. For example, parents who “want the best” for their children and take it out on them by constant nagging and judging might be hurting them.

Some people in suicide crisis believe that they were themselves responsible for everything that happened to them. In the extreme “I had to be hit because I misbehaved”. Anger is often absent, in the sense that the faculty for anger has been pried away from the person so that they won’t have the power to retaliate. Part of getting out of that belief is asking the “who are you” question about the parents or partner. What kind of person are they? Knowing the qualities of the others (also without judgment) helps to see how they could do what they did, and that it wasn’t the fault of the victim.

“How do you feel” is a question that our culture does not like to ask. We ask “how are you” but usually only want to hear one answer. It is important to ask and dig for nuanced descriptions because feelings are a gateway to needs; they illuminate what we need to do next. The more descriptive and accurate we can be, and the more a listener can understand feelings in detail, the more clear the needed actions become. While there are really only a few basic emotions (sadness, anger, fear and a few others), they are made more complex in three main ways that I have seen, The first way is by being layered. Only the top feeling is easily accessible, while the ones underneath can be working without our knowing. For example, a person can be sad and not feel any anger but then after expressing the sadness and letting it be as big as it needs to, it releases enough to see anger or some other feeling that was underneath.

A second complexity is how feelings are connected to thoughts and beliefs. Someone might say “I feel like I want to die” or “I feel he might leave” and the way of saying that highlights the thinking more than the feeling. The first one could be feelings of despair, grief, or being overburdened, while the second one is a fear. Nudging the language towards more direct feeling words helps release the feelings more than is possible with the indirect language. It also opens connections to other things – for example, if we open up fear as part of our experience, we might realize we are afraid of more than what we originally were thinking about.

A third complexity is in nuance. Some people want to die and others want to be dead, and others want to not be born. Those are very different. Likewise, the pain people experience is all different and just saying “pain” in not enough. It could be crushing or lonely or dull or sharp or sudden. One way to access the nuance of feelings when we don’t find the words is to make a picture or story of it. For example: like a boat drifting in a wild current, or like a dry desert with no one for miles.

“What is your quest” is a question that I never ask in those words, but it is important to try to reconnect the thread to the sky force. Often a hurting person has to go way back to remember the future. “What did 10-year old Marcie want for her future” is a question I could ask 20-year old Marcie. Quests cannot be suggested or argued; they just arise from who we are, who hurt us, and what we feel. If a person is inclined to die, it almost always means she has no options; everything is blocked. It is important to center on the kind of quest that she actually has the power do and does not involve changing other people.

Working with people in crisis is great for so many reasons, and a big one for me is how they are willing to put everything on the table, and quickly explore dark places that more stable people are likely to wall off. Change has to be fast and often they are willing to change, so having these questions in mind can help them make a significant pivot in a single conversation.

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On racism

This is about my phases of understanding racism through life, and about structuralism vs liberalism.

  • PHASE 1 – UNQUESTIONED OPTIMISM. Ages 0-16. I believed everyone was equal and it’s best to be color-blind to race because that makes everything fair. Being autistic and faceblind, I was literally color-blind, meaning I didn’t understand where people drew the lines between “races” and didn’t get that people can even have a race identity. In high school I didn’t know my friend was black, and this phase ended when someone pointed out that she was; a line was cruelly drawn between us.
  • PHASE 2 – LIBERALISM. Ages 16-20. I learned that some people are still racist, but thought it was only a few, and still believed in the power of good will to fix it, because after all, don’t we all want justice? Seeing that black people seemed to stay poor through generations was confusing and I tried to come up with explanations that exclusively focused on what’s up with “them”, and I remember being irritated that I couldn’t understand it.
  • PHASE 3 – STRUCTURALISM. Ages 20+. Learning how social structures are maintained by profit and power, I added a structuralist layer on liberalism.

So what’s the difference? In this table, the titles are pretty abstract and it appears no widely agreed definitions exist, but “structuralism” here encompasses Critital Race Theory which is somewhat better defined. Each statement in the table is something you might believe if you generally fit into that column.

Naive/Extreme Liberalism Mix Naive/Extreme Structuralism
Each person is unique. Problems and solutions are the result of individual actions. People are unique and also products of group socialization. Racism is the result of individual actions fueled by a diseased social structure. People exist in groups. The white group as a whole oppresses all other groups. The problem is the structure.
Anyone of any race might be racist depending on if they do racist things. Any person can be racist to different degrees, plus the collective inaction by white people is also a form of racism. White people are racist by definition. People of color cannot be racist by definition.
We need laws, a justice system, and police to keep order. While we need order and justice, massive reforms are needed to actively prevent bias and racism in policing and courts. The laws are unjust. The police are part of maintaining white supremacy.
Each person is judged on their actions, not their intent or effect or associations. (So, walking around in a white cone hat is protected and not harmful.) Actions matter the most, and intent and effect also matter. Actions that constitute race-based threats can be wrong even if the same action in another context or done by a different person is not wrong. White people are guilty by association with their ancestors. People are judged by their associations and effect, regardless of intent or action. (So, humming a tune unaware that it goes back to slavery is a racist and oppressive action if a white person does it.)
Sub-criminal “wrongs” like making someone feel bad, are primarily communication issues, not a matter of guilt. Making someone feel bad through racist but protected speech is not likely to be solved by individual communication because it exists in the context of a violent history. Whtite aggressive behavior should be punishable, not protected by racist laws; POC aggressive behavior is retaliatory or protective and therefore just.
Policies that level the economic playing field matter, and race should play no part in policy. Becase of the history of racial violence and level of entreched racism, some race-informed policies need to be in place to change the course towards equality. (I have not yet found policy proposals from the structuralist side.)
Culture and language is shared, dynamic, and subcultures can mix and evolve. Cultures naturally mix and evolve, but those having a true lineage in the cultural element in question should usually be respected as authoritative, rather than white people co-opting, watering down and receiving credit and money for those things. Nonwhite cultures need to be preserved; it is wrong to appropriate elements from those cultures into white culture.
Everyone can study and understand racism; it affects all of us. While a few people directly benefit from racism, it mainly hurts all of us. White people usually have a harder time understanding it. People with privilege will be blind to the actual racism dynamics; they benefit from it and will never admit their guilt or truly understand it.
We can solve racism rationally through reasoned dialog and policy with all parties at the table. Power structures self-perpetuate unless we actively challenge them, so we cannot accept the usual players at the table. Those in power will prevent any change and so they cannot be at the table.
We should mix, not intentionally segregate anything ever. Minority and oppressed people need group identity and private space, but we should also aim to have one system that’s equal and open to all. To preserve and empower communities of color, POC need to own and control separate communities, and avoid integrating; integration always causes a loss of self.

Where do you fit? One way to identify your own position is to feel where you get energized by potential changes in power and policies, and where you feel fear. For example if you heard that a black separatist political party had won a handful of seats in the House, would you feel some fear that they would fuel a “race war” that would take away what you/we/someone worked for, or even destabilize the country? Or, would you be excited that white men have a new obstacle in their way? Noticing the fears and other feelings that come up can clarify how far you are willing to go away from the liberal side. (It should be clear that my bias is in the “mix” column.)

Woke and radical. Sometimes it seems that people are in a woke war and want to out-radical other people. But what is right is not necessarily the most extreme and simple things can be more radical than flashy absolutes. For example self-identified TERF’s have “radical” in their name but they don’t accept people; it might be more radical and less attention-seeking to accept everyone. In the same way, “All lives matter” might be more radical than “black lives matter” – but only if you really mean it, and are not just saying it to deflect the particular urgency of black lives mattering.

Culture supremacy. One of the ways racism thrives among liberals is the demand to keep white cultural patterns central – that is, ways of communicating, structuring people in groups, values, and language (spelling, word choice and everything). So POC can be invited into white-dominated space but only accepted if they conform to the culture demands; this is not a melting pot of cultures; it’s one over the others, also known as supremacy. Often it feels like the groundrules are set before the space has opened up for diversity and then anyone new coming in is secondary to the founders because some things are pre-defined to be off-topic. I’ve experienced this a lot because my disability makes it impossible for me to internalize white culture as strongly as others, and I think this is somewhat how nonwhite people can feel in spaces that are “open to everyone” but aren’t really.

Voicing. There’s a huge difference between being allowed to exist and having a voice that is heard – meaning the authentic experience of a person voiced by her own words in her way of expressing and about the topics that are important to her. If a diversity of voices is really accepted, then the demand for white culture supremacy would be set aside. If there are nonwhite authentic voices that affect how things are organized and what’s being discussed, it would feel very different and liberating.

White depowering. I’m not sure how white people would create real space for everyone else, but I’m very turned off by the rampant shame that goes along with adopting the extreme structuralist view. White people acting like we are automatically wrong and racist on everything is non-helpful, especially when it goes along with seeking validation for doing it. If we want black people to award us the non-racist prize for being allies, we are still centering ourselves. It would be better to do two things. One, be quiet and go on being liberal and just not engage with this. Two, live authentically in your cultures even if they originate from northern Europe. We need a middle way between one extreme of banding together to push out all other voices, and the other extreme of pretending to be powerless.

Structuralism as religion. Christianity has a nasty kind of internal logic that means when you don’t believe in one part of it, fundamentalists will diagnose your disbelief from within the belief system, such that the system can never be questioned. Structuralism as in the table above has the same feature – if you claim you are not racist, it proves that you are racist. The white individual is fully culpable but has no way to be non-racist. According to the logic, we have responsibility in the sense of guilt but no responsibility in the sense of agency. To me, taking it that far is the same as being a religious zealot.

Rootlessness. A lot of people in North America have tenuous links to any indigenous homeland, or none at all, even though all of our ancestors at some point lived indigenously. Dominant white culture today seems to be a remnant of some actual cultures of the past in Northern Europe, with a giant dose of colonial/capitalist thinking, idol worshiping, and civic and communication norms. I suppose we cling to idols and systems and other flat substitutes for rich culture because we’re hurting from the loss. From some observation, POC in America seem to drive culture change more than white people and don’t seem to cling as much.

Cultural appropriation. I haven’t grasped the outrage on this point, and would like to propose that mixing is mostly a good thing. Anyone who lacks culture needs it; autistic people like me can fail to integrate into a culture even if it is all around us, and I feel like the flatness of what’s left of white culture is even harder to assimilate to than a more real one. I used to do a lot of Israeli dancing before I understood that it was an element of a minority culture; I appropriated it into me and made it mine, and I think that’s the right way to spread things. But on the other hand when I call my preferences for arranging furniture “feng shui”, that’s misleading because I’ve never studied it and made it mine. In the extreme when minority-cultural elements are monetized by white people in that colonizing flattening way, it demeans the real thing. But even when a white pop star “steals” in this way and none of the original artists get the money or credit, it seems symptomatic rather than a cause of racial stratification.

Passivity. Here is a comprehensive and clear source on these topics and more. That author takes a mostly structuralist perspective but without the dogmatic absolutes. One of the points is about how white people lie to ourselves about being passive and therefore not responsible. The structuralists seem to want white people to actively identify as white in order to own the oppression that is going on and stop it, rather than just cop out. I never identified with being white and I have no idea how to purposefully adopt an identification with something when I don’t feel it, but it is an idea worth further reflection.

This is another article worth reading.

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On rationality and buffoonery

The structure of un-reason

Listening to the extreme claims made during the Kavanaugh hearings has made me consider the limits of rationality. There appears to be a structure of un-reason that we humans are stuck in, and it looks something like this:

unreason diagram

The two paths depicted are different ways of expressing why we do things or why we adopt positions, when the topic is contested. I am not attempting to explain why we do everything we do, and indeed a lot of what we do in a day is habitual or autonomic or arising just because we feel like it. This paper is only concerning those things that we make conscious verbal claims about, when we are thinking and expressing positions.

The top pathway seems to be the more common pattern and the subject of this paper. The lower pathway is the scientific version that I believe is only used in limited settings when we are able to be unusually objective.

Terms I’m using are:

  • The impetus is the actual basis for doing something, which can often be unconscious, and is self-interested. So it’s either related to a basic need (like hunger or loneliness) or resolves a state of unrest (like fear).
  • The justification is the expressed basis of the action, which we essentially make up after doing the thing, or as preparation for explaining ourselves after we have decided to do the thing. It’s retrospective of the action.
  • Buffoonery is the action-justification sequence, when viewed in the light of that retrospective order.
  • Rationality is the opposite of buffoonery, in which the reason is prospective of the action. In other words, the action is legitimately done for a known, expressed reason.
  • Buffoonery dissonance is what happens when justifications contradict each other.
  • The “cement” is all the layers of beliefs that we use to ease the buffoonery dissonance.

Examples

I will walk this through three examples – one from children in a classroom, one from a teen/adult perspective that I hope is relatable to the reader, and finally one from politicians showing an extreme case.

In the childhood example, imagine a student pleading to a teacher to relax the rules in some way – maybe to allow eating during class. “Teacher, we should be able to eat in class because we’ll be able to pay attention more!” The “reason” given is really a justification (or rationalization) – an invented basis that that the student hopes will appeal to the teacher’s supposedly disinterested sense of reason. But whatever basis is given, it is not the real impetus, which is actually more simple and direct: she’s hungry. So we have the real and self-serving impetus that happens first (hunger), and the false expressed justification that comes later (in order to pay attention more), and so far there is no rationality. The teacher might think “what principle can I apply here to make an impartial decision here” and that part could be actual rationality up to a point, but the teacher also has her own justifications for things, so the final ruling on the matter might not end up being rational.

The buffoonery of young children making up justifications for what they want is often transparent and teachers might even laugh at it. In particular they laugh when they notice the same child suddenly switches positions when their self-interest changes. Children’s lower level of sophistication allows us to see the structure. They are presumed to be less capable of reason so we do not hold them accountable. More on that below.

The second example is fictional but similar to things I have done. I love cookies and my impetus is to have them all for myself. Maybe I’m greedy or I fear a future cookie shortage, but I’m not consciously thinking of these causes. When I’m not actually hungry, I might tell others not to eat the cookies because “we should save them for a special occasion”. But when I get the munchies, I might eat them all and then say they were getting stale. The buffoonery here is switching justifications in a way that would make the other people in the house raise an eyebrow at my inconsistency and doubt my “reasoning”. If they pointed it out, I would feel the “buffoonery dissonance”, or the shame that goes with being caught.

The third example is what prompted this whole line of thought – the Supreme Court confirmation hearings on Kavanaugh. A senator supports something “on principle” one year and opposes the same thing the year later, appealing to the opposite principle. In this case, senators who made arguments for prudent and lengthy consideration of facts when Obama nominated a justice (and effectively delayed hearings until Obama was out of office) are now making arguments for quick action and not looking too hard at the nominee’s history. A staple of the workings of late night comedy shows is to search databases of footage for cases of inconsistency like this, and air the two clips juxtaposed. We all laugh at the very obvious lies, but beyond laughing is there any result of exposing them?

Responses to buffoonery dissonance

When confronted with buffoonery, people respond different ways:

  • In the case of children, they might just take stabs at whatever gets them off the hook or whatever seems to appeal to adults, and not feel the dissonance at all.
  • In the case of some senators, they appear to have developed an immunity to the shame, so they also take stabs at whatever gets them off the hook and rely on the press having a short memory. The increase of sophistication over children is only slight.
  • A conflict-avoiding person might retreat from their positions and stay safe within cultural norms, while not really facing or resolving the dilemma. (“Okay you’re probably right”)
  • A person valuing relationships over positions might soften or release principles and claims, and see multiple sides. (“It’s not so simple.”)
  • An introspective and ego-balanced person might feel the shame and admit “you got me there”. That could lead to bringing the impetus into consciousness and adjusting the position towards being rational, or having a growth moment. (However, people don’t mature in leaps like this every day, so the response would be less laudable most of the time.)
  • A person with a fighting spirit could double down and invent a more abstract justification that logically bridges the opposing ones. This is the “cement” that locks the positions in place.

Cement?

Cement is all the other beliefs that we adopt to cement in our justification after we invented it.

In the cookie hoarding example, if I was called to account for a discrepancy in expressed principles, and I was not ready to admit that the actual impetus was to have all the cookies for myself, then I would need to come up with a new all-encompassing “reason” why my two prior “reasons” were compatible. The layers of justification can get ever more intellectual until I win. A lot of politics is essentially the art of getting all the cookies for oneself, where “cookies” can be substituted by anything, such as agri-business subsidies or stockpiling for war.

A global example is slavery. The impetus for holding slaves includes greed and aggression, but that is not admitted to directly. Instead slave-holders make up a justification that makes themselves sound innocent. Those same people might also say that “all men are created equal”, and then they might be confronted with the inconsistency. They would then need to appeal to some more abstract justification that unites the inconsistency, which could be, among other things, that “slaves are not people.” In all of this, I am making the argument that the actual sequence in time is the action, then the initial justification, then the cement. When people want to sound rational, they reverse the sequence and claim that the abstract principles were first in mind, then it led to reasons which led to the action to hold slaves.

The brain is a re-sequencing machine

While I cannot prove that buffoonery (reverse rationality) is the norm, there are cousin processes in the brain that point to backwards sequencing being something that occurs constantly as a central part of consciousness.

The first observation supporting this is that hearing is faster than seeing. If you create an experimental setting where a subject has a brain monitor and a startling noise happens at the same time as a picture on a screen appears, then there are two sequences that occur in the experiment. One is what science observes: First both stimuli are detected (the light arrives before sound but that difference is insignificant at short range). Second, the sound is processed and it signals a twitch reaction in the muscles. Third, the slower visual processing part of the brain sees the image, after the muscle reaction happened. The alternate sequence is what we as subjects believe we experienced: we are really sure that we saw and heard the stimuli at the same time, and then twitched afterwards. So consciousness is subjectively sure of something that is not true. The brain is constantly re-sequencing stimuli in short term memory to align the timeline of hearing and sight and providing a false sense of being present in this exact moment, when we really are never aware of a moment until later.

The other observation is about dream recall. Freud and possibly others asserted that dreams occur as disconnected images without the usual adherence to the laws of time and space, but that we force those images into a story during the process of recall. So the sequence is imposed later upon the original dream. Even though we feel sure we “saw” the things in a linear story format, that certainty only came after the dream was already done and we were waking up.

Onlookers

What’s been bugging me about the un-reasons of the Kavanaugh supporters is the thickness of that cement, the beliefs built up to support the justifications for supporting him. There may have been some rationality exercised by the people who originally put him on a short list and then selected his name – those are the sorts of activities where, at least some of the time, we can be rational. But the millions of supporting Americans can’t be doing that most of the time – their real impetus for support could be fear of losing control by white men, or some related fear-stoked groupthink, or simply being drawn to the norms of the people around them for safety.

The easiest justifications for supporting him despite his potentially disqualifying traits are (1) There is no proof that anything happened; and (2) whatever happened was so long ago. Bart Simpson has a line that covers the bases – something like “I wasn’t there. You can’t prove it happened. I don’t know anything about it.” None of Bart’s justifications are consistent with each other, and likewise the two easy justifications for supporting Kavanaugh are like that too: It is inconsistent to argue both that nothing happened, and that it happened a long time ago.

Then to resolve the inconsistency, the cemented beliefs are constructed, and they feel dangerous. The could be abstractions like “violent assaults are inconsequential” (a way of saying it anything happened, it doesn’t matter). The only way a person can say that shamelessly is by adopting beliefs such as: rape is not a real crime, and women are not fully human in a way that makes crimes against women “real”. Possibly rape is imagined by men as not that bad, if they can only visualize themselves as the rapist. Or people have claimed the victims are fake, or that caving into the real concerns of the opposition fuels some kind of liberal conspiracy.

So the danger is that in the rush to pretend to be rational and escape buffoonery dissonance, millions of people invent and adhere to dangerous beliefs.

My guess is that the left (including me) is doing the same un-reason, and if the nominee was a Democrat with the same history, both sides might have adopted exactly opposite “principles”. One way to test the theory is to assume a hypothetical nominee 20 years in the future, and all we know is that he probably committed some misdemeanor or felony decades earlier that was not reported, but we do not know his political leanings. What would our principles be then? Without knowing our self-interest in a question like this, we usually resist answering, and when I’ve asked people questions like this, I get a lot of “it depends”. They will not say what it depends on, and I tend to think that what it depends on is self-interest at the time, which has to remain unsaid because we rarely can admit to our real impetus.

When I try to bring my own un-reason sequence into consciousness, I get some data from the introspection, but I doubt it is really possible to know oneself enough to fully escape buffoonery. I can admit that a crime in the distant past should not be a disqualifier for most any job. Relatedly, most people working to help ex-offenders re-integrate are left-leaning, but they do not want to apply that same principle to this hearing. However I also then feel drawn to the justification that the particular job of Supreme Court justice should have higher qualifications than others. Also I am drawn to the notion that he should be disqualified for lying under oath, but at the same time President Clinton did that and at the time I felt it was not consequential because the subject matter was not of national significance. To be fair I would have to admit that Kavanaugh’s probable crimes are also not of national significance. That is about as far as I can get with looking at my own un-reason.

Teaching and change

I wonder if the balance of buffoonery versus rationality could be partly influenced by culture, or if it changes in different time periods. On one hand if feels like a solid part of how the brain is wired. On the other hand there is a case to be made for buffoonish cultural patterns. For example when we want children to act rational and we ask them why they did something we do not approve of, they say something to answer the question, like “I was tired” or some other justification. When we engage with them on that level, it is as if we have believed that there has to be a lie and we can only talk about the lie, whether refuting or bolstering it, but always staying at that level. So parents can be the gatekeepers of pseudo-rationality by colluding to stay within the un-reason pattern and limit the conversation to which lie out of the many possible justifications is an acceptable one to settle on. Thus we are teaching and modeling dishonesty. But maybe that way of teaching is culturally prescribed and change is still possible. If we had a cultural pattern of not engaging in pseudo-rationality with children, we might not have a culture that appears to celebrate lying so enthusiastically.

I also wonder about the cycle of shame and revision with people who are introspective: I do not know if the cycle is really just adding so much sophistication to the lies that they really get convincing, or if we inch towards actual rationality. I worry that the more I cultivate the idea that I’m being rational myself, the more I’m building up “principles” that let me have more cookies without risking the shame of inconsistency. And that goes for all of us who feel that we are fair and benevolent.

I also wonder if the cycle of shame and revision is less prevalent in the internet age, and that could be why the Kavanaugh hearing seems to be so much more buffoonish than things in politics in the past. I cannot recall seeing that “you got me” shame in public in recent years, but I think I remember it from earlier. My memory might be limited to local settings and not national politics though. If that is a real culture shift, it could be related to the new internet-age phenomenon of people avoiding anyone they disagree with, so they can never be caught in their inconsistencies. Without ever being caught, the inconsistencies could grow larger without anyone noticing. Possibly related, the president now is someone who cannot be caught because he has no principles, therefore can rarely feel inconsistency or shame.

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On weeds and keystones

Las Vegas is an optical illusion. At first it looks poor; the city eye is drawn to cracks in the pavement and boarded up businesses, and one expects to feel poverty. Once an ornate and grand city, larger than Albuquerque, the town now shows age and depleting resources with fewer people. But then nothing bears out the expected feeling, and over time the eye learns to see different things – the beauty that is still there.

From my one window I see weeds, graffiti, and a muddy puddle in an empty lot. And I also see hand-set bricks in arches with stone sills, keystones, quatrefoils, with elms and aspens. Out the other window there’s a quintessential abandoned factory with sawtooth shaped roof, a highway bridge, and a stone hotel with a belfry and artistic parapet. With so much variation there is choice – what do I choose to see?

It reminds me of Pisa, Italy. I still have a picture I took of a goat eating weeds in a neglected brick-strewn lot, next to a crumbling plaster wall, in bleating distance from the throngs of leaning-tower photographers.

On a dumpster diving errand today I found nothing, and everything was surprisingly clean. Investment in the big city is equated with wealth, safety and the standard of living. But in reality, the distribution of money does not entirely control the use of time. New cities in the west exist because of greed, not because of natural necessity in the way port cities exist. Subdividing land, the innumerable rules, and smooth new concrete all make someone rich and define the city. Homelessness is illegal, and those who can’t meet the wealth standard congregate only where enforcement of all the rules is lacking, where there is less safety. So the city is an engine of separating haves from have-nots to its very core. And it fogs ones brain with the urgency of the struggle to have.

Politics in the west is the art of profiting from subdivision and controlling public utilities. The desert is almost free, but the value of a residential zoned quarter-acre with water and electricity is enormous. We don’t all share in that value. The winners are the ones who approved the subdivision plat on their own land.

On my errand the thing I realized is that if I myself owned things like sidewalks and too many buildings, and didn’t have enough money to make it all nice, I’d choose to spend it the way Las Vegas does. It would not be a priority to fix all the pavement. We have choices about equity and we can choose between concrete and education.

The growing city as an engine of segregation and uniformity gives a person that city eye that believes it sees education when it sees nice concrete. Nice and safe and pretty and educated are supposed to go together, and dirty, crumbling, dangerous and desperate are supposed to go together. But those are false choices; if the money is tight, we can choose education over concrete without having to have both.

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On being myself, and other animal traps

This collection of pieces forms a whole essay, but only loosely. I’m trying to find the principles behind being (a) engaged, happy, moving versus being (b) alienated, traumatized, stuck, at least for me. Each piece is a bite out of that puzzle.

1. Being “myself” is a trap

toon1

Image description: Comic panel – person says “Just be yourself”, “Not like that”.

I’ve really tried to follow the advice to be myself, but it feels unreal. Any attempt to be Something counteracts my natural tendency to avoid fixing on that thing, even if that thing is “myself”. Not-being, or the absence of attempts to be, could leave more room for me as an animal to use my built-in facilities to meet my needs. Any conscious attempt to “be” could get in the way of my nature and make me stuck. Trying to be forces identity to be made into static words. I could say to myself, “well I should just accept that I’m an introverted autistic lesbian” (or whatever string of adjectives feels like an “identity”), so I should just “be” that openly. I could even be overtly proud of it and do things like make a blog with that string of adjectives as the subtitle, thus claiming that particular identity. But those are just very partial and inaccurate words, and by following them, I’m trying to become a dead concept from my mind, rather than be all of me, always unfolding.

The cartoon feels like the advice I’ve gotten all my life.

2. Being someone else is a trap too

Some parts of the therapy industry, especially the autism part of it, are based on the notion of becoming a better person by being indistinguishable: that is, by copying, conforming, and not being at all “yourself”. This idea is also prevalent in how we treat lower and middle class children generally, from the moment of conception through school. There are “developmental milestones” that everyone is supposed to meet. If the weight gain in pregnancy isn’t “right” (meaning average) then it’s “wrong”. It’s wrong even if that weight gain is right for that particular baby. Then you’re “behind” if you can’t read when you’re six, and so on and so on. The more wrong you are, the greater is the pressure to become normal. Read the rest of this entry »

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How Trump can be a better candidate

It’s election season in 2016. Of course we are all aware that Trump is a dangerous narcissist, but remember that Clinton is also imperfect. It sometimes is hard to tell which of two candidates is better when neither is ideal. So I made this diagram to explain how Trump could be the choice of so many Americans.

trump_values

The diagram shows how I imagine America rates men and women from absolute virtue at the top to absolute evil on the bottom. It clearly shows Trump at a slightly more venerable position than Clinton. What other evidence do you need?


Kidding aside, I think that even if there was a scale of virtue like this, the lowest women category exists in the minds of some men only – there is no one actually in that box. This is a depiction of the worst slice of our slut-shaming misogynist culture.

If women didn’t have the vote, Trump would win in a landslide; but even scarier is that millions of women are voting for him – a majority in many states. The only way I can understand that is that millions of women see the world the way the diagram is shown, with women having greater innate sin. If anyone thinks we don’t need feminism any more, consider the internalized misogyny of those millions, and all the forces that are keeping up this social-values map alive in the national consciousness.

Drawing the diagram and writing “slutty” was hard for me to do, and I feel dirty, and exposed to fire from all sides. I’m pushing past that and posting it anyway because I think it is part of the value system in America and it does help explain why the election is going as it is. In fact I think it’s an essential ingredient to understanding what is going on.

I’ve never seen weirder and more massive mental programming than what is going on now. Maybe the scale of the calamity shocks us into mindless compliance somehow. I can’t even find words to express the sadness of the loss of heart, the loss of dialog, sanity, and reason. I feel there is a gigantic shift in perspective happening that is so great that we are no longer even standing on the ground. But that’s just a tiny bit of what I’m feeling about it; I have no way to say more. I pray that others can find words to say the thing more fully, and that the people hurting from the shaming will find ease and vision somehow, to pull ourselves back to grounded reality.

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Legal arguments on birth

When does life begin? At conception, or nine weeks thereafter? When the baby is born? Or maybe after it gets its first master’s degree? Or never? Personally I think it’s never. Life reorganizes; it does not begin.

I saw a nun praying outside Planned Parenthood the other day. My urge was to pray with her, not against her. Instead of wondering what her thoughts were, or what she was for or against, I felt the power of her upholding that life which does not begin. It felt like there were not two opposing sides at that moment; her energy felt unifying.

1. Abortion

I grew up with the semantically twisted stance that killing babies before birth was not really “killing”. But when my heart softened about “abortion” (a sanitized word), I admitted it was killing, and I couldn’t be “pro-death”. Instead I wanted to uphold mother and child, to protect and strengthen all of us. When we sit to feel and consider abortion in the abstract, we need to honor the strengths and mourn the losses of the mothers. We should not be stuffing down the feelings of loss simply because we hold a political view of choice. Politics has a way of making abstract ethics central and extreme, and suppressing mercy for each individual circumstance. We should use the word “killing” because that is honest, but using that word doesn’t make it a blanket wrong. Read the rest of this entry »

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The trait square

Here is a little therapeutic trick you can do with a piece of paper, whenever you think badly of yourself. First you name your “bad” trait and write it in square #1 of a figure like the one pictured here.traitsquare_conceptThe four steps going around counterclockwise are:

  • Write the “bad” trait in square 1
  • Write the opposite of that bad trait in square 2. This should be a good trait.
  • Write the negative restatement of that in square 3. This should be the same trait as in square 2, only the extreme or negative form of it.
  • Write the opposite of that negative in square 4.

You should end up with a positive restatement of what you wrote in square 1.

Here’s a simple example:
traitsquare_ex1To walk through this one, my negative trait might be “lazy”. So I think of the opposite – what would the person most unlike me be? So I write “energetic”. But that trait could also be seen in a negative light, if one is too energetic, so I write “hyper/manic”. Then I think of what the opposite of that bad trait is, and I write “relaxed”. That reveals that I could choose to see myself as relaxed rather than lazy.

 

You can also get more descriptive about your issues. Here’s one about me that shows some of my associations:

traitsquare_ex2In this case I used “she” as my fictitious opposite, and I think if I were my oopposite, I’d be in danger of being proud or manipulative. Your associations might be different so your opposite might be something else. Ultimately the restatement of my “bad” trait does not deny it (I might still be ugly), but it shows things that I might also be because I’m not the opposite – humble or genuine.

Seeing “humble” come up like this doesn’t feel quite right so I might go do another one using “pride” as the starting bad trait.

Some people practice direct contradiction as a therapeutic technique. For example if I believed or feared I might be ugly, I would say (out loud) “I’m beautiful”. That’s a powerful technique, but it can be so contradictory that some people cannot say the contradiction out loud. The trait square is different. It does not contractict or deny the original negative thought; it only reframes it. It widens the trait you are looking at to include a more balanced view of positive and negative aspects of that trait.

 

 

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On continuous trauma

I’m working out how to talk about trauma when it is continuous in a person’s life. The vocabulary we have is misleading: the typical definition of trauma states that it is the emotional response to an “event”, and so we have this image that we’re going along in life, and something bad happens, like an accident, rape, combat, or a natural disaster, and then for some time afterwards we have flashbacks and other stresses caused by the original event. But what if it was a continuous condition rather than an event, or it didn’t appear to be horrific – at least as seen from the outside? What if the things that trigger (awaken) the original trauma are not just specific things (like a gunshot for example) but are composed of the whole environment, the culture, the way we are treated all the time, or the wind blowing?

I feel like a lot of people have “continuous trauma” like this – the trauma that a person’s life is made of, rather than a trauma that is an interruption of life. Some of us (like me) can’t really clearly identify what the “original” trauma is. We supposedly had a nice childhood with no dark secrets or anything that we know of, but yet we’re living in a state of high stress all the time, defending against attacks that we can’t see, or being ineffective at moving on in life from the emotional blocks.

I’m guessing the consciousness of continuous trauma is expanding, as I see more writing that brushes on it or acknowledges it, more trigger warnings in writing, and feminist circles making it more central. So much is being painted by its language, but still the language is incomplete, if you think there had to be a identified causative “event” for a person to be in “real” trauma.

 

Continuous trauma appears to often be connected to:

  • Disability: Disabled people are sometimes co-labeled with PTSD, and it could be misleading to suggest that the PTSD is something separate from the disability. Being disabled is being powerless and that is what is continuously traumatic.
  • Minority status: Being or a member of a minority is possibly in itself a reason why we live in continuous trauma, although maybe not all minorities do. It could come from being consistently devalued or marginalized, hiding, thinking of ourselves as not normal.
  • Objectification: Growing up thinking about ourselves too much as objects (how we appear and whether we fulfill the needs of others) rather than subjects (what we want for ourselves) can lead us to be so out of balance that it becomes a powerless state, and is continuous trauma. (“Who am I if he doesn’t love me?”)

 

Most people are minorities in some way, and most of us are not represented by the tiny slice of highly privileged people who control public discourse. So perhaps most people have this condition, the same people who are relatively powerless, and those people are not getting their needs met very well for safety and healing. It’s hard to imagine someone not having a significant continuous trauma if they are in all three of those categories.

For any individual, it is a matter of how your life actually is now, not just what happened to you before. As an example I know someone who, for a long time, could barely confront the shame that one adult, once when she was a teenager, had been sort of creepy and touched her. It was an event that might seem mild from the outside but for her was central and traumatic. Someone else might have brushed it off and not been burdened by it. I wonder if the reason it got so heavy for her is that she was living in a state of continuous trauma from life in general (for other reasons), and that incident assumed extra large proportions because of those other things. Maybe if we accept that there is continuous trauma, we might not feel we have to find an “event” to pin things on.

The basis of continuous trauma might not even be something “bad” or illegal. Maybe someone did something that was even considered normal and nice, and it still contributed to trauma. Or maybe no one did anything at all, and the trauma comes from not getting the attention that you hoped for or some other twisting of the ego. No one can fix it if nothing was really ever done wrong, but I think that is the point too: continuous trauma isn’t about what happened in any specific way. It’s not something that can be prevented by policy.

 

Despite it being unlinked to a causative event, I still think what I’m talking about is still a kind of trauma because it has triggers. We talk about being “triggered” which means going on high alert or high stress, while also being (possibly) aware that the trigger is not a real threat. Unlike event-trauma which theoretically has specific triggers that interrupt life, continuous trauma can have more continuous triggers. And I don’t think there is a clear line between what’s a trigger (something mentally associated with a threat that isn’t a real threat) and the actual threat. Being triggered puts us in stress, and if we’re constantly in chronic stress, then the triggers are unhealthy for us to be exposed to. In that sense the triggers are a real threat.

So are triggers “bad”? If a person happens to trigger you and they didn’t do anything wrong – like, they happened to be wearing a triggery shirt, or whatever – they are not guilty of anything, and it is not about them, in the same way that it is often not about any original “bad” event. Going after the triggers is missing the point in a way; we can’t make the world safe by being free of triggers for the same reason we can’t prevent trauma that isn’t caused by illegal events.

On the other hand, triggers continue to fuel ongoing trauma when you’re in those categories of disability, marginalization, or objectification. So the triggers are re-traumatizing in a way that triggers for event-trauma might not be. I’m just hypothesizing here but I wonder if you were hurt with a weapon that had blue stripes and blue striped things became triggers (in the classic definition of trauma), then you might be able to gradually expose yourself to blue stripes and neutralize it (exposure therapy). On the other hand if you’re a woman and you’re triggered by men who look at you a certain way, then could you (or would you even want to) expose yourself to it to neutralize it? I think it is different because the trigger reminds you that the condition of being marginalized is still present, and is not just triggering but is also reinforcing that condition, unlike the blue stripes example where you are no longer in any actual danger of a blue-striped weapon.

 

I feel like traumatized people are everywhere, maybe even most of us, and yet we (society) have too little recognition of it and hardly any answers. Our society is so phenomenally bad at safety, even within groups of people who are ostensibly safe to be with. We have no socially recognized reliable way to actively shelter each other. We seem to know at some level that so many of us need safe spaces – places free of mysogynist or racist remarks, free of the other -isms that are continuously re-triggering, and free from fear of being victimized. There’s so many of us that know that, but even so, we can’t seem to make the safety happen on any scale beyond small groups of friends. It feels like some people can only associate with others who are equally traumatized, because everyone else feels “dangerous” in their inability to sense the needs of others, but for some reason that association can’t be shown in a public way. So when we’re in public, we just have to assume everyone is a danger, even though mentally we know most of them are probably safe. It’s the feeling that “even though probably most of these other people are safe, someone will probably take advantage of me if I’m not vigilant, and no one will stand up for me.”

Can we make places safer for the continuously traumatized? Imagine going places and being confident that there will be people standing up against dergatory and insensitive language, who recognize and protect us. Imagine being allowed to be unguarded, admitting weakness, and not being taken advantage of for it. Imagine an uprising of care.

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Gender terminology for those who mean well

I recently needed to get a doctor’s signature on some paperwork. People need doctor’s notes for lots of reasons and this one wasn’t particularly interesting. I sent in the request by postal mail, and someone who’s not a doctor wrote back to me after apparently looking at my file (where it says “transgender”) and told me how awesome my “gender journey” is or some such invasive thing. First of all, this is a violation patient confidentiality. Second, it’s just paperwork; it is not “exciting”.

This vignette is straight out of the scary new world of wannabe “enlightened” trans allies. This progressive subculture is in danger of becoming very straight as it grows crazy-fast. The thing is, I don’t want your support for what you think I’m doing. The new liberal consciousness is oppressive – maybe not as bad as some of the alternatives, but it is not the way forward. In this essay I will spell out what is misleading about the new bundle of vocabulary and consciousness, and provide some new vocabulary and maybe even some consciousness along the way.

Vocabulary: childhood

A quick review of sex and gender vocabulary in a timeline form: In the beginnning, we’re a bit of DNA, and that has chromosomal sex. Over the next few months, this leads to our primary sex or gonadal sex (XX to female and XY to male, with exeptions of course). Somewhere in that timeframe, the brain, the largest sex organ, develops the brain sex, which usually follows chromosomal sex, but not always, and it’s probably not as binary and certainly less open to inspection. Research on this doesn’t appear to be extensive. (“Biological” sex is a vague term that assumes all these are the same, which they often are, but not always.) Read the rest of this entry »

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