Oh, the anxiety!

I’m thinking about anxiety today, after reading a little doodle comic aimed at explaining the experience of the anxious person to the unafflicted. It’s an Imgur series, linked in an article from relationshipsurgery.com, but it’s not clear to me who made it in the first place. (If anyone understands these things better than I do, please let me know and I will edit this to credit the illustrator.) In any case, as a life-long anxiety sufferer who has actually made progress learning how to live with anxiety, I have some thoughts I’d like to share on the matter.

While I think the weather analogy is a great explanation to help people who don’t have anxiety understand how it feels, I find the rest of the advice in this set of doodles a bit problematic, because I think it misses something key that might actually help people recontextualize their anxiety and see a way through it.

I certainly agree that it is not helpful to have people around you who don’t understand what you’re going through get tired of humoring you and say tone-deaf things that send you into a downward spiral of self doubt. And I think it’s good to point that out. But I also don’t think it’s helpful to set up a privilege framework of sorts where someone who doesn’t suffer from anxiety can never make observations about it without being categorized as insensitive or harmful. The author wants others to offer constant reassurance and patience, and leave it at that. It’s essentially saying, “You can never understand what I’m going through but please sit and pat me on the head while I talk about it over and over again but don’t try to understand or offer suggestions because you don’t know my experience.”

To me, the point of forming relationships with other humans is to grow better together in the pursuit of mutual understanding. If you set up a framework in which you believe that no one else can possibly understand your experience and become insulted or hurt when they try to, you are setting up a framework in which your ideal relationship will tend toward codependency: each person in the relationship exists to support and validate the other person in a way that enables both to continue their respective unhealthy behaviors. It diminishes both parties, keeping them mired and comfortable in miserable ruts.

For me, having a loved one constructively tell me how my anxiety appeared to function from an outside perspective helped me to think about it differently. I began to see how I was projecting my own self-judgements onto others, and how that would spin into a cycle of awkwardness and self-consciousness and lead to more anxiety. Because this person cared enough to engage me in a conversation about my social problems and share his own unencumbered extrovert experience with me, I was able to step back and look at my social life from a third-person perspective, and understand on an intellectual level that, at the end of the day, most people I encounter don’t fucking care about any of the things I worry about. They don’t care if I use the wrong word or pause too long in conversation or have a piece of hair sticking up at a funny angle. They’re too consumed with their own shit to notice. And if they do care about those things, they aren’t worth my time.

Coming to terms with the idea that other people’s worlds don’t actually revolve around me was magical. I’ve started taking myself a lot less seriously in social situations – laughing at myself when I say the wrong word; getting out of my own head and just watching other people socialize without worrying about why no one is talking to me. That shift of focus off of myself is an incredibly powerful tool. These days, I catch myself talking and laughing with strangers like some kind of extrovert. It still feels really weird sometimes, but it’s wonderful.

I used to think my anxiety was just part of who I am, and that nothing could change it. That seems to be the view of the author of this comic. While I don’t think I will ever be rid of the raw, emotional reactions at the root of my anxiety, I now know it is possible to change the way those reactions influence my behavior. Instead of letting myself get sucked into those feelings of inadequacy and self-consciousness and turn into a neurotic mess (which actually does influence others’ willingness and ability to engage with me), I can take a deep breath and move on, accepting myself where I’m at and allowing the people around me to do the same.

I think that asking people who love people with anxiety to treat it as an immutable condition and never offer thoughtful, constructive criticism does a disservice to people with anxiety. I also think that reinforcing the idea that people with anxiety should expect unquestioning support and validation from those around them is bullshit. Often, being truly supportive means challenging someone to see their way clear of a self-imposed roadblock.

You know what? My anxiety absolutely is all in my head. That doesn’t make it an imaginary problem, but it does empower me to do something about it, instead of resigning myself to cowering in corners at parties for the rest of my life. I can recognize it for what it is and move past it. That is a profound gift, and I will be forever grateful that someone cared enough about me to help me find it.

Send out the clowns

There’s a meme making the rounds this week, making the case for the superiority of liberal media pundits over their conservative counterparts, based on their relative levels of education. It’s the worst kind of “like”-baiting, uncritical, ad hominem bullshit that passes for political engagement these days.

clowns

The truth is that all of the most successful political pundits are clowns. They exist to rile up their respective bases with sensationalist rhetoric and empty invective. They’re very good at what they do, and I think most of them know exactly what they’re doing. To me, the real message in this particular meme is circular: Liberals value education, therefore they require of their clowns a certain level of collegiate achievement. The credential has become an important shorthand for progressive credibility. Liberals might want to tell themselves that a degree symbolizes an increased aptitude for critical thinking, but I would argue that it actually represents a different flavor of conformity. It shows how able a person is to afford higher education, and how willing they are to follow the college catalogue’s prescriptions to participate in their chosen career field.

A large number of conservative political pundits in this country hold very advanced academic credentials. The person who made this meme just cherry-picked the only three they could find who lack them. College degrees nowadays are a dime a dozen. Despite the fact that they cost more and more every year and most people go deep into debt in their pursuit, getting a college degree of some sort has become part of the status quo. It is becoming more and more difficult for people to enter most career fields without one. All three of the conservative “dropouts” pictured above are primarily media guys. None of them set out to enter a field of study. All were interested in becoming radio and television personalities, and all three succeeded in turning their respective brands of apopleptic charisma into lucrative careers. They’re very good at appealing to a certain segment of the common people in the United States, and the audience they talk to doesn’t care that they lack credentials.

Remember this guy? Yale and Harvard do. He's got degrees from both.

Remember this guy? Yale and Harvard do. He’s got degrees from both.

The really odd thing, to me, is the fact that there are no liberal pundits without a degree of some kind. Even Ed Schultz, who went to school on a football scholarship and is not exactly an intellectual, has one. It would seem that a college degree is the price of admission for being taken seriously in liberal company. As a “college dropout” who leans left, I find this rather disturbing.

It is tempting for liberals with degrees to feel like they belong to some sort of enlightened class and assume that the very act of becoming credentialed imbues them with an objective kind of knowledge that leads naturally to a certain political bias. While I think it is true that the bent of today’s liberal arts education tends to attract and foster a particular kind of postmodernist thinking which predisposes people toward liberal thought, I don’t think that higher education necessarily leads individuals to more progressive thinking. I also think it is deeply fallacious to regard conservative thought as somehow philosophically inferior and unable to stand up to factual critique. Political views are, at their core, about values, and values are deeply subjective.

Take, for example, the abortion debate. The meat in the middle of this particular shit sandwich is the fundamental philosophical dispute over when an embryo or fetus should be considered “fully human” in the sense that its right to life overrides the concerns of the woman who carries it. There is no objective answer to this question. I am pro-choice, because I value a pragmatic approach which accepts that humans tend to screw up, regardless of attempts at reigning them in, and the best solution is to reduce the harm that results from those screw-ups. To me, keeping abortion legal while making birth control widely available to make it less necessary is the right balance. But I can make those arguments until I’m blue in the face and no amount of evidence will change the mind of the pro-lifer who sincerely believes that the moment sperm and egg meet, a new human life is formed, and that interfering in that process in any way amounts to murder. We’re playing in different ballparks, screaming past each other into the void.

It’s difficult not to succumb to the desire to keep screaming, even when it is so clearly not productive. It’s frustrating to try and argue a point when your debate partner seems to be speaking an entirely different language than the one you know. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a relativist, philosophically speaking. But I think it is important to grasp the fact that when it comes to political discourse, the only way to really make progress without resorting to fascist dictatorship is to acknowledge the humanity of the other side, understand that your differences grow out of divergent values, and then try to find a compromise. At this point in our history, it seems that both sides would prefer fascist dictatorship to democratic cooperation.

Popular media have further muddied the pool in this regard. Rather than arguing facts and fostering respectful discourse in order to try and bridge real gaps in core values held on each side and emphasize compromise, pundits across the spectrum settle for cheap point-scoring and ad hominem attacks. It’s easier to sway public opinion by placating people’s emotional biases than to challenge people to actually consider issues on a rational basis and think of their political rivals as human beings with legitimately-held views. Take this meme as a case in point: Instead of saying anything substantial or crafting an argument based on facts, the creator is essentially blowing raspberries at his or her presumed opponents and saying, “Nyah-Nyah. You guys are stupid,” and ignoring the wider implications of such a statement.

clowns2

Liberals often wonder why so many working-class folks “vote against their own self-interest” and fail to make what they see as the obvious choice to support Democratic candidates. Most of the left-wing establishment is so far removed from the everyday existence of the people they’re trying to reach that they can’t effectively communicate their message to those people – their attempts come off as condescension. Dispensing with this kind of “if you don’t agree with me you must be stupid” bullshit might go a long way. Also, I think that letting a few “uneducated” liberals rise to the top could only help their cause. But it seems they would rather maintain an in-crowd of academic hoop-jumpers and keep preaching to the same choir.

Sadly, it’s hard to imagine any substantive change actually happening when the screaming clowns continue to rake in profits for media outlets. Networks might argue that they are in the business of giving the people what they want, and they wouldn’t be incorrect. But sometimes what the people want is exactly the opposite of what the people need. The trick, in a for-profit media marketplace, would seem to be convincing the people that they want what they need. I’m still trying to work out how to do that.

“Feminine” Discomfort

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There’s this conversation I’ve been having with myself for years now. I put it down, and then, a month or six months or a year later, prompted by an overheard interaction or an online essay or a dialogue with a friend or acquaintance, I pick it up again. This conversation has to do with the way I feel about being female, what those feelings mean, and why I seem to have difficulty relating to and maintaining friendships with other women.

meangirls

The latest provocation in this perennial dance flitted through my facebook feed in the form of a HuffPo blog post about Taylor Swift and the idea of “Other Girls” as a set of monotone foils who serve to set a particular woman apart.

The myth of the other girl can be seen in passive aggressive tweets by girls proclaiming things like, “I hate girls.” It’s present in proud declarations that someone only hangs out with boys, because girls are too much drama. It is girls frantically trying to convince others that they aren’t like other girls, because they are laid-back, drama-free; girls obstinately insisting that they are different, because they aren’t catty or fickle or vapid.

Essentially this myth is the manifestation of ingrained misogyny, a result of the longstanding stereotype that girls are catty, two-faced, superficial and gossipy. It is a stereotype meant to demean and dismiss girls, delegitimize and quiet them in order to maintain traditional gender roles. The “girl” part of the “other girls” myth is crucial, as it equates femininity with negative attributes like cattiness and superficiality.

On paper, this reads as gospel to me. It resonates with the part of me that wants to believe that we’re all just prisoners trying to break free from an evil system of social programming that turns us into a bunch of petty monkeys, and if we could only just make everyone aware of it, we could transform reality so that everyone would truly be free to express their true nature without the burden of stereotype and societal expectation based on superficial categories like sex.

When I try to take those ideas into my life, though, and lay them over my own experiences and alongside my constantly-evolving ideas about how to build society in a way best suited toward encouraging individuality and critical thought while fostering collaboration, problems arise.

Here’s the thing: I am a female uncomfortable in the world of women. I’ve never mixed well with other girls, and have often found myself on the wrong side of groups of girls and women within the various social circles I’ve inhabited throughout my life. There are a lot of reasons for this, mostly to do with my difficulty reading social cues, my tendency toward too-overt earnestness, and the fact that my similarly-built mother didn’t model for me how to “perform” girl. She never saw the point in putting on an act in order to fit in, and both she and my dad encouraged individuality and contrarianism. They allowed me the freedom to explore interests that other girls’ parents would have discouraged. I grew up immersed in hunting and fishing culture, and saw no reason not to participate. It didn’t even occur to me at the time that there weren’t really any other girls doing those things. I don’t think I really thought about things in those terms. The summer after fourth grade, I had my mom sign me up for baseball. Traditionally, girls played softball. But I didn’t want to play softball. I wanted to play baseball like my heroes on the Minnesota Twins. If there was controversy or conflict behind the scenes, I never knew about it. All I knew was that I asked to play baseball and I got to play baseball. I didn’t care that I was the only girl on the team.

I was an active kid. I attended volleyball and basketball camps in elementary school and continued to play all three sports through Junior High and into High School, on girls’ teams – organized, school-sponsored sports in a small town are a bit different than summer community education in terms of decorum, – but social politics gradually poisoned all of it. I quit volleyball after my freshmen year, because the other girls were mean to me. I was a decent player with a pretty badass overhand serve, but that didn’t matter. The important bit, for them, was that I was an awkward kid who didn’t fit in socially, and acknowledging me amounted to some kind of mythical treason to the idea of “cool”. The same thing happened in basketball a year later. Sports weren’t about the game anymore. They were about alliances and social displays and power dynamics and I hated all of it.

I stuck it out in softball, maybe because I loved it more than I had the other sports, or maybe because the coach was good at keeping us focused on the game – it’s hard to say in hindsight, but it never seemed as bad. It also helped that I had a fellow misfit friend on the team with me.

More recently, I found myself in what seemed to be a conglomeration of grown-up misfit girls. It was a dream come true. We were even considered “cool” within our particular subculture. But it fell apart when several of them decided they didn’t like my boyfriend and embarked on a campaign of passive-aggressive tactics (up to and including “crusties”. I’m not exaggerating) intended to punish me for transgressing against the group and undermining a social hierarchy that I had rather obliviously not recognized. I owned my part in it, but they wouldn’t own theirs, so I cut my losses and moved on.

The point I’m trying to get to in all this rambling and reminiscing is this: The idea of girls and women displaying catty behavior and appearing to value superficial things is not a fantasy. It’s something that happens in the real world. Now, we can examine the roots of those behaviors, and argue about whether they are innate “feminine” traits or whether they are the scribblings of a broken society writ on blank slates or whether the truth lies somewhere in between, but I think we do ourselves a disservice to simply dismiss these ideas as negative stereotypes and try to find our way across the chasm of imperfect reality and into the land of “should”, jumping between stepping stones carved from postmodern relativism.

The fact is, for me and other women like me, “the other girls” are not just cartoons with bitchy faces, starting catfights over a boy. As is usually the case, the truth is much subtler. I don’t think I resent “the other girls”; not anymore. I might pose questions about what society considers “properly” feminine, but I try not to put down individual women for their choices with regard to those items of gender performance. But I can’t say that the way I feel set apart from “normal” women isn’t real. I can’t accept that it is the result of unrecognized, internalized misogyny. Because when it comes down to it, I didn’t reject “the other girls”.

They rejected me.

Again and again and again.

Of course, this is my personal perspective and it is, by nature, limited. Maybe high school boys’ sports would have been just as traumatic for me if I’d been born male. There’s no way for me to know. But I do know that I have a much easier time navigating male-dominated social structures. I do construction work for a living, and maintain a jocular, “one-of-the-boys” standing with most of my coworkers. Sure, there are hierarchies and political struggles and plenty of drama, but the language of that drama seems more comprehensible to me.

I don’t think this makes me special. I don’t think it makes me better than other women, as if “other women” were a monolith. But I have to acknowledge that I do seem to be different from most of the other women I’ve encountered in my life. I’m still working out what that means.

The real Gordian Knot is this: How do you encourage girls to step outside of societal gender norms without illustrating those norms using examples that will inevitably lead to stereotyping, which will feed back into the system that keeps them shackled to those norms in the first place? Maybe you have to be a social misfit of one stripe or another to really escape it.

One thing’s for sure: Taylor Swift doesn’t have the answer.

Feminists vs. Catholics, part 6,832

There’s an article making the rounds on Facebook this week, titled “6 Reasons (+2) to NOT Send Your Daughter to College”, that seems to have the whole internet’s panties in a bunch. I’ll admit it; when the link came across my feed, my own knickers started to twist a bit. Finally, today, I sat down and read the article and explored its immediate context. You know what? (You may want to sit down for this one.) I don’t understand the outrage. Okay, that’s not entirely true – I get why people have knee-jerk reactions when faced with ideology they find abhorrent. But this egalitarian atheist thinks this particular outrage is a waste of time and energy.

If you took the time to read the preface to Raylan Alleman’s “listicle” (I really hate this format, despite my love of many of the things said using it, but that is a topic for another day…), or perhaps even took the extra time to click on the “about” tab on its host blog, you would learn that this article was written for a limited audience. Fix the Family is not an evangelical website, at least not in the usual sense. Its stated goal is to educate people who are already professed Catholics about what that profession of faith entails. I have absolutely no problem with this. In fact, I think it’s kind of awesome.

I was raised Catholic. I was also raised not to do anything “half-assed”. At some point, those two value sets came into conflict with each other. Due to various events in my young adult life, I realized that I needed to better understand what I was professing to believe because I was feeling like a half-assed Catholic. That journey led me away from the church and toward a rationalist view that more honestly reflected the way I operate and interact with the world. I do not, however, think that this is the inevitable outcome of any similar examination. My family is full of sincere, thoughtful, “full-assed” Catholics. They take their professed faith seriously; not just as some kind of membership badge. We may disagree on almost everything, but we share a very fundamental value set regarding what it means to honestly explore and embrace the full meaning of what we say we’re about.

There’s no denying that there are a lot of conflicting forces at work within the membership of the Catholic Church today. Many in the developed world would like to see ideas about sexuality, marriage, and birth control brought more in line with secular Western ideals. While it is true that there are mechanisms for change built into the Church structure, they are slow to react. The Catholic Church is not a democracy. I understand that religion plays a significant role as social glue, and many people identify very strongly with the faith they were raised in. It can be difficult to face the prospect that one’s values and one’s faith might be opposed. I realize that my view is a bit radical, but I personally feel that honesty is more important than social belonging. If your views diverge from Catholic teaching, maybe you need to take a good, long look in the mirror and admit to yourself that you’re not actually a Catholic anymore.

This article is part of that discussion. It represents an accurate understanding of what the Church expects of men and women, and what it views as the optimal version of Holy Matrimony. It was not written to convince me or any other non-Catholic to live differently. I might find the ideology expressed here to be absolutely ass-backwards, and as much as I might tell myself that publicly getting all worked up about it might be just the kind of thing that would have nudged a younger version of myself down an important path, it would mostly serve a vain desire on my part to feel superior or to show solidarity with purveyors of another brand of group-think – here, academic liberalism.

Look, I’m not saying we should never criticize another person’s religion. I think it is important to engage in debate, especially where one group’s religious beliefs are being imposed on others through legislation. I also very strongly value subversion and dissent. I still remember, at age 13, watching Sinead O’Connor tear up a picture of the Pope on Saturday Night Live. It was shocking, insulting, and titillating, all at the same time. It planted a seed in me. It gave me a glimpse out into the world, and made me aware, for the first time, in a really visceral way, that the things I held sacred were not universally held as sacred.

As much as those of us on the secular side might want to scoff at conservative religious people’s claims of persecution – and rightly so in a lot of cases where it seems so obvious from the outside that they are mourning a loss of special treatment, they are right about one thing: their views are increasingly at odds with the mainstream. It is nearly impossible nowadays for a child to be raised in a fully-fortified belief bubble, insulated from knowledge of the secular world. As limited as my access was, I had a television. I had Sinead O’Connor. Today’s kids have the internet. They have the whole world at their fingertips.

Ultimately, those kids don’t need our condescension. They will make up their own minds about how to respond to the interplay between their inherited belief structures and the broader culture around them. Some of them will remain faithful. Others will choose different faiths or give up faith altogether. A large part of that process will play out in social media.

Too much of what circulates on Facebook, among users of all worldviews, is shared primarily as identity negotiation. People who express dissenting or uncomfortable views can be blocked out with the click of a button, and with a worldwide pool of millions, even the obscurest beliefs can be supported and validated by a virtual community. I suspect that’s an inevitable consequence of such a forum. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting it to be better. I would love to see such a powerful platform put to the truly constructive work of hosting honest and engaged dialogue. I am not talking about a hippie internet utopia where everyone is constantly affirming everyone else. I’m talking about messy, self-aware, and courageous conversations that challenge people to examine what they say they believe and try to really live their values. As much as I might disagree with Alleman’s perspective, he is attempting to have that kind of conversation with his fellow Catholics, and I have to commend him for it.

“Worst Jerk Fail Ever”

Apparently, Jimmy Kimmel secretly made a Youtube video of a woman setting her ass on fire, presented it as a really real thing that really happened in someone’s real life, and then revealed it was staged. I live under a rock, and I haven’t actually watched it, but the internet is all a-flutter with lulz and butthurts alike.

Over at Slate, Daniel Engber bemoans the damage hoaxes like Kimmel’s do to the “public trust”, and the way they interfere with the innocent web denizen’s “sense of wonder”.

YouTube shows the world in all its weirdness, and gives a window on the geek sublime. When liars spread their hoggish propaganda, they mist the landscape with distrust. Think of all the other twerk fails—real ones, I mean—that have been strip-mined of their life and humor by Kimmel’s toxic hoax. Why ruin those for personal gain? Why make all online videos seem a little suspect, just to advertise a late-night talk show?

Youtube, and, more pointedly, the place it has come to occupy in our culture, deserves critique. It’s an unfettered playground for the id; a black hole of schaudenfreude and voyeurism. It’s a 24/7/365 stream of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” with porn and gore thrown in. Engber’s chief concern with Youtube seems to be maintaining an ability to enjoy watching other people make idiots of themselves, and a necessary prerequisite for this enjoyment is his ability to believe that said idiots are sincere idiots. Here, Engber reveals his corroded, hipster core. For him, it is unseemly to watch videos engineered to appeal to his baser appetites, but perfectly acceptable to watch videos that happen to capture something “true” or “real”. As long as he can feel superior to the twerkers, he’s happy.

Whether or not he’s being entirely serious here, Engber is claiming to be angry at Jimmy Kimmel because he has now “ruined” twerk fail videos forever. Bullshit. This guy is angry because Jimmy Kimmel flipped the joke onto him. He subverted the “magic” of Youtube: he took millions of viewers, who were accustomed to laughing at the misfortune and embarrassment of others through their phones and computers, and made them into the butt of the joke. I have not historically been a great fan of Kimmel’s work, but this was a stroke of genius.

Engber and his ilk would do well to close their computers, put away their phones, and GO THE FUCK OUTSIDE once in a while. That’s where they’ll find the real wonder. Imagine it: real, live people and dogs and cats, being stupid and cute and funny all around you, in actual, physical reality. And better still, it’s a world you can be in, fully, and find untold depths of satisfaction and wonder engaging and exploring.

What would happen if we remembered how to share ourselves with each other instead of finding cheap comradery in sharing laughs at others’ apparent inferiority?

What if we re-learned how to exist in the world without an interpretive screen to mediate our experiences?

What if we rediscovered the courage to engage other people without a force-field made of irony?

These are important questions. Every time somebody like Jimmy Kimmel subverts the dominant paradigm, we have an opportunity to ask these questions, and others, about how and why we participate. We should seize these opportunities, not lash out at the hoaxers.

Blindered to our own irrationality: notes on the human condition (and organized skepticism)

I’m what many people would call a skeptic. I try to think rationally and follow the evidence. I think it’s unlikely that God exists. Same goes for ghosts. And alien visitation of earth. And fairies. And Bigfoot. In light of this, I think we are our own best hope; and our own worst nightmare. There are saviors and there are monsters; but contrary to popular belief, all are human.

You may have heard of something called the “Skeptical Movement”. Maybe you’re a part of it. For those who don’t know, it’s a loosely bound group of people and organizations who all ostensibly fight to make the world a better place through the popularization of critical thinking and the advocacy of science as the best way to solve the big problems we face in the early decades of the 21st century.

I was a part of this phenomenon for about five years. It was a crazy time in my life; full of excitement and comradery and new experiences and unbelievable connections. As a writer for a popular blog within the subculture, I had a certain social status within the movement which was very foreign to me. I grew up an outsider; constantly struggling with the facts of my bookish and too-sincere disposition while trying so, so desperately to fit in. Being a Skepchick was the culmination of a lifetime of childhood fantasies: I had finally found a place where my nerdy ways actually made me desirable social company; where social awkwardness was paid a strange kind of lip service; where I was one of the “cool kids”.

I never got over the “too-good-to-be-true” feeling it all gave me. Two years ago, it all fell down. I had a personal falling out with several of the key social players at the blog, which was, in hindsight, stupid all the way around. I committed a clumsy social blunder, which was met with what looked to me, at the time, like junior high clique behavior. Whether or not that was an accurate interpretation of what was going on, it made me take a step back and realize that the assumptions I had made regarding what those friendships were about needed some further analysis.

This isn’t about airing dirty laundry. If I wanted to put the hurt on the people who hurt me, I would have done this two years ago, when it was fresh. I would have named names; assigned blame. I can’t say I was never tempted. But, in the end, that’s not who I am. So I held onto it, and I stepped back and did other things. I pulled back from the movement almost entirely, getting glimpses here and there when various stories bubbled up into my Facebook feed, mostly dealing with various crises within the movement.

I am writing this because I think the skeptical movement needs to hear what I have to say about what I’ve observed over the past couple of years as an outsider, and, in hindsight, what I saw going on even when I was still a part of it.

Humans are tribal creatures. There’s no escaping that fact. We are petty and short-sighted and prone to all sorts of logical fallacies. We are eternally fallible yet our egos are often too fragile to admit to anything less than perfection. We crave social validation; and social validation from a group of people who share the same interpretation of the world as we do is the ultimate fulfillment of that craving. In order to protect that very particular type of social validation, we will fiercely defend the group we belong to, and just as fiercely attack people and forces that challenge cohesion within the group.

Organized skepticism is not immune to this phenomenon. Many skeptics find themselves, as I did, feeling like they “belong” for the first time in their lives. This can be a wonderful and life-changing feeling, especially for people who have found themselves repeatedly shunned by friends and family members after admitting their true beliefs about the world. The simple act of being able to discuss disbelief openly without fear of social reprisal is a huge burden relieved. This environment can create very intense social connections, and, ironically, a sometimes dogmatic fervor about skepticism.

We cling ever tighter to our in-group mentality, and begin to distance ourselves from anyone who exhibits, say, an untoward interest in communicating with “believers” of various stripes. Just this week, Scientific Paranormal Investigator Hayley Stevens was ridiculed by fellow skeptics over her assertion that it is possible to use scientific methods to investigate paranormal claims. One of the very basic principles of scientific skepticism is the idea that we should figure out what’s true and what isn’t based on scientific investigation. Just because we’re convinced that something doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that the investigation should stop, especially when there are lots of people out there who still believe, and who are actively investigating various claims using less-than-rigorous methods. Stevens’ work, honestly investigating claims of the paranormal alongside believers and trying to teach them how to be more scientific, is in my opinion the cutting edge of what skeptics claim to value.

I think there is an inherent tension between the comfort and acceptance of a social group and the real work that needs to be done to meet the stated goals of the skeptical movement. How do you relate to believers on a human level when you also find comradery in ridiculing them? How do you remain self-aware, self-critical, and vigilant for internal inconsistencies in your own logic while at the same time engaging in social identity negotiation? How can you feel free to ask honest questions that challenge the very assumptions your entire social group is built on when the natural response from other group members will be to excise the dissenter? Is it worth it to point out inconsistencies and logical fallacies when your friends and fellow skeptics commit them when doing so could cost you friends and business opportunities?

I lost a lot of friendships after I fell out with Skepchick. I realize now that most of those friendships were more akin to social allegiances: they weren’t about the individuals involved. They were about our shared interest in the goal of organized skepticism, and our shared participation in a system of social ladder-climbing within the movement. It was more about networking and validation seeking than it ever was about personal growth and real relationship building. In the end, I want to know others and I want to be known. I want to challenge and be challenged. I want growth, not hollow validation of the status quo.

Skeptics pay a lot of lip service to critical thinking and the understanding and recognition of logical fallacies. But too often, they seem blinded to their own shortcomings by the very nature of humans as social creatures. They fall into the same tribal traps as the believers they claim to oppose.

The ever-roiling battle over the place of women in the movement is rife with evidence of this kind of tribal defensiveness, on both sides. Those who represent the “old guard” do not want to admit that they might have been complicit in creating an unwelcoming environment, so they minimize or outright deny women’s stories about sexual harassment within the community. Meanwhile, those fighting to create a more welcoming environment for women, exposed to a lot of threats and nonsense on the internet, close ranks and have a hard time engaging in discussion with well-meaning dissenters, because it becomes impossible to differentiate between the well-meaning dissenter and the internet troll.

Both are perfectly natural reactions. But I expect more from self-proclaimed skeptics. I expect self-critique and intellectual honesty. I expect humble and respectful discourse. I expect, at the very least, some kind of acknowledgement of human fallibility and a willingness to look in the mirror before lashing out. And yes, I expect failure. None of us is perfect, and our set of skeptical values is a difficult one to live up to. Self-criticism is difficult. It is also something that our culture discourages.

Social belonging is important. The presence of the social side of organized skepticism gives many people motivation and support to carry out projects they would not otherwise have the strength or resources to complete. I don’t deny the value in that. But it also creates an environment where people can insulate themselves from the effects of challenges to their assertions by surrounding themselves in a consensus bubble where everyone validates everyone else, as long as they stick to the party line. This is one of the primary mechanisms for the continued prevalence of religious belief.

Part of what it means to be a skeptic is to remain open, even welcoming, to new challenges. To be challenged is to be presented with information which contradicts our existing thought patterns, and to gain an opportunity to consider something we’ve taken for granted in a different light. Even if the end result is that our worldview remains intact, it has been strengthened by the process of working through the challenge.

More than a few skeptics think of religious believers as weak-minded cowards who lack the fortitude to stand on their own two feet in the face of the vast uncertainty that is existence. They see religion as a crutch. Well, I would argue that many skeptics, especially those engaged in the social aspect of the movement, treat their belonging to the group as just such a crutch.

Is it too much to ask that they recognize their own cowardice and try to move beyond it?

Facing the Animal

Author’s note: I wrote this piece a few months ago, in the wake of a tragedy that touched the edges of my life, and decided not to post it right away. Digging through my files, I stumbled across it tonight, re-read it, and decided it was time to dust it off and post it.

I think I understand the darkness and violence in humans, or at least that I am aware of it on a more conscious level than most people allow themselves to be. I remember when I was 11 or 12 years old, out deer hunting with my dad for the first time, walking behind him on a path through the birch woods and thinking, “If he wanted to, my dad could turn around, pull his rifle up from its cradle in the crook of his elbow, and shoot me dead right here and now.”

I had no reason to believe he would ever even think about doing such a thing, but once the thought occurred to me, the anxiety swelled in my brain with each step. My ape self had identified a threat, and my reasoning self was trying to convince her that while, yes, that man is carrying a weapon that can kill you, he is your father and he loves you, and he would never intentionally harm you. Ape me wasn’t quite convinced, but I kept on, placing one boot in front of the other, and again, and again onto the damp, dead-leaf carpet until we got to the tree stand.

I was an anxious child, generally, so pushing through my worries was nothing new to me. The fight between the irrational worry of the animal and the logic of the rational mind is a constant hum in my head, even today. Though, I would say I have become much more self-aware about it, and it’s now more a conversation than a fight.
I suspect my mother struggles with the same thoughts, but she has hardened herself; pushing the anxieties down with an unshakable onslaught of logic. Worries are banished and invalidated before they can even surface. She believes that she understands the world she lives in, and that God is on her side, and therefore she cannot possibly be confronted with anything that she can’t handle. But I see the terrified animal underneath it all, even if she doesn’t anymore.

Unlike my mother, I’ve let go of the religious faith of my upbringing, and have come to believe that this universe came about without purpose, and that we’ve come along by accident, left alone in the face of it all to try and make it mean something. These are things I think about often. I think about what my life means, because I don’t have a pre-packaged narrative that neatly explains it all – because I don’t think it is possible to encompass the vast, brutal, beautiful, insane scope of existence in anything that looks like a neat package…and I want my life to mean something. Desperately.

I’ve started to listen to the animal. I don’t push it down anymore. I try to feel my feelings as they happen, and to remind myself that they are valid even if they are irrational. I’m becoming more comfortable living in contradiction and uncertainty.

I still have a lot of anxiety. I seem to shift very easily into “worst case scenario” mode, often imagining just how I might be killed at any particular moment, and how I might avoid any of the myriad demises I’ve dreamed up for myself. I wasn’t even really aware I was doing it until fairly recently, and now I can trace the habit all the way back to my childhood; at six or seven, playing strange mental games with myself in which I had to avoid imaginary blades that could extend out of the arms of our living room furniture at any moment. I seriously would try to avoid sitting in a direct line off of any of the arms of the furniture. I avoided cracks and lines in the pavement, for the same reason.

Looking back on it, it sounds completely crazy. I’m sure I’m diagnosable (OCD anyone?). But that’s part of who I am and how I relate to the world, and I don’t want to pop pills to try and make it go away. And you know what? The world is fucking dangerous. People are fucking dangerous. You can’t really trust anybody, because deep down, we are all that nice, sweet, family pit bull that just snaps one day and bites a kid’s face off. ALL OF US. But we have to trust each other to survive. It’s the great contradiction of the human condition: Our heritage is as full of violence as it is cooperation.

Generally speaking, civilization keeps us tame. When we feel secure in our ability to garner resources for our individual survival and reproduction, we get along alright. But that balance is much more delicate than most people can admit to themselves. Knock out a foundational pillar of somebody’s security – one they’ve come to take for granted – and you’re liable to see decidedly “inhuman” behavior. (I use quotes because I assert that these albeit reprehensible behaviors are as essentially human as cooperation).

I’m thinking about all this today, because a guy I knew from work shot and killed his wife the other night, and then, after a standoff with police, shot himself. I knew both of them, actually. I’ve worked with them both at various jobs over the past five or six years. They were nice, normal people. They kept chickens. Somewhere along the way, things fell apart. She had left him a couple of months ago, and seemed intent on filing for divorce. The last time I talked to him, about a month ago, he was about to take a voluntary layoff to try and deal with it all. He’d started drinking a lot, and wasn’t his old, fun self.

That was the last I knew about any of it until last night at work, in the office before our shift, when my boss took on a somewhat somber tone and said, “Hey, it’s just a rumor, but did you hear about so-and-so?” At which point he did a web search and found an article confirming that it wasn’t just a rumor anymore…

I felt like I’d been socked in the gut.

I read the report, and, reading between the lines, painted a mental picture of what probably happened, but no one will ever really know. Nobody wanted to talk about it at work. I can see why. Nobody wants to think of their buddy as a monster. Nobody wants to face down the fact that, given the right set of bad circumstances, they, too, might be capable of such things.

Thing is, no matter how many different ways I think about it, I can’t think of him as a monster. All I can see is a sad, desperate man, striking out in a drunken rage at the source of his pain and the object of his need, and then realizing what he’s done and deciding to take the only tolerable way out. Even though I know it’s futile and egotistical, I can’t help wondering if I could have said something differently in one of those conversations when it was so clear he was falling apart. As the night went on, at work, I kept trying to remember what I had said, in those conversations, whether I’d asked if he was talking to anyone about it, professional or otherwise. I can’t remember if I said it out loud or just thought it.

Even though I didn’t know them very well, those confidences make me feel involved in the situation, somehow. He seemed so mystified by it all – from his point of view, she had just woken up one day and decided she was done with him and their pre-teen son. I never heard her side of the story, but I think I understand that, too. I lived with my ex-husband for ten years, and I put on a good show for him. I wanted to be happy, and I wanted my marriage to be the stuff of fairy tales, and so I tried to convince myself that everything was great. He believed it for longer than I could. It was over for me a long time before I got up the courage to leave. When I finally did, he was shocked. He had taken it for granted that I would continue to endure his moodiness and maintain his perfect little bubble world, buffered against any actual struggle or growth. My patience eventually wore out. I lost my ability to care about the minutiae of helping him keep track of his elaborately-spun web of validation-seeking exaggerations and fabrications.

I can easily picture a similar dynamic between the two of them. Even if he wasn’t the validation-obsessed, high-maintenance, always-liable-to-freak-out-about-something-tiny type of person that my ex was, people get stuck in ruts, and they take each other for granted, and they change – often beneath the surface. Women are expected to take care of those around us. It is not unusual for a woman to wake up one day and find that her entire life revolves around the care and keeping of other people. Some of us aren’t up for that challenge; especially when we don’t feel cared for ourselves. Men are expected to win bread and prestige, and to maintain a veneer of unaffected strength, no matter what life throws at them. This means the denial and dismissal of vulnerability, and feelings that often build up until they explode.

In the end, both people did wrong by the other. Obviously, murder is the more egregious action. It’s just unbelievably sad that neither party was able to look far enough past their own immediate situation to get through it intact. And that kid…I can’t stop thinking about that poor kid.

I can’t help thinking that if people were more aware of the animal inside, stuff like this wouldn’t happen. It’s like kids and guns. Kids that know about guns and understand that they are dangerous don’t generally play with them haphazardly and accidentally kill their friends.

To that end, I think we would all do well to take a good look in the mirror and stare that animal straight in the face. Give it a name. Respect it. It is part of who you are, and, try as you might, you will never be able to excise it or suppress it. But you can work with it. You can reason with it. You can harness its power for good.
But you can only do those things if you first acknowledge it.

The Great Gatsby 2013: A Very Pretty Fart.

As soon as I found out that Baz Luhrmann was making an adaptation of The Great Gatsby, I was horrified. I doubted immensely that he could handle the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s storytelling or even begin to glean any of the meaning in the material. But I held out a glimmer of hope that it wouldn’t be a total hate-fuck. I could see a way that he might possibly have been able to do it right, and I resolved to give him a chance.

Five minutes in, I was annoyed. Ten minutes in, I took out my cell phone to check if there was a showing of Star Trek: Into Darkness about to start in one of the theaters down the hallway. Left up to me, I would have walked, but my husband talked me down, saying, “We’ve paid for this abortion, we might as well go through with it.” Sometimes hate is a road that must be traveled to the end.

After a stunning opening credits sequence, the film opens with a “crane” shot (most of the exterior shots are CGI) zooming down to the vast green lawns and gates of a sanitarium. It turns out that Nick Carraway has been committed for treatment of alcoholism, among other things, and the narration unfolds as he relates the story of his time with Gatsby to his analyst, who eventually convinces him to write it all out. Right out of the gate, I hate this need to couch the narration in a “real” setting. I think it would have worked just fine to have the voice of “Older Nick” telling the story to the audience without any explanation or background. Or, if that was unacceptable for some reason, it would be very easy to tell this story without using Nick Carraway’s narration at all. In many places, doing so would have made the film more powerful by forcing Luhrmann to allow things to happen off camera. Instead, he leans on the same storytelling cliché he used in Moulin Rouge: the writer recalls the events of the film as he dedicates them to paper. It’s lazy and trite and it represents a lame attempt on the director’s part to pay homage to the fact that the source material for the film is one of the greatest books ever written without actually paying homage to the book.

In fact, every time F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words are repeated and the text splashes across the screen, the film looks worse by comparison. Each quote bears a reminder of just how much Baz Luhrmann does not understand The Great Gatsby.

The characters have no depth; no subtlety. They are macquettes in a stilted melodrama that very deftly apes its source material in plot and scenery but utterly loses the message in a flurry of glitter and Möet and booty dancers. DiCaprio acts well, in spite of the horrible direction, as does Joel Edgerton. But Toby Maguire feels like the star of a small-town community theater, all folksy and stilted. And if Carey Mulligan and Elizabeth Debicki do a fine job conveying the alternately sad and frantic vacuity Fitzgerald goes to so much trouble illustrating in the book, well, it’s lost among an ocean of meaningless and empty characterizations.

The sets are gorgeous, and with the exception of some very obvious anachronism, so are the props and costumes. The 3D is utilized very deftly to show off the eye candy, and there is a lot of eye candy. But the music is awful. As the first party sequence unfolded, I thought I was watching a hip-hop video on MTV. And then there was that strangeness with the people partying in the car on the highway where, again, the film inexplicably becomes a rap video; thick, scantily clad dancers and all. (This made more sense as the end credits rolled and I saw that Jay-z produced it.) Just, why? Really? I’m out of touch with mainstream culture – I’ll readily cop to that, but I’m not some kind of puritanical, high-brow white bread asshole who hates fun. But there is no reason to turn The Great Gatsby into an overblown, sexed-up, postmodern gangsta flick with giant ribbon confetti and disco balls.

Well, no reason that doesn’t involve a completely crass, money-grubbing, marketing-over-content attitude. I have this image in my mind of Jay-z and Baz, sitting at opposite ends of a long table in a trendy yet minimalist office in the upper floors of a skyscraper somewhere, drinking fancy bottled water and rubbing their hands together villainously as they strategize on just how they are going to turn a great American novel into a cash cow. (There is another, obscener image that kept flashing through my mind as I watched this horror show: Baz Luhrmann with literal hams for hands, frantically fucking a copy of the book through a hole in one of those iconic disembodied eyes on the cover.)

Why not play it straight? Why not use period music? The scene with the organ was kind of cool. It would not have been hard to convey the same kind of party atmosphere without resorting to rough, modern clichés as shorthand. But then again, where would Baz Luhrmann be without shorthand? He takes all the emotional subtlety out of the text and turns it into overemphasized physical display – especially in the way the characters express emotion. All the repression and sublimation is gone, clumsily transposed into oversimplified theater-mask play-acting. It makes most of the human interactions in the film completely unbelievable.

Perhaps Luhrmann’s worst crime is in his attempt to reframe The Great Gatsby as a tragic love story. Yes, the plot of the book contains several overlapping romantic entanglements, but it is most decidedly not a love story. It is a story about deeply broken people doing terrible things to each other, out of carelessness and out of obsessive and naïve attempts to recreate the past with no regard for the agency of the other people whom they would have fill roles in those recreations. Even though the film closes with two quotes from the book that illustrate just that, it fails to show any of it.

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…

And

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow, we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…and one fine morning –
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Daisy and Gatsby aren’t in love with each other. They love the idea of each other. Daisy craves escape from her shallow existence as the trophy wife of a wealthy boor, and Gatsby represents mystery and romance. Gatsby, still running from the poverty of his youth, wants a beautiful companion to reflect his beautiful conception of himself as “a son of God”, and Daisy, with her “voice full of money”, has become to him the human embodiment of wealth. Neither sees the other as a fully realized human being. Each views the other as an object in their own Life Plan, and when the details of those plans unfold and conflict, it all falls apart.

Just as this doomed entanglement is painted as glorified romance, everything in the film is painted with a glamorous gloss. In the book, the party in Tom and Myrtle’s New York City apartment is a nightmarish commentary on working-class pretenders to riches that ends in a bloody mess after Tom purposefully breaks Myrtle’s nose. (I just reread it again, and it is easily as horrifying (and entertaining) as Hunter S. Thompson’s account in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas of the seeming transformation of bar patrons into grotesque lizard people. I really think it comes from the same place.) In the film, it becomes a casual gathering of slightly bohemian revelers who drink and take drugs and engage in various debaucheries until Tom slaps Myrtle in the face. Most of the dialogue is removed or recontextualized in such a way that takes all the bite out of it.

Even the climactic scene where Myrtle gets run over gets sanitized. The whole point of that scene is to show the brutal reality of consequence. It’s the dark side of the opulence and carelessness, thrown in the reader’s face like a suckerpunch. And Baz turns it into a pretty tragedy.

…its driver hurried back to where Myrtle Wilson, her life violently extinguished, knelt in the road and mingled her thick dark blood with the dust.

Michaelis and this man reached her first, but when they had torn open her shirtwaist, still damp with perspiration, they saw that her left breast was swinging loose like a flap, and there was no need to listen for her heart beneath. The mouth was wide open and ripped at the corners, as though she had choked a little in giving up the tremendous vitality she had stored so long.

It’s ugly. It’s not a beautiful body flying gracefully through the air and going to death in slow motion with all its romantic baggage intact. It’s real, and it’s brutal. The woman is unsexed. She is reduced to a pile of blood and meat. I knew going into the film that Luhrmann’s handling of this scene would be the crux of the film for me. I can’t say I was surprised, but I was still disappointed.

The turd on top of this shit cake was the closing shot of Carraway’s typed manuscript, titled, simply, GATSBY – and then a pen-wielding hand enters the frame and scrawls “THE GREAT” above it. As the MST3K guys would say, “WE HAVE A TITLE!”

Baz Luhrmann, please do the world a favor: buy a deli slicer and put those hands to good use. I bet you could make enough ham sandwiches to feed a lot of starving children.

Sustainable Sex?

I have a number of friends and family members with very different beliefs and lifestyles from mine. Although this causes me a fair amount of anxiety regarding my interactions with them and finding the proper balance between presenting challenges and maintaining loving discourse, I generally view it as a privilege to have the opportunity to be exposed to different points of view. It is vitally important to me to continually examine my views, and the regular challenges they present, even when I’m not exactly in the mood, keep me on my toes.

Today, a piece from The Hipster Conservative came across my feed. In it, Marc Barnes makes an argument for what he calls “Sustainable Sex”. He makes some interesting points about modern, western, sexual culture. Surprisingly, I don’t entirely disagree with the problems he highlights. His comments regarding the role of pornography in creating an environment in which many men would rather jerk off than engage with a real partner are mostly in line with my own.

Pornography and subsequent masturbation have set an impossibly high standard for women. Men have seen hundreds of fake-breasted, airbrushed, aroused-to-the-point-of-myocardial-infarction pixels, all contorted into positions that would make an Olympic gymnast proud — before they have lain with an actual, warm-blooded woman. As Naomi Wolf noted in her article “The Porn Myth”:

Here is what young women tell me on college campuses when the subject comes up: They can’t compete, and they know it. For how can a real woman—with pores and her own breasts and even sexual needs of her own (let alone with speech that goes beyond “More, more, you big stud!”)—possibly compete with a cybervision of perfection, downloadable and extinguishable at will, who comes, so to speak, utterly submissive and tailored to the consumer’s least specification?

For most of human history, erotic images have been reflections of, or celebrations of, or substitutes for, real naked women. For the first time in human history, the images’ power and allure have supplanted that of real naked women. Today, real naked women are just bad porn.

I agree that the ubiquity of porn is causing problems in our sexual culture. Every time I walk past the recently installed Hustler store in my neighborhood, I look at the increasingly ridiculous sex theater costumes in the display windows and shake my head. None of it looks remotely sexy to me. Are people really so bored with their partners that they have to put all this strange decoration on them in order to make sex exciting again? When did we stop looking at each other and actually seeing the person standing there? When did we start seeing each other as tokens in our own personal playgrounds, whose continued presence in our lives depends on their utility in furthering our attempts at fantasy fulfillment? Continue reading

Voter Fraud Fraud

If you live in a state with a “Voter I.D.” measure coming up on the ballot, please vote no, and please tell your representatives you’d like them to stop wasting their time on this garbage. It’s bad legislation to “fix” a nonexistent problem.

I am a pragmatic independent. I’m tired of all this hype and fear-mongering. All it does is distract us from the real issues and give each side more excuses to dehumanize and hate those they disagree with. There is real information out there about this issue that anyone can take the time to look at.

Here is a searchable database of every accused case of election fraud in this country going back to 2000. It’s really neat – you can click on various narrowing criteria on the left-hand side and see how many cases come up.

It turns out that there have been about 10 convicted cases of in-person voter fraud that would have been prevented by these laws.

10 cases.

Since 2000.

That’s less than one case per year, for the entire country.

Is it really worth it for us to be paying our legislators to argue about this kind of irrelevant bullshit when we are looking down the barrel of another great depression? Don’t they have better things to do?

Oh, I forgot. All they care about is keeping their cushy jobs and climbing the ladder to K-Street heaven.

Maybe you don’t think it’s a big deal to have to show I.D. to vote, but let me ask you this: Do you believe a person should have to pay to vote? Because government identification is not free, at least not in Minnesota, where I live. So to require an I.D. is tantamount to a poll tax. There are a lot of people who simply cannot afford to put down $35 to buy an I.D., not to mention the fact that you have to take time to go to the DMV, which is open during normal business hours when lots of people are working.

Look, if there really was a big problem with in-person voter fraud, then I’d be open to looking at a voter I.D. law, but the facts just don’t bear it out. It’s not a real issue. It looks to me like a red herring designed to conveniently prevent certain segments of the population from voting.

Here’s a nifty infographic to put it all together.

Again, I am an independent, interested in seeing that everyone gets their say – even those I disagree with. These disingenuous “voter fraud” campaigns are bad policy and should be exposed for the bullshit, politically-motivated distractions they are. Don’t believe the hype.