Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Taking up Space

I am feeling determined.

On tumblr I see posts every day about how girls want to starve their beautiful precious bodies to look better or wear that crop top or those thigh high socks and it hurts me inside and it makes me angry and sad that we have a society where people destroying their bodies is so common.

Once upon a time I was a small girl with a big belly who felt sad because no boys would go for her and craved male attention. I got male attention, I got it all over my thighs and my bum and they laughed at me and called me a slut but still I felt unloved and unworthy of love.

I stopped looking, but when I stopped looking I found someone I really love and even that did not fix me, because humans do not fix each other, they fix themselves.

I stopped eating and my belly shrank flat and my ribs protruded and my mind broke. I am still scared, so scared, of going back to that place.

I grew bigger, back to a healthy weight, back to stretch marks and daily exercise and going to the gym. My weight cycled. It would have done that even if I hadn't been stressed and scared.

I am still scared, so scared, of slipping back every time that my mother mentions I need to lose weight or my friend posts that she's too fat. I still forget to eat.

But I am also furious. I am furious that anyone should have to destroy themselves in the name of beauty.

I am not a girl anymore. I am a woman with the agency and determination to tell bigoted beauty standards to fuck off. I will wear short sleeves and show off my scars. I will wear crop tops and show off my midriff. I will wear shorts and thigh high socks and show you legs that I built up to be beautiful and strong.

My belly still isn't flat and I'm coming to terms with that. I'm coming to terms with the knowledge that very few women, including very thin women, have flat bellies. It's not because we're all fat, it's because there are vital organs in there. My thighs are huge and I wouldn't change them for the world. They are huge because I walk everywhere, because I swim, because I cycle, because I run, because I dance. They are powerful, powerful enough to crush anyone's stupid beauty standards between them.

I can't be a tall, skinny, conventionally beautiful woman. But some people find me interesting and others find me sexy and that is enough.

When I stopped eating, I didn't want to drop a dress size or two dress sizes or 20 kg. I wanted to fade away into nothing. I didn't want to take up space.

But here I am, taking up that space. If you're inconvenienced by that, so what? I'm inconvenienced by feelings that I have to damage myself to take up less space.

I am going to wear crop tops and shorts and thigh high socks and take up as much space as I damn please. I might not look conventionally beautiful doing it, but when I've got interest and sheer ballsy petulance aplenty I'll make up for that.

Monday, 10 August 2015

I Disagree, But I Understand

I wasn't intending to publish anything until at least September, because I have actual work to actually do - both academic essays and my hustling paying off. But this wouldn't get out of my head.

Back in March an author called Tim Lott published a column on Comment is Free railing against left-wing purism. Certain sections of twitter promptly reacted with disgust that's actually still ongoing, questioning why Comment is Free would ever publish such trash (this is the same Comment is Free that's had notorious transphobe Julie Bindel writing for it, by the way, and that spawned an entire tumblr parodying its weirder articles, so I'm frankly not too surprised).

That is easily answered: hello, he's a reasonably notable writer who works for the Guardian. Also, assuming the Guardian has employees who actually know about the internet, they know an article like this will generate lots of discussion, debate and clicky clicky linky linky. Which means more ad revenue.

One question that didn't even get asked is why he would write an article like this (apart from views and ad revenue). At least, I didn't see it asked by my incredibly biased selection of people I follow, who are virtually all leftists, liberals and social justice types. Most of the more left-wing types railed against it, with a small minority of liberals agreeing with him. I didn't see any analysis of why he would think that way, which I thought was weird.

A big disclaimer here: I'm not particularly interested in condemning people or giving fire-and-brimstone speeches on why so-and-so is an irredeemable piece of shit or why such-and-such is literally the worst person ever to live. I'm not interested in that because I want people to make better-informed decisions so that we can have a shot at not screwing up the world for once, and I fail to see how angrily insulting people behind a computer screen is going to make the world a better place. Instead, I think that if you understand how people think, you'll understand why they do and say the things they do. That way you can better question their thought processes and you'll have a better shot at getting them to agree with you than if you just shout at them about how terrible they are. The latter is the equivalent of smashing a locked door with a bottle and wondering why it doesn't open.

As I read the article for the very first time, I thought to myself: well, a lot of this is self-evidently wrong. I mean, how can you defend transphobia and question the gender pay gap?! And then I had a second thought: I understand where he's coming from.

In some circles it is thought that if you understand where objectionable viewpoints or behaviour might come from, it means you must condone them. I've already said that a lot of the article was wrong, so hopefully that puts paid to that unless my blog post is so mind-destroyingly awful you're having to skip over a lot of the wrongness. In other circles, even if people are smart enough to realise that you don't condone everything you can understand, they might still think you're a bad person.

And I'm going to tell you this right now: I am a bad person. On my blog, displayed for all to see, are shocking examples of ableism and misogyny (to name two). I refuse to take them down because they'll only get dug up at some point anyway. I've sex-shamed other girls. I've been racist. I keep doing bigoted things because we live in an institutionally bigoted society and I'm rolling in privilege. I admit to all of this because while I might be a bad person, I'm a bad person with principles, goddammit, and I believe in telling the truth. Worse than being a bigot is being a bigot who hides her bigotry and pretends to be a good person.

The one upside to this is that I understand why some people think and do certain things a more morally pure person might find objectionable. By all means condemn me, but also know that I've got useful things to say.

I grew up in a reasonably right-wing household. Being very strong-willed, I held things like individual liberty, equality, free speech etc. etc. very dear and clashed with my parents on some points of freedom. I didn't hear of things like critical theory, critical race theory and privilege theory until I was in my mid-teens, having never been exposed to them, and because of their focus on structures and frameworks rather than individuals I got incredibly confused. I didn't understand how only white people could be racist or how only men could be sexist. I didn't understand how I could benefit from racism, much less be racist, because I didn't do overtly racist things like say racial slurs.

The attentive reader, who is probably also the masochistic reader, will notice that there is an incredible focus on the individual here. I was trying to interpret worldviews based on structures and frameworks through a lens that emphasised individuals. This is like looking through the wrong end of a microscope and wondering why you can't see anything.

All my education came from the internet, not books - this is why my theory is shockingly poor. I distinctly remember seeing other people ask questions about, for example, how it was that only a privileged group could actually be racist/sexist/etc. (Terms like racism and sexism were assumed to only refer to the institutional forms - that is, prejudice plus power.) I also distinctly remember the answer mostly being "It's not my job to educate you". This is fair enough, because strangers posting on the internet for free are usually doing it as a hobby, but it also means that getting a direct answer is difficult. So I parked myself down on the sidelines and watched other people talking and asking questions, which helped my understanding a lot.

And one day I realised that I had been looking down the wrong end of the microscope - that I needed to be looking at the problem on the scale of institutions. This is not a recent development; as far as I understand it this has been common knowledge in academia for decades. So either there is a problem with these academic ideas getting through into the rest of the world or I was just living under a rock. This is fair enough for a sheltered 15-year-old, I suppose, but for a grown man?!

If I shut up about myself and stop faffing around, the point is that from my personal experience I can see why people who have a very strong individualistic streak would have problems adjusting to a leftism based around structures and frameworks - especially if that is not made obvious, which it isn't. I find Lott's article sad more than anything, because he doesn't get it. He could probably get it if he shut up and listened for a month.

I also find it scary, because Lott is not alone in being confused and angry. There are lots of disgruntled people out there who don't understand why one day the discourse should be X and the next it should be Y. They need to be pointed to information on what Y is, what Y's tenets are, etc. They might still disagree, but they're more likely to agree with something they understand. These people are not gleefully rubbing their hands oppressing people. They are bumbling about probably not knowing much about how oppressive structures work. Ignorance does more damage than malice.

And why should it be important for them to agree? I'm going to throw my hands up and admit that my fixation on getting other people to understand and agree and work together is a bit naff. The reason I focus on it so much is that right now, it feels like relatively few people understand Y as opposed to understanding X. That means that we're pushing back against a lot of people. I don't think that this is necessary or even inevitable - I think that if we make information about Y more accessible, we can become the majority and make the pushback easier.

On the other hand, if we yell at them for not giving a shit about privilege if they don't even fully understand what they're doing wrong, at best they think we're insane and at worst they get sucked into the crowd who scream "SJW" at every opportunity. That is to say, we create a bigger problem for ourselves because we assume that the information is either easier to find than it actually is, or that these people don't deserve that information.

Here's a naff problematic liberal idea: try working out why disgruntled liberals act the way they do. Assume ignorance and stupidity before malice. Try to make the basic tenets of your ideas explicit, because then the ideas themselves will make more sense. See if that works better than just assuming everyone is a problematic piss-streak.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Some ranting about positive psychology and the self-help industry

There is a very appealing concept sold by the positive living industry: the critical positivity ratio, or the Losada line. First published in 2005 by the psychologists Marcial Losada and Barbara Fredrickson, their paper uses nonlinear dynamical modelling to show that people need a ratio of just three positive interactions to one negative one to live happier, healthier lives.

It's a brilliant idea, combining mathematical legitimacy and common sense into one weird old tip for being happier.

What a shame, then, that it's also complete bollocks. The critical positivity ratio was debunked by Nick Brown, a graduate student in applied positive psychology, Alan Sokal, a physicist most famous for trolling the journal Social Text by writing complete shit and getting it published, and the psychologist Harris Friedman. There were severe flaws in the theory - for example, in several of Losada's analyses the data used did not meet the basic criteria for using differential equations (continuous variables that evolve smoothly and deterministically over time). The data sets used were in fact taken from studies for some other purpose and analysed post hoc (not a problem on its own, but should have been clearly declared) and one data set doesn't achieve significance! Losada's differential equations used parameters lifted directly from Lorenz's simplified, arbitrary models without explanation, and the pretty butterfly-like figures were taken not from the data but were simulations. Even if the critical positivity ratio is taken seriously, there should be several windows for flourishing and not just one - that is to say, Fredrickson and Losada did not fully understand the implication of modelling their data using nonlinear dynamics.

To sum up, two psychologists used maths they didn't really understand and messed around with their data to produce a theory that is effectively nonsense. Fredrickson responded to the critique, though Sokal was not happy; Losada was too busy running his consulting business to reply. Yeah. Really prioritising science above making money there. Such ethics. Wow. The paper was partially retracted.

All this happened back in 2013. And yet in 2015, we still have articles pushing the critical positivity ratio as though it were fact and not utter discredited lies. To be honest, given that people still defend Andrew Wakefield this is hardly surprising, but it still makes me angry and upset.

The formal study of the mind is very young, but very, very important. Psychobabble like this messes with people's heads, their souls, their entire being. Just as snake oil for physical ailments at best does nothing and at worst makes you sick, psychobabble does nothing good for you at best and at worst compounds your neuroses. Those who spread outdated nonsense like the critical positivity ratio are playing reckless games with other people's minds.

"Well, it can't be that bad..." you might say. After all, it's only some books, some articles, some words. It's nothing too damaging, surely?

As of 2014, the self-help industry - so that includes books, DVDs, life coaching and the rest - was worth $10 billion in the US alone. 80% of people who read self-help books are repeat buyers, which in itself is a worrying sign: if most self-help books actually worked the first time round, people wouldn't need to buy more. It sells people happiness, the promise of a better job, a better relationship, a better life.

At this point someone might ask "well, what's wrong with that?". And there's nothing wrong with self-improvement. The problem is that the self-help industry tries to sell you the secret to success in £9 worth of paperback and then blames you if it doesn't work.

It should be pretty obvious that you can't get the secret to happiness in £9 of paperback. If you could, there would be no need for $10 billion of industry dedicated to getting you hooked on self-help. Most people are confused and muddling through. The happy few who have any sort of idea of what they're doing are either mind-bogglingly lucky or have had to struggle for any happiness they've achieved.

I'm not one of the mind-bogglingly lucky people who gets everything handed to them on a plate, so my struggle involved having to pick reasons to live, learning to adapt to shitty maladaptive brain chemistry, trying to hack my brain into working better (because you can do this), and learning that my brain actually works in an utterly illogical way. (I do physics. If I were to design a thought process, it would not be half as complicated and dysfunctional as what really goes on inside my head.) Oh, and that I can hack my brain so that it has nicer, more logical thought processes.

Other people cannot do this for you, although they can help you do it for yourself. It is your responsibility and it is something that has to be lived. That automatically rules out most self-help.

The other major problem I have with the self-help industry and most "positive thinking" stuff is that it's very centred on individual attitudes. To be fair, changing the way you think about things can also help change the way you process stimuli - but most self-help apportions all responsibility to the individual and none to external factors. This is plainly ridiculous. For example, if I am discriminated against, no amount of positive thinking on my part is going to stop the discrimination. If I am made homeless, no amount of positive thinking on my part is going to get me a job or a house. If I cannot walk, no amount of positive thinking on my part is going to turn a flight of stairs into a ramp or a lift. If I want to actually change things, rather than living with them as they are - and I believe things can be changed for the better - no amount of smiling at my situation will change the external reality. (Of course, this implies that there exists some vaguely objective reality Out There and that's opening a whole other can of worms...)

...Oh, yes, and did I mention that some authors of self-help books have no formal mental health credentials? Did I mention that not that many authors base their books on published research? There are some who would say that this is fine because the important thing is to help the individual. I'm not one of them; this is less because I'm a brutal tyrant who doesn't recognise individual variation and more because evidence-based treatment tends to, you know, work better than that thing that worked for your friend's girlfriend's cousin's roommate. (Also, account for your individual needs because individual variation still exists.)

Okay, anecdotal evidence time: I personally don't take well to most self-help stuff for what are ultimately deep-seated and very irrational reasons. I think it's something to do with the advertising - some people might think "Oh, this looks like it can really help me become successful!" but because I'm bitter and angry, I think "Oh, this looks like wanky clickbait". I don't like stuff that seems insincere or unwilling to address negative emotions like sadness or fear, which is why I have problems with "inspirational" stories about how some tragedy was actually a blessing in disguise.

The book that helped me most wasn't even a self-help book; it was a book about cognitive biases that my mum got me. I'm no stranger to reading to make myself feel happier; I read and read and read to understand more about myself and others, to feel more grounded, to assure myself that someone somewhere felt the same confusion and emptiness that I did. I made myself a library to fill my heart. It worked, sort of. The reason that book in particular helped me is because it explained to me that I wasn't thinking rationally. This gave me the power to challenge my intrusive thoughts, because they were based on what was most emotionally available to me and not on me impartially observing the outside world. Importantly, I didn't feel like I was being judged or being pressured into feeling happily, and even more importantly, it was backed up by decades of evidence and had two academic papers in the appendices. I felt like if I asked questions (and I did - I asked a lot), I was going to get more answers than just being told that I was being overly negative.

That's just my story, though. That's just anecdotal evidence. Actual peer-reviewed evidence shows that self-help books can be effective, and that's why it's even more important to get the psychology right.

"But you keep talking about how self-help books don't work!" you cry.

Yes. That's because I genuinely thought they didn't work, since they haven't worked for me, and made the stupid mistake of generalising my experience.

I also left out three important caveats. Firstly, self-help books are not a cure-all - even in the best-case scenarios people will still be left with lasting symptoms. Secondly, self-help books are more effective for people with milder conditions; for example, someone who is otherwise sane but has mild public speaking anxiety will benefit more from a self-help book than someone with severe depression. Finally, self-help books are more effective when combined with help from a therapist.

So, where do we go from here? I'm not a psychologist. I'm a broke mental patient hustling for any kind of gainful employment, so I'm almost totally unqualified to speak about this. Then again, the internet is full of people running their mouths - one more idiot can't hurt.

Since self-help books are effective, that makes it even more important to get the psychology right. However, their effectiveness is limited. People should be made aware of the three main caveats; the books aren't cure-alls and it's irresponsible to market them as if they are. Journalists need to do their fucking job and check facts before publishing something that's already been debunked. Psychologists need to do their fucking job and focus on getting the science right before turning a profit off bad maths.