Sunday, 10 July 2016

Chilling Effects and Being Offensive

A while back I wrote about the chilling effect that sanctimonious vitriol can have on discourse. It punishes people, particularly the most vulnerable people, in the name of some righteous cause or other, and because it's an exercise in influence, a lot of people don't want to get in the way of seemingly justified anger.

A perpetual worry is that the fear of giving offence causes people to self-censor. Given that the internet is full of people who think that holding a shitty opinion is literally the worst thing you could do and that it's acceptable to threaten people until they shut up, this is perfectly understandable. Even then, there are issues and nuances; on a trivial level, people self-censor all the time. It's why politeness exists. Some level of self-censorship is normal in most societies to stop us from fighting all the time, because there are times that are bad to pick fights and times that are worse to pick fights. The internet is now a perfect place for people to never bother with self-control and discretion, because there are relatively few actual consequences. On a less trivial level, it seems that depending on the particular groups you belong to, harassment of some people is treated as less serious than harassment of other people. There's an awesome breakdown of harassment by demographic from the Pew Research Center.

On the other hand, if you're that worried about being offensive, have you considered not being a dick? There's an entire industry of people who are actually paid real money to be offensive on the internet. Most of them are pathetic. If nothing else, the market is saturated. Besides, real trolling is a dying art.

I know this is anathema to a sizeable group of people who believe that they're the last defenders of true free speech, whatever the hell that is (most people advocate some kind of restriction on speech; I can't figure out where we should put them, if anywhere, and even if I decide speech should be completely unrestricted I'm not going to coddle people I disagree with). I frankly don't care any more. While I don't condone silencing people, speech has consequences. When you have free speech, people are going to disagree with you - sometimes vitriolically. That's the price you pay for having that free speech. You are not a victim.

If you're scared you're going to offend someone, why are you scared? What's so offensive? Would you want to change it? Is your statement factually correct? Think through those things before talking up a storm about how victimised you are.

So, to sum up:
1. Don't be a member of one of those internet mobs who decides that tweeting something you disagree with makes the tweeter literally Hitler.
2. Think before making a stunningly poor attempt at being pointlessly offensive.
3. Think before you post things.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

On necessary knowledge

(or: how ignorance is a privilege)

My friend has started working on her MA thesis and I am so pleased for her! Her particular discipline, disability studies, is comparatively little-known compared to more fashionable fields like feminist theory or queer theory, so it's very much an uphill struggle. Even then, disability is multifaceted and it's very difficult to get people to acknowledge this (including disabled people ourselves, because not everyone is experienced on every disability ever by virtue of having one particular disability).

(Speaking of identities, here is Melanie Yergeau on "shiny identities". She's so fantastic.)

Anyway, as my friend is working on her thesis, she is reading various different writers and introducing me to them; in particular, the work of the poet Tom Andrews struck me. It's dark and funny and pulls inspiration from every aspect of life.

(Also poetry about disability: Karl Mercer is busy moving his stuff around, but To Death and NHS-Factor give you a good indication of his work about mental illness. It can be quite head-on in its descripions of sensitive topics so please keep that in mind.)

Another thing that struck me about Tom Andrews' poetry is how medicalised it all is, as you would expect; he was a haemophiliac who was hospitalised after an accident on an icy sidewalk as a young man. His poetry and his memoirs make frequent mention of things like factor VIII, an essential blood-clotting protein.

These are things that someone who doesn't have a bleeding disorder wouldn't know about; unless they were a medical professional, or a relative or close friend of someone with a bleeding disorder, they would simply have no reason to know about it.

Wherever you look, the story's the same. Be it abled people who know about chronic conditions or neurodivergence, men who know about feminist theory and are seen publicly as allies, or just generally any privileged people who know about the struggles of an oppressed group, they're somehow seen as shiny and special for knowing about something nonessential.

Meanwhile, for us, it's necessary knowledge. Whether you grow up with it or it comes upon you later in life, there's a lot of things you might end up needing to know because it's part of your day-to-day life. It becomes quite natural.

A lot of people seem to think of this in terms of bravery or cleverness or some other virtue on the part of oppressed people. I think we need to turn this view on its head; this knowledge doesn't come out of bravery or cleverness or virtue, it comes out of necessity. Seen like this, ignorance is a privilege. It's a luxury you have when knowing about these things is not essential.

I know that now I've used "privilege", a sizeable contingent of well-meaning white middle-class people are going to be agonising over how oppressive they're being and how they need to learn all the things. An equally sizeable contingent of thin-skinned, easily offended pundits are going to be agonising over how I'm a scary social justice warrior out to make everyone feel guilty. Both these contingents need to calm down; I'm describing an extant phenomenon, not trying to pass judgement on people. I'm also not an authority on the subject - I'm describing my own observations and I'm sure plenty of people might disagree with me.

In any case, I feel like it's necessary to point out that ignorance is a privilege. Being able to go about your life without having some knowledge of, say, medicine or queer theory is a privilege. And honestly? I feel like this is systemic. I feel like this won't change until privileged people decide that these things are worth learning about and working with us on, and until privileged people who do learn about these things aren't seen as shiny and special. I know there are lots of barriers to this due to the specialist nature of a lot of these things and due to some people not wanting to intrude or put a foot wrong, but I'd like to believe we can overcome them.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Survivor's Guilt

The Guardian's on a mental health kick again.

A couple of weeks ago, it put out a request for people's experiences with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). In the UK, it's a specialist service which helps under-18s with difficulty with emotional or behavioural wellbeing.

I filled in their form for a laugh; I'd had a pretty bad experiences with my local CAMHS branch. I certainly wasn't expecting an interview request to come my way. (Fingers crossed!)

I've written about mental health many times before. This is because having a chronic condition is something which affects me every day. What I've never really done is written about mental health for anyone other than myself, and certainly not for old media. I've only done a couple of old media things before, but I'm worried that if I keep doing them I'm going to be seen as part of the media establishment rather than someone who just really likes hearing the sound of her own voice. (Incidentally, being visibly Jewish and being thought of as part of old media would screw me over! Yay!)

The upshot of writing about mental health so much is that I've crystallised a narrative in my head. For storytelling purposes, this is excellent. But I also find myself questioning it.

My local CAMHS branch handled things horribly. That is not a fact; that is my opinion, but an opinion backed by evidence. They said that there was nothing they could do for me; that is a fact. I was at a very low point, if not my lowest point; that is my own evaluation of my situation at the time.

That makes for a sad and scathing story to put in a newspaper; that's my opinion. It wasn't fun to live through; that's my evaluation. So far, so bad for me, so good for creating a narrative to tug at readers' heart-strings. (Journalists: I am very cynical about the business of curating information and presenting it in a certain way. Sorry.)

There's only one problem with this sad and scathing narrative - all this took place when I was sixteen. I am now twenty and in a far better place. In those years, something must have happened to change my situation. And because I'm obsessed with seeking after truth, I'm uncomfortable about concealing that something.

The something is that I'm a rich kid; my parents are well-to-do. In particular, my mother is friends with a psychologist. Somehow, they managed to pull strings and get me in with an excellent psychodynamic psychotherapist. It still took me two years to put together some measure of sanity, and I now have a very idiosyncratic way of looking at the world - one focused on analysis and confronting problems rather than outward shows of sympathy. Plus working with her gave me an awesome death glare. If I hadn't had recourse to that something - if I hadn't exploited my privilege to the hilt - I don't know where I'd be, but I might have actually been dead at this point.

It must be difficult for you to read this, especially if you care about privilege and unequal access in our society. It must be difficult for you to read a bald acknowledgement, with no explicit condemnation, of how I received excellent care because Mummy and Daddy had money. So I will tell you how I felt about this.

My overwhelming emotion was not guilt; it was and is anger. I am angry that people who desperately need help are not able to get it because of the multiple failings in the way the NHS deals with trauma and mental health problems. I am angry that getting good care reasonably quickly depends on your finances, not your need. I am angry that the onus is on mentally ill people to navigate a horrendous system at precisely the time they are least able to deal with ableism and red tape.

Fine, you might say, but if you're so angry, why did you undergo private treatment in the first place?

My answer is not going to make you happy.

Let me just say that I don't believe I had any special right to private treatment. I don't deserve it more or less than anyone else. If I had the money, I would have paid for multiple people to have private mental health care. I would have liked for the specific treatment I had to not be so ridiculously inaccessible, especially in a crisis (long-term talking treatments like the one I had can be helpful but are very difficult to get on the NHS; I'd wager that many people don't even know they exist). I underwent private treatment knowing full well that it was an egregious exercise of my privilege and that I deserved none of it.

I did it because I believed that the consequences of not undergoing treatment would have been worse. At that point, I was so anxious and suicidally depressed I was finding it difficult to function. I began self-harming, a habit I still haven't kicked completely. (Kids, never start self-harming. You have to resort to ever more destructive behaviour to get the same endorphin rush and you may eventually become psychologically reliant on it. If you must self-harm, be very careful with dosage and sterilising wounds.)

If I hadn't sought help privately, it wouldn't have made anyone else's life better. Nobody would have been better able to access care on the NHS because of me. Nobody more deserving would have had their care funded. The NHS red tape would not have magically dissolved because of my refusal. Nobody's life would have been materially, tangibly improved because I decided to sit on my privilege instead of exploiting it. Nobody's life was made worse by me taking things I did not deserve. I'm not egotistical enough to suggest that I actually made anyone's life better by exploiting my privilege, but there's certainly a case to be made for it.

Of course I've felt guilty that I accessed high-quality care simply because I had money, but my guilt doesn't make anyone else's life better. Signposting people, trying to help them through tough times (though I suck at that) and doing my best to campaign against cuts makes people's lives better.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Identity and SCIENCE!

Every time an article is posted about, say, the gender gap in certain sciences (physics and engineering are particularly bad offenders here), or the experience of LGBTQ+ scientists, the same kind of comment always comes up: why don't we just focus on the science? Why do we need to bring in politics or matters of identity?

I think these kinds of comments are missing the point. Certain types of science, in particular more abstract or fundamental disciplines, don't care about the gender or race or sexual orientation of the scientist. The laws of physics are described by the same equations wherever you are on the planet, regardless of your identity. (More or less - the laws of physics as we've currently formulated them break down at edge cases, such as black holes, and it's not inconceivable that some alien civilisation might have formulated them in a completely different but hopefully mathematically equivalent way.)

However, there is an argument to be made that a theorist's worldview shapes the theories they come up with. This is probably more pronounced in fields like biology or psychology, which are more chaotic and complex. I'm strictly a physics student, so I'll leave these fields to people who actually know about them and I won't pursue this line of argument any further, even though it's potentially very interesting. I'm just mentioning it here because it's worth considering how this might have affected science (and still continues to affect it).

An argument I find easier to defend is this: science does not exist in a vacuum. There is not an ideal form of Science which exists out there beyond time and space. Science is a cultural institution and a cultural method of seeking truth. Science exists in people's heads as a collection of ideas. This is not to say that science is wrong, or that science is no more valid than other forms of cultural knowing - it matches up a lot better with observations and is self-correcting. It's simply to say that rather than science being this perfectly objective, ideal thing, it's made by human society and is thus influenced by our societal prejudices.

That's why politics and questions of identity are important - not because the science itself cares, but because it affects the people involved and their ability to do science. I'm going to do my best not to tokenise people. I'm not going to try and claim that people might have some unique skill by virtue of being a marginalised group - although coming from a marginalised group with the decks historically stacked against you, you need a lot of grit.

What I am going to say is that for all the pain, all the frustration, all the idiocy, all the boredom and all the exhaustion, being able to do science is a gift. It's the gift of being able to see why the world works the way it does and to be able to derive these conclusions for yourself once you have the tools. It's the gift of being around people who share your thirst to learn about the universe. It's the gift of everyone helping everyone else to learn things. Now that I've been given this gift, even if only for a short while, I want to share it with everyone. I want everyone to be able to feel the joy of understanding something about our world.

In order to share this with everyone, we have to pay attention to the barriers standing in front of certain groups and pay special attention to breaking them down. That kind of politics may be unpalatable to you; I understand that. I would also like to believe that science is a truly meritocratic space. But if that's not true - which it doesn't appear to be - believing it is anyway is a disservice who want to do science but who face institutional prejudice against them.

A lot of science is about discarding hypotheses and theories which don't match up with the evidence as well as other hypotheses and theories out there. This isn't always easy; often people are very attached to the old hypotheses and theories, or the new ones are somehow unacceptable. As people passionate about science, we should be making evidence-based decisions. I believe, based on the balance of evidence, that institutional prejudice is the reason that some groups are underrepresented in the sciences and that taking steps to combat this prejudice will help fix this underrepresentation. If you believe otherwise, show me the evidence instead of pretending that science and politics exist separately.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Dedicated Followers of Fashion

I'm pissed off and disillusioned.

Academics like fashion just as much as the rest of us. Fads and fashions exist in every discipline, from economics to physics to history to I don't know what. I happen to think that this is a terrible thing; in some disciplines, if you're not working on the most fashionable idea, getting funding is hard. (Witness the funding of string theory relative to other theories of quantum gravity - although I think it's running out of steam, which frankly is a good thing.) I can't see this as anything but an obstruction to potentially good ideas in any discipline.

I am angry. I am angry because this desire to follow fads and fashions extends to spaces like feminist theory and queer theory - spaces which are ostensibly about understanding and unpicking institutionally oppressive systems, at least to my limited understanding. Instead, when funding is denied for less fashionable but still important projects while fashionable if, say, ableist projects have money lavished upon them, it feels like spaces which advertise themselves as challenging oppression are instead reinforcing it. This is without going into how these spaces harbour manipulative people. I know money is not infinite (although honestly, it's a completely arbitrary exchange mechanism), but I feel like spaces which are supposed to be outwards-looking are still incredibly enclosed; think of how much privilege it takes to be able to navigate the academic maze.

Please actually listen to us when we tell you to consider the perspectives of marginalised people, even if they aren't fashionable.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Are We One?

Last week Glastonbury, the biggest festival in the UK, took place. This week everyone has now got back to larger supplies of running water and is busy posting about how "we are one". Foolishly, I thought "we" referred to "people living in the UK" rather than "people who went to Glastonbury". If it's referring to the latter, well, I wasn't there but fair enough - glad you enjoyed yourselves.

If it's referring to the former, I know we should be focusing on uniting rather than dividing the country; I'm usually one of the first people trying to build a grand coalition and decrying infighting. But no - I don't feel like we are one. Getting to Glastonbury isn't easy for a multitude of reasons - ticket availability, ticket pricing (seriously, for the price of a ticket and booking fee I could spend a week in Germany not getting rained on), actually getting there, additional expenses...I feel more than a little patronised being told by someone who has enough time and disposable income to go to the UK's biggest festival that we are all one.

It reminds me of an attitude which is rare but which I've seen before: that by partying you're somehow doing something altruistic. After all, if you're having that much fun everyone else must be too, right?

And they say I have no theory of mind...

...Look, you're allowed to do selfish things every once in a while. Honestly, as long as you're not hurting anyone I don't see what you do as any of my business. So have obnoxiously loud parties and get high - if you like that, good for you! But your obnoxiously loud parties are not altruistic and that's still okay. Pretending that they are is irritating as shit.

So go out. Have fun. Do something for you. But also remember that other people have vastly different experiences of the world and don't necessarily appreciate being condescended to.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Down with National Myths!

Facebook is a wonderful place; I get to see lots of people being vocally liberal, lots of people being vocally right-wing and lots of people liking cat pictures or posting photos of their children. That's also why I tend to stay away from Facebook; discussing politics on social media is bad enough without having people you vaguely remember from school getting embroiled in arguments.

Thanks to right-wing acquaintances, I came across this piece in The Daily Beast by Todd Buchholz, whose title presents an epic clash between American history and the phantom of political correctness. I have to doff my hat to the sub-editors; while the actual article is a lot more muted and nuanced, they're masters of clickbait. The title is also evocative of rhetoric used in the UK; a couple of years ago, when Michael Gove was still merrily screwing up everyone's education, there was talk of distorting teaching of World War I such that Britain would be presented as the "good guys" and Germany as the "bad guys", and of how anything else was "political correctness".

(I really hope they haven't done that, by the way. Learning in gruesome detail about the horrors of war made me into a much better person.)

I'm also going to praise conservative takes published in The Daily Beast: from what I've seen, they're smart. Sure, I'm going to disagree with a lot of the arguments presented - and I disagree with a lot of Buchholz's arguments here - but there's something of substance to them in an age where most conservative talking points involve screaming "cuck" loudly over twitter. Put it this way: I'd be happy to sit down and have a reasoned conversation with these people, rather than just rolling my eyes and ignoring them like I do with the vast majority of conservative outrage.

The actual article, which I read and re-read all the way through, talks about American national myths and traditions - things like Columbus Day and Thanksgiving. I'm going to qualify this by saying that I'm not American - I was born in Israel (a very young country which fuses together a lot of traditions) and raised in Britain (a very old country where old traditions exist side-by-side with the traditions of different groups of people who come here, not always peacefully). Race relations, national myths and traditions work quite differently here - not that it's utopia, but it's quite different from the US. I also have embarrassingly little knowledge of American culture.

The central thesis of the article is that Americans (and more widely, any nation) need their national myths and traditions to instil virtue into the next generation. I would disagree with this on the grounds that virtue can be instilled in any number of ways, and doing this in a way that distorts and decontextualises history is probably not the best way to go about it; encouraging students to read and question is, to my mind, a better way of instilling virtue - getting people to really think about what they're doing and whether it's right. Then again, I hold seeking after truth and thinking independently in very high regard. Other people might think it's more important to instil values than to get people to find their own. Different worldviews.

One thing I really disliked was the constant appeal to authority - to Aristotle, to Plato, to Piaget, to so-called timeless truths of culture and biology. If these truths are so timeless and these men so wise, it shouldn't be hard to show that these things are true. If not, I don't respect anyone enough to take their word on something simply because they're important. That's a major part of why Buchholz didn't win me over.

By contrast, one thing I really liked was a call for national myths and traditions to be inclusive of immigrants. Even though I am a naturalised British citizen, I feel like there are some parts of my own country where I cannot go. This is partly because a lot of Britons are very xenophobic and partly because I come from a Jewish background, whereas Britain still has a Christian majority. There are lots of close-knit communities in small towns and quaint little villages, and that's great, but they all come with a catch: be a white British Christian or you're fucked. That's hardly inclusive and I would dearly love for that to change.

(By the way, whiteness works differently in the UK. It's perfectly possible to be the wrong kind of white. That's not to say that white privilege doesn't exist, but it is to say that there are different shades of white in a way that doesn't seem to exist in the US.)

The requirement to visit at least five different museums or landmarks is perhaps a little stringent (though I would happily swap the Life in the UK test for that), but visiting museums and landmarks is always good if you're there to learn.

One thing I found interesting was Buchholz using Pesach as an example of a patriotic myth. I've celebrated it and yes, it's been important to me, even though I haven't literally believed in the story of Pesach in...well...ever. It's been important to me because of family, and frankly it's been fine for me to celebrate it knowing it probably didn't happen.

If you're going to have national myths and traditions, this might be a good way to have them, I think: knowing that they almost certainly didn't happen the way the story-books tell you and knowing that the people involved were probably horribly bigoted, but also that the traditions themselves can be personal to you and the people you love.

There's no shame in deconstructing these myths and trying to piece together the truth: in fact, I think it's a big part of growing up. The truth is messy and people are products of their time. And that's okay. It's okay to question the national myths and traditions. It's okay to say that the mythical hero and the historical being are completely different people. It's okay to ask why the messy parts are completely glossed over and it's okay to acknowledge them.

The sky's not going to fall if you acknowledge that your national myths are just that - myths. The country will still continue. Communities will still help each other out. But people will learn and grow from questioning these things, and they'll find their own ways to be virtuous.

We don't need myths. We need truth. We need honesty. We need a thirst for questioning and trying to answer the question "how should I live?". We need to acknowledge mess and uncertainty. In a messy, uncertain world, that's the only way we'll ever get by.