“No, Where Are You Really From?”

chairs_viaWildInWoodsThat was the question he asked, to a man near the front, when the first answer wasn’t good enough.

It was a workshop I attended recently with people I did not know. Some of them had traveled a ways to attend, but so had the presenter. And, when he called on the man, the presented asked what is an entirely reasonable question: “where are you from?” It was relevant to the work at hand, and something entirely acceptable to ask in a group.

“Boston,” the man replied.

With nary a missed beat, the (older, white, male) presenter replied, “no, where are you really from?”

I couldn’t miss the unspoken “…because of course you aren’t one of us.”

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The Magic Number

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I pay attention to members of several communities that claim to value critical thought, respect for others, egalitarian ideals, social responsibility, equal opportunity, et cetera-the whole lot. And so I also can’t help noticing the disheartening sexism in these allegedly progressive groups and organizations. Somehow, people who claim to value evidence and reason happily ignore the evidence and treat the idea of their own sexism with derision, and somehow people who claim to build their philosophy on equality happily harass the women around them.

Emily Crockett has an article at Vox about an ongoing harassment scandal in a progressive organization, and the quote at the end stood out to me:

“ ‘One of the things I keep thinking about is, what is the magic number of women it would take before an allegation will be believed?’ said Karen. ‘What would have happened if only one employee would have come forward? Are we ever going to stop somebody like this after one or two victims, or is it always going to have to go on for years, and follow them across different companies, and there has to be a critical mass of complainants before people take it seriously?’ ”

That sounds awfully familiar; it sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent atheists or skeptics or Christians are exposed for their harassment of women. It sounds like the same thing I hear when prominent Democrats or Republicans are exposed for their prejudice. People keep asking, what’s the magic number? How many women have to speak up for it to be enough evidence?

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The Longest Levers

It’s hard to figure out the best ways to effect change. There is no shortage of causes, and no shortage of causes I agree with, but on closer inspection, the strategic elements of many of those causes are lacking. Not everyone needs a clear strategy to motivate them, but, for me, the absence of strategy looks too much like the absence of effectiveness.

So I spend a lot of time thinking about leverage, and where it makes sense to focus my limited time. I haven’t found the best places, but, through lots of discussion, I have ended up with a useful way to think about it:

SocietyOverlap1

The basic form is just the society I want is juxtaposed with the society I have. There are points of overlap: things that are functional in both societies that I should happily support. There are also points of divergence: things that do not exist yet, but which I would like, and things that do exist now but which directly conflict with the society I want. Finally, there are two different classes of idea: core issues and structures, and emergent effects.

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Replacing Old Ideas

Frame_viaRebeccaSiegelThere is a free-floating sense in some activist communities that the most powerful and compelling thing one can do is to stop something. Certainly it has emotional impact and allays a creeping sense of powerlessness. And we prove the case, or perhaps only justify it, with iconic images of marches and rallies and a man standing in front of a line of tanks. Compelling though it is, I think the ideas of stopping things appeals a bit too rashly to emotion. It encourages us to measure change by its impact on ourselves rather than its impact on others. So, important work though it be, I think merely stopping things is too narrow a focus.

When I realized that ideas, even those that are bizarre and divorced from evidence, have functional value, it changed my conception of how those ideas fit into the bigger picture. If ideas meet structural needs for individuals, groups, and societies, simply attacking those ideas will not do. If by some chance you succeed against in defeating a bad idea, there remains a void to be filled in the social and ideological structure.

Unsurprisingly, people do not like it when you take away something they were using and offer nothing in return. Often the people using that structure will just defend the idea, regardless of its value, to maintain the whole. Quite probably they’ll resent you. And maybe they’ll find an idea that’s even worse and grab ahold of it to fill the empty slot.

Thus, I think it is not enough to understand the failures of an idea—we must also understand it’s uses and value for those who hold it, and make sure whatever idea we offer in replacement does those things as well or better.

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The Usefulness of Bad Ideas

lightbulbFor someone who takes a lot of interest in the structures that underlie societies, I have to confess that it took a long time for me to realize that ideas and structures are not distinct. I spent a lot of energy being frustrated by things that, to me, seemed wrong and unconscionable. In many ways I still do, but I’ve also found a better framing to help me understand how bad ideas persist.

Ten years ago, I would have said that bad ideas are a result of greed, corruption, lack of empathy, or intolerance. For example, why do people constantly argue about getting rid of social programs, alias lazy welfare queens? Easy—they’re greedy and unempathetic and don’t care about anyone but themselves and their friends. If they stopped to think for one second about other people, they’d realize that the problems are structures, not people.

I think it took far too long for me to realize the double standard of that statement.

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Heroes

MLK“Do you think heroes are born, or made?”

I was asked this question in 2005 while riding a bus through China. The bus trip was one leg of a journey to the oasis town of Dunhuang in the Gobi Desert, and we had been passing through a desolate rocky landscape punctuated by both abandoned structures and new construction. The striking juxtaposition of society ancient and new left me feeling like a tightrope walker between eras.

Feeling the precariousness of modernity, a professor and I had fallen into a discussion of social change across societies. We were in the process of considering such well-known historical figures as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Susan B. Anthony, but the discussion had shifted into the question of how these heroes of our society became heroes in the first place. At that question, though, I had to pause. I could not help feeling that there was something wrong with our framing—that it ought not to be about how some individuals became heroes of social change so much as about the context for the change itself. Mythological heroes are people with power and vision beyond the average person, people who do for a society what society cannot do for itself.

I thought then, as I do now, that the reality of a hero is something quite different.

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The Feedback in the System

FireI’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to give feedback. It’s always been a topic of interest for me, since I grew up feeling, and still feel, pretty awkward in unstructured social situations. I appreciate and understand it much better now, because giving feedback has been a big part of my professional life, in Outdoor Leadership, in Wilderness Therapy, in Education, in Writing Support—and in activism. I come to all of those places with lessons from the others. I come to all of those places trying not to repeat mistakes I’ve made in the others. And I see lots of other people giving feedback around me, and sometimes making mistakes I’ve made myself.

The easy mistake is to go straight for the constructive feedback, and to actually be providing criticism when you think you’re being constructive. In some activist communities especially, I feel we’ve lost a lot of the constructive approach. Emotions run high, people put their identities on the line, and slights real and imagined draw quick, acerbic denouncement. Maybe it’s because we’re often online now, speaking publicly to people we only sort of know. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, I feel like my progressive community tends to abandon the middle ground and claim the high ground instead.

I think we need a habit of giving each other feedback, but in a way that improves our community instead of a way that excises things we don’t like. Feedback, I think, should not be battlefield surgery.

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Safe Spaces

Rock in the shallowsSafety is one of those rather slippery fractal concepts that seems to retain fuzzy edges no matter how closely one examines it. I’ve been considering it lately, partly because I’ve read a lot of discussion of trigger warnings, their uses and misuses, and what it means to create a safe space. I’ve seen arguments in multiple communities both for and against trigger warnings in the context of safety, and, personally, I find myself somewhat conflicted.

On the side of support, an argument I quite agree with is that people who have been and are being traumatized need, in a very real mental health sense, safe places to recover. When the harm being done is tied to systemic injustices the absolute need to respect these individuals becomes greater because it will not happen by default. In this context trigger warnings allow people to take charge of their own recovery and to choose what they will encounter, and when, and why.

Another argument I find compelling is that trigger warnings can be overused in a way that infantalizes those suffering from trauma and disrespects everyone concerned. If trigger warnings are applied to classroom material (mythology, for example) they can conflict with the need to create an open space for learning and discussion. In a worst-case scenario, someone might advocate for material to be censored or removed from a class to avoid triggering anyone.

Of course, trigger warnings are not intended as censorship, and labeling content is something we do widely without much controversy. No one any longer argues that giving films or video games or entertainment a rating of some kind is a bad things—those who want that information have it, and those who don’t care can ignore it. Nor does anyone complain about, for example, warnings of explicit language or topics on radio or television. These are things that accommodate some people’s needs while inconveniencing almost no one—a perfect bargain for a free society.

This leaves me with an apparent contradiction: trigger warnings are applied to maintain the safety of traumatized and marginalized groups, which is good, but can also be applied as a form of censorship, which is bad. The key to resolving this, for me, comes back to that concept of safety. A safe space is one where people can encounter challenging material as much or as little as they are able, not a space where challenging material is expunged.

Not that I think having a safe space without certain material is a bad thing—survivor communities may limit discussion of rape and abuse, and this is perfectly reasonable and necessary. That isn’t censorship; that is one community making a choice that works for that community and protects everyone in it. Censorship is when a choice to restrict material is made for everyone by default.

So, then, the solution must lie with choice. If a trigger warning is used to allow traumatized people the choice to engage or withdraw, this is worthwhile and important. If, though, “being triggered” is used improperly to emotionally hijack a discussion and eliminate topics people do not like, then it is neither helpful nor useful. Unfortunately, I think the idea of “being triggered,” for some people, has become a fashionable way to shut down discussion of uncomfortable material. That this can coexist with a very real population of traumatized individuals in need of real support and respect is all the more frustrating to me; the very idea of it seems disrespectful.

I return at the end to the goal of safe spaces. Trigger warnings can and do create those spaces when they are used to give people the choice to engage or withdraw, but safe spaces are not, and must not be conflated with, comfortable spaces. Safe spaces are places where you are free to be as uncomfortable as you choose, without judgment, without fear of ridicule, and without trauma. Safe spaces are places where, if we so choose, we engage our discomfort and grow.

Well-Intentioned People and Activist Communities

group_via_AstridWestvangDespite being someone who cares deeply about community and social justice, I often find myself taking a position on the fringes of social justice communities. I do want to change things around me, but I sometimes find some of the people I encounter in those communities… exhausting.

I’ve never quite put the reasons for that into words, but recently I was discussing “good people” with my closest friend, who is a bit closer to some of these communities than I am. In our discussion, we identified some of the prototypical people involved, and it led me to realize that the reason social justice communities sometimes exhaust me is that, despite sharing some of my values, they usually contain, mixed in with the people I admire, some flawed roles that I find very difficult to work with—and to avoid becoming.

Our imperfect list of well-intentioned people includes:

#1 – The Young Idealist. These are people who get fired up by lots of things, but still hold out hope for quicker fixes and simpler problems. They haven’t yet reached a sobering awareness of the interconnectedness of systemic problems, the grinding slowness of societal change, or the difficulty of actually changing people’s minds. Young Idealists may not actually be young, just young in their activism or young in their approach to a given problem. Their energy is great, but their strategy is often lacking.

#2 – The Lifestyle Rebel. These people fly off the handle at the slightest hint of injustice, but mostly their tactics are ineffective, their reasoning is emotional, and passing judgment is their go-to response to things and people. They may latch on to One Right Way to be or think, and then harshly criticize anyone who disagrees. When they are focused on a cause, nothing you can do in support will be Enough, and they will suck away all your energy if you let them—but they’ll shortly be moving on to something else.

#3 – The Stoic. These are people who believe abstractly in improving society, but it doesn’t sway their behavior one way or another outside of a group. They will agree with you on most any issue of injustice, but their interest takes a back seat to the other concerns of their lives.

#4 – The Hypocrite. These terribly frustrating people only care because they think other people care, and they are only around for the feel-good points of being involved. They are mainly invested in their own self-image, so they mostly manage lip service while being quick to call out others for not trying hard enough.

#5 – The Martyr. These people care very much, work very hard, and really want to make change, but they also view change as a Sacred Calling. The change they seek is more important than their own well being, although they do have the foresight to tell others not to make the same mistake. Martyrs nevertheless throw themselves wholeheartedly into their efforts, self-care be damned. Very few can maintain their energy, though, and they may become:

#5b – The Grudging Idealist. These are people who still care because caring is a part of their identity, and still want to make change, but have been worn down. They still follow their ideals, but have begun to resent them and feel trapped by their own values. They are beginning to think people, on the whole, are not worth saving.

#6 – The Leader. These people care deeply, but they know their limits. Within their limits they are passionate about what they want to change. For them, making change is a Civic Duty, not a Sacred Calling. Because their passion is real and focused, they bring other people along with them. They will support people outside their realm, but take for granted that that is not their primary work.

#7 – The Moral Compass. These are people who do lead on occasion, especially with friends and colleagues and by example, but mostly they invest their morality in their work and lives and relationships. They choose careers that they personally value and that they believe have objective value. They put their time and energy into doing those well and making change wherever possible. They notice and care about the things they aren’t doing, and it may bother them sometimes, but it doesn’t make them spin; they measure their personal value by what they do, not but what they don’t have time or energy for.

There are possibly more, but these seem the broad strokes to me. My ideal community would contain no Lifestyle Rebels or Hypocrites, but I think there is a role for all the others. Young Idealists and Martyrs provide the energy for change, Stoics provide steady support, and even the Grudging Idealist provides a realist check on the ambitions of a group too weighted towards naiveté. I think, though, that the balance lies with the last two. Leaders overtly steer a group, and Moral Compasses do the internal legwork of keeping course.

I think I have omitted something from the discussion, though, which is how to get people to change roles. An effective community of activists aims to change minds outside their group, but I am more and more convinced that they must equally change minds within. Some number of the more negative roles may be inevitable, in which case redirecting those individuals becomes essential to the effectiveness of the whole.

Unfortunately, when it comes to this last, I have no solution. So there this discussion must rest, until the insight of others reawakens it.

Activism and Evidence

To advocate for anything requires a certain amount of determination, tenacity, and passion. One must be willing to fight for an idea against some other current of belief. Sometimes the beliefs one must fight are deeply entrenched, so activists must expect to hear dissent and, to some extent, expect to reject that dissent. To do so is a necessary strength that maintains a steady course through the winds of change.

Yet there are different sorts of ideas we fight for, with different relationships to evidence.

Take the idea that non-heterosexual or non-exclusive romantic partners are inherently immoral. In examples like LGBTQ rights, the conflict is between two social beliefs: one side arguing that their religious proscriptions should apply to all of society, and the other arguing that everyone should have the freedom to live as they are without discrimination. In such cases advocates have support from the underlying American ideals, and there is no conflicting evidence. Opponents have tried to manufacture that evidence without success, so the conflict remains a social one, and one that LGBTQ advocates are rapidly winning.

In a second category of idea, the evidence for one position is clear, but there are social and economic reasons for pretending otherwise. Climate change falls into this category, and activists can fight to mitigate global warming with a clear conscience. After all, the scientific consensus supports that position. But because the opposition includes powerful businessmen and an entire wing of one major political party, advocates for climate change need to be able to quickly evaluate and dismiss opposing arguments. This isn’t too difficult, because for anyone with scientific literacy and an inquiring mind, the evidence mounted by opponents is clearly cherry-picked, muddled, or fraudulent.

ToxicVaccines_viaJenniferPYet there is also a third, thornier category of idea: that wherein an activist position runs counter to the majority of scientific evidence. For example, there is a vocal minority that fights against vaccines, ignoring the fact that vaccines have been repeatedly proven safe and effective. That minority invents claims at the drop of a hat, seizes on the slightest mention of something the public can recognize as “bad” (like mercury or formaldehyde), and relies on anecdotes and lone retracted papers to counter the overwhelming conclusion supported by literally all the other scientific data.

I find this last category of activist endeavor endlessly fascinating, and I also deeply want to know what it is that leads them to reject the majority of evidence and embrace a position so deeply contrary to the ideal of social change.

I have begun to suspect that what I am seeing is not activism perverted so much as activism taken to an illogical extreme. Advocates for anything need a certain amount of ideological armor to navigate the slings and arrows of outrageous claims, and yet in this last case the fetters of logic have been cast away and the activists themselves have become purveyors of the outrageous. They are become impervious, not just to motivated dissenters, but to whole bodies of objective dissenting evidence.

So too activists must be able recognize and publicize harm that occurs as a result of the opposing view. In the cases of LGBTQ rights and climate change, there are real personal harms that occur from the opposing position. Gay couples are suffering discrimination, and poor coastal countries are suffering unprecedented flooding. Effective activists find these things, drag them into the light, and make society take notice.

In the case of anti-vaccine advocates, though, they rely on made-up harms: the sort of harm one illogically infers rather than the sort of harm with a direct relationship. They make not just unsupported but disproven claims, such as suggesting that vaccines cause autism (they absolutely don’t) or that young immune systems can’t “handle” vaccines (vaccines are less of an immune challenge than almost anything else a child encounters).

Finally, activists need to be able to find and mobilize people who agree with them, and to discredit people who fight against them. When done with the reliable evidence or generally accepted parts of the social contract, such as in the cases of climate change and LGBTQ rights, this is a good and necessary part of creating social change. When done with anecdotes, innuendo, and lies, though, it becomes little more than an ideological cancer. A community of activists can be a center of social innovation, where challenge drives us all to be better, or a hyperbolic chamber of amplified nonsense, where no challenge is ever allowed.

I think, in the end, all advocates and activists walk the knife edge of societal belief, trying to drag that belief farther to one side or the other. This is an absolutely necessary role in society, which might otherwise stay mired in the inertia of bad ideas and the motivated reasoning of the powerful. When activists do this well, they are a check and a balance both on the stagnation of social beliefs. They are nimble, creative, and skeptical of the opposition, but they are also open to new evidence and they embody the ideal of social change.

When activists do this badly, though, they are as brittle and unyielding as the bad ideas and motivated reasoning they so often fight against. The fervor of activism is a part of the solution and a part of the problem both.

I think that strong scientific evidence is the tether holding us on that edge, looking over, and surveying the places we might fall or climb. It lets us reach the edge and innovate, but we must always be cautions to keep close hold of the tether. And, should we find ourselves advocating a position that goes against the majority of scientific evidence, we ought to ask ourselves some very hard questions. If the anti-vaccine advocates are any indication, activists who rush to an extreme relying on bad evidence may fall a long way from the truth, and many never find their way home.