Happy Bi Visibility Day!

It’s Bi Visibility Week, and today is apparently also Bi Visibility Day!  In honor of that, a couple quick things:

  • First, hi, world, I’m bisexual.  (I’ve referred to myself as “mostly straight: in the past, and why it took me a while to actually claim the label of “bi” is probably its own post.)
  • Second, Samantha Field is an amazing bisexual progressive Christian blogger who you should read.  She does book reviews deconstructing evangelical favorites like “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” and the Christian romance novel “Redeeming Love.”  (Fat acceptance isn’t her focus, but she calls out fatphobia when she sees it.

You’re not obligated to be bulletproof

[Content note: infertility, suicide]

One of the things I touched on in my last post is the idea that being upset when people call you names, whether that’s you specifically or they’re generally targeting a group you’re in, is a totally normal human reaction. You can train yourself to care less, to avoid dwelling on the negative, and to consider the source of the information, but the idea that you should be able to blithely disregard any offense, no matter how awful and no matter the source, isn’t realistic.

I see a lot of anti-PC memes about how people are weak, broken, and helpless if they can’t just “deal with” any negative that comes their way. How tragic it is that college kids need safe spaces, or that they might want a heads up before having to read a poem about rape. And the method of “dealing with” it can’t inconvenience anyone else or show your emotions in any way. There seems to be an expectation that people be bulletproof. In that worldview, it goes without saying that everybody, or at least everybody who’s a worthwhile human being, is mentally healthy. You should be able to just “deal with” depression or anxiety or the lingering effects of trauma, because it would be too much work for anyone else to make allowances for those issues. Even knowing that you’re upset is too much for them to be asked to deal with. (And don’t forget, they’ll mock you mercilessly if you do show any emotional vulnerability, because they’ll see it as weakness.)

Recently, something I read on Facebook hurt, probably more than the anti-PC police would consider an acceptable amount of emotion. Someone I’ve known, even if just online, for the last decade and a half, whose writing I’ve followed and whose opinion I valued said, in an argument about same-sex marriage, that he didn’t think people who didn’t want kids, and people who it was 100% proven could not have kids, should be allowed to get married.  As someone with infertility, this was like a sucker punch.  Initially, I felt like my reaction was “wrong.” This person doesn’t have any power to invalidate my marriage, after all, and *I* know that Mr. Thinkstoomuch and I have a good marriage, kids or no kids. And they didn’t mean it as a personal slight to me. But then I realized that *of course* I’m going to be hurt by that kind of comment. Like I said, it was someone I respected, someone who I had looked up to when I was a college kid, and someone who I would consider a friend, if not a close friend. To have someone like that say that my relationship isn’t worthy of legal recognition, that if I’m in the hospital in a coma, my husband shouldn’t have a say over what happens to me, how could that not hurt? I got over it, but I didn’t get over it by pretending it didn’t matter or that I didn’t care.

Another event made me realize how much I’d internalized this attitude that I was supposed to be bulletproof, supposed to handle everything all by myself. A little over a year ago, I lost a coworker to suicide. For the past six months, we’d sat next to each other, and she was my mentor in this new job. And then I came in one morning and she was dead. In the midst of shock and grief, my first two instincts on hearing the news were 1) call my husband and 2) get out to my car ASAP before anyone sees me cry. I was embarrassed, mortified, at the idea of being seen crying at work. On the day we lost a coworker to suicide. Crying was a totally normal response. The coworker who told me the news teared up, and I’m sure other coworkers who’d been close friend with her and known her for years shed some tears in their cubicles. But I didn’t feel safe expressing that grief.

Sure, part of that is just a desire to appear professional, but I think it’s also part of the mentality that showing emotion is a personal failing, a sign of weakness. It’s not. Yes, you usually need to tamp things down a bit at work, and you don’t want to dump all over other people, but you’re allowed to express sadness or anger or fear without first hiding away by yourself to make sure your emotions don’t ever irritate or inconvenience anyone else.

The double standard of “you’re not allowed to be offended”

Ragen has a really good post at Dances with Fat pointing out the ridiculousness of the idea that if someone is offended, that they’re the bad guy, not the person who said the offensive thing.

The meme she’s responding to says:

To be offended by what someone else says is your own choice, as you don’t have to care about what other people think, and nothing has actually happened to you. Information merely passed from their mind to yours.

To state that you are offended means that you wish the person hadn’t said it and won’t say anything similar again. In other words, you actually want to stop certain information from being communicated. You must believe that you have some sort of right to dictate not only what people can and can’t communicate, but what the can and can’t think.

To be offended is to take the first step in being a totalitarian megalomaniac

It appears to come directly from bizarro world, because I can’t find any earth logic in the chain of arguments they’re using.

First off, yes, you get to control your reaction to what other people say and do. But people are social animals. We have strong instincts to fit in and be loved and accepted. Separate us from the group, whether it’s a kid who’s socially isolated or a prisoner in solitary confinement, and we don’t do well. Nobody has a “Gives no fucks” switch that they can flip to completely turn off any concern about how others perceive them. You’re probably healthier if you save those fucks for people with worthwhile opinions and people you care about, but unless you’re a sociopath, you probably can’t just “choose” not to care if people close to you say horrible things about you or about others you care about.

It also completely ignores the fact that ideas don’t exist in some magical vacuum separate from actions. “Information” like the false allegation that Planned Parenthood delivers healthy babies and cuts them up to sell body parts directly resulted in an act of terrorism. The stereotype of black men as dangerous criminals means that police in training exercises are more likely to incorrectly think they see a weapon when they see a black face. And, in turn, more likely to shoot when they didn’t have to. Both of these pieces of “information” lead to the very obvious and tangible harm of people being murdered.

Stereotypes about groups of people, whether they’re fat or disabled or a racial or religious minority, excuse and encourage bad behavior toward those people. If you say that fat people are worthless, dirty, lazy, and stupid, that may not hurt me directly. (If you are….that is *were* a friend of mine, it’s obviously going to cause me pain because I am not a robot.) But what happens when someone in a position to make my life tangibly worse believes those things? Everybody from my doctor to my boss to the person sitting next to me on a plane? Yes, that’s going to cause me actual harm. People in disadvantaged groups suffer more illness, live shorter lives, because that stress does actual physical harm.

Describing any and all offensive statements as “information” is particularly sneaky, because we think of information as neutral and objective, unclouded by emotion. But often, what’s being transmitted isn’t anything of the sort. If it has any informational content at all, it’s often factually incorrect. But what information, exactly, does a racist slur convey? Mostly, it’s just verbal bile. It conveys hate and disgust, and that’s about it.

Next we have the amazing leap of “To state that you are offended means that…you want to stop certain information from being communicated.” all the way to “You must believe that you have some sort of right to dictate…what [people] can and can’t think.” For real? Again, this is not earth logic.  Expressing a preference does not mean that you want to force people to abide by that preference against their will.  Just like you can think Crocs are ugly or country music is insipid without demanding that they be outlawed, you can wish the world had fewer racists or homophobes without actually wanting them forcibly reeducated.

And let’s look at the double standard too. The person who says the offensive thing not only has freedom of speech, but freedom from the consequences of that speech. Not just major consequences like losing a job or being kicked out of an apartment, but the relatively mild consequence of having someone express disapproval. Meanwhile, the offended person isn’t even entitled to *speak.* No matter how incorrect or harmful the “information,” no matter if it was a screed about how people like them should go die in a fire, they aren’t even allowed to object.

Like Ragen says, it’s okay to be offended. It’s a completely normal reaction. Like any completely normal reaction, it can be taken overboard, and how you handle it matters. But when people say things that are dangerous, or harmful, or flat-out evil, it is absolutely okay to tell them that you object. And if they can’t handle that, then maybe they should take some of their own medicine and remember that their reaction to what someone else says is a choice.

 

Why soda taxes are BS

I went to school outside of Philly and still have a lot of Facebook friends in that area, so the city’s proposed soda tax is a hot topic on my friends list.  One outspoken friend is all for it, arguing that it will fund needed programs and will make people healthier. As you might have guessed if you’ve read this blog, I’m not a fan.

Soda, the argument goes, isn’t food. It’s a luxury, a vice, something no one needs, and therefore something that it’s harmless to tax. Technically speaking, I don’t think that’s true. Drinking less soda would probably be optimal for most people, but soda is most definitely food. It fulfills the first, most basic, function of food by providing energy. If you really think soda isn’t food, give one group of lab rats access only to soda and another group access only to celery and see which lives longer.

My biggest gripe with soda taxes is that your mayor or your senator or your fellow voters are the *last* people who should have any say in what your diet looks like. That responsibility is yours and yours alone.  Politicians aren’t doctors or dietitians, and I think they’re severely overstepping by trying to tax people into “good” eating habits, while playing on bias against fat people (because anything that makes there be fewer fat people, or that you can claim makes there be fewer fat people is an unmitigated good, supposedly).  But even if every registered dietitian on the planet had signed off on the idea, I’d still be opposed. Both because of the insulting paternalism and because it’s an attempt to make it harder for people to access a food without any attempt to allow them to meet that need in other ways.

And, as much as people may deny it, there are health and wellness related reasons to drink soda. Its primary purpose is pleasure, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t people for whom it doesn’t meet a need. There are people with jobs that don’t give them a real meal break or allow them to eat while working, for whom a soda is the only lunch they’re going to get. There are people who don’t have reliable access to sufficient food, for whom a cheap, generic soda provides needed calories.  There are people with stomach bugs and morning sickness drinking ginger ale because it stays down. There are people with eating disorders who can sometimes tolerate a sugary drink when they can’t force themselves to eat food. And no tax can distinguish between “buying this because it’s tasty” and “buying this because it’s necessary.”

Years ago, I was at an SCA event with a group of friends.  We were walking and talking, and when we looked back, one friend was no longer there, having dropped to his knees several feet back. He’s hypoglycemic, and his sugar was crashing. We headed to the soda machines, and the first machine took his money and didn’t spit out the promised sugary beverage. I was more than a little worried by this time, and I remember praying that God would *please* let the other machine work.  When it did, I joked later that it was my first miracle for sainthood, since I hit the button without actually putting money in it.  (I’m more of a deist now, and don’t really believe in a micromanaging God or a causal relationship between my whispered “Please” and the soda machine’s cooperation, but I know that it *felt* like manna from heaven.)

In the year or so between when I started experiencing major hypothyroid symptoms and when I found a doctor who would actually treat those symptoms, I self-medicated with caffeine. This wasn’t a good thing for my anxiety or my blood pressure, but at the time it felt like my only option. And I had a desk job with sick leave. For another untreated hypothyroid sufferer who has to stay awake to watch their kids, or keep their job, that caffeine could truly be a necessity.

Now, I’m sure the anti-soda folks will argue that any of the above uses of soda could be better met by a “healthier” source of calories like juice or fruit, or a less sugary source of caffeine, like coffee. But a tax designed to make it harder for people to buy soda doesn’t make it easier for them to buy apple juice, or to buy other foods to meet that calorie gap. Nor does jacking up the prices at the soda machine somehow necessitate that a workplace will provide coffee or add juice to the vending options. And, sure, pretty much every situation where someone *needs* soda has underlying issues, but nothing about a soda tax fixes any of those issues.  It’s one thing to point out that a broken pair of crutches, held together with duct tape, is unsafe and not optimal, but don’t take the crutches *away* without providing a safe and functional set, and pretend you’re helping. And even where soda isn’t a crutch, but simply a pleasure, pleasure isn’t evil, and people deserve to have food they enjoy, without an overzealous government trying to tax it away from them.

Period Leave?

A company in the UK is giving women paid time off on their periods. The company director talks about replacing shame with positivity and letting employees work with their natural rhythm.

I’m all in favor of reducing period stigma, but I’m not a fan of this concept overall. First off, it reinforces the idea that women are fragile and need special treatment to achieve anything in the workplace. Guys are going to resent the hell out of it, and while part of me wants to say, “Dude, if you had these cramps, you’d call in sick, so hush,” it is reasonable to be miffed when you’re denied a perk based on gender.

Secondly, not everyone needs time off for their period. The level of pain and bleeding can range from “just annoying” to “only capable of curling up with a heating pad and sobbing.” And, as the OB/GYN quoted mentions, if you’re at the crappy end of that scale, there may be something medically wrong. I’m a little less sanguine than she is about the likelihood of treatment completely solving the issue. (I can’t count the number of b.c. methods I’ve tried in the hope of making my own monthly curse a little less miserable, with less than stellar results.) But, I can see where period leave could normalize bleeding or pain levels that are a problem. The flip side of that is that encouraging women to be open about their periods provides a basis for comparison. (You mean, everybody doesn’t have to use a pad and a tampon both for the first day or two?)

In my ideal world, everyone could take off when they feel too crappy to be productive. But I wouldn’t assume that periods always meet that, or that people who have periods need more time off than those who don’t.

Trigger Warnings Part 3: You don’t have to call it a trigger warning

Remember how, almost a year ago, I critiqued “The Coddling of the American Mind,” but said it had some good points I’d come back to in a later post?  Well, it’s later.

The article touches on the idea that warning someone about a trigger might actually make it more likely for them to be triggered by it, and describes the idea that someone would be triggered by specific content as “fortune telling:”

Burns defines fortune-telling as “anticipat[ing] that things will turn out badly” and feeling “convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.” Leahy, Holland, and McGinn define it as “predict[ing] the future negatively” or seeing potential danger in an everyday situation. The recent spread of demands for trigger warnings on reading assignments with provocative content is an example of fortune-telling.

There’s a certain amount of reasonableness to this.  Having negative expectations isn’t always the most helpful of thought patterns, and part of treatment for anxiety and depression is trying to challenge those negative expectations.  Also, the nocebo effect is a real thing. Believing that something will harm you can actually cause harm. You can get sick by being exposed to something completely harmless, because you believe it will hurt you.  The mind is a weird and complex thing.

So, yes, there’s a certain amount of risk in providing trigger warnings.  You might stress someone out about content that they would’ve handled fine if you hadn’t told them.  And it might encourage overall negativity.

But the nocebo effect exists in lots of other situations, and the response to that is not to hide important information from people. Trumpeting the dangers of gluten can actually spark a nocebo reaction where people feel ill when they consume it (or think they do). But that doesn’t mean you get rid of ingredient labels all together so people will “toughen up.”  For one thing, there are people with celiac and wheat allergies who will get horribly sick and might actually die. But for another, even someone with a gluten issue that’s completely in their mind, totally a nocebo effect, still has the right to decide what they want to put in their body, and no one should try to trick them into eating something that they don’t want to.  Likewise, you shouldn’t deliberately avoid mentioning that a reading contains a graphic rape scene, because you think students should have to grapple with it.  Yes, maybe someone avoids the reading who could have read it without harm, but that should be their decision to make.  (As a side note, providing a trigger warning doesn’t automatically mean excusing a student from doing that reading.  There are some situations where legal disability accommodations or being a decent person would require it, but in and of itself, it’s just information.)

So, what happens if you provide the same information, but don’t call it a trigger warning.  Put a little blurb about each reading in the syllabus that includes the basic premise and theme and makes note of any sensitive subject matter. It’s not a trigger warning, so it should reduce the nocebo effect, but it still gives students the same information.  And students with mental health issues can then use that information as they see fit.

Going back to what I said earlier about informed consent, to me, giving students a heads up about potentially harmful material isn’t coddling them–it’s treating them like adults by giving them the information they need to make decisions.

 

Anxiety and not being an asshole—AKA not letting Yippy bite the other dogs at the park

I’ve seen a couple very “suck it up and deal, you’re not a special snowflake” blog posts about mental illness lately. The first, “Your Anxiety Isn’t an Excuse to Be an Asshole” is what inspired the title of this post.

Her basic premise is that there’s too much online advice excusing self-indulgence and jerk behavior in the name of self-care, and that people think their anxiety gives them license to treat others like shit. I’ll agree with her basic premise: anxiety is not an excuse to be mean or self-centered. But at the same time, I have a couple disagreements.

First off, I’d have loved to see her link some examples of the advice she sees as problematic. I’ve seen plenty of “You can’t pour from an empty cup” and “Be gentle with yourself,” but absolutely no “Cancel plans with no explanation,” or “Throw your phone in the river and lock yourself in your room for two weeks.” This may be because I’m not on Tumblr, but I think I hang out in enough anxiety-friendly spaces online that I’d have noticed such a trend. So, to start with, I’m not sure if suggestions to blow off responsibilities and flake out on loved ones are a real thing or a giant strawman. I mean, the internet is vast and full of all sorts of questionable crap–someone, somewhere probably said this at some point.

Secondly, while I fully admit that anxiety can make it harder to avoid being a jerk, and I’ve been guilty of that myself,a lot of the time it makes people *more* sensitive to other people’s feelings. Not in a helpful way. More in an “Oh, God, did I piss them off? I bet I pissed them off, they’re totally going to hate me,” way. I have definitely been terrified that someone would hate me forever over fairly minor stuff. So, telling me that “No one has to put up with your bullshit, and if you don’t actively work on making yourself a better and more rewarding person to be around, no one should wait around for you,” well, it does more to feed the jerk-brain than actually help anything. Both because constant fear of losing people (because you suck and they’re probably only nice to you out of pity anyway) is an awful and unhealthy place to be and because needing constant reassurance is just as annoying as being abrasive or flaky.

Finally, there’s the bit about cancelling plans. It sucks to have people bail on you, especially at the last minute, and especially if those plans can’t go on without them. But it’s also shitty to expect someone with a chronic illness (or, heck, anybody) to never have to cancel. Is it jerk-like to blow off plans without calling? Yes, especially if you do it all the time. Is it selfish to bail if you’re not feeling 100% but could really go and be okay? Yeah, particularly if the plans in question can’t happen without you, like a one-on-one lunch date or if you’re someone’s ride. But on the other hand, anxiety is an actual illness. If you have a friend who gets migraines, you understand that sometimes they will cancel on you if a headache comes at a bad time. If you have a friend with anxiety or depression, you should give them the same consideration.

One thing I thought was lacking here was any discussion of root causes for flaking out. If you’re having to cancel plans all the time, maybe you’re over-committing yourself, or making the wrong kind of plans. Too loud, with too many people, or not enough time in between to recharge, maybe? The answer might not be “Suck it up and go, or you don’t deserve to have friends” unless it’s some major life event. It may be to look at why you’re having trouble, and plan fewer or easier things.

I’ll agree that anxiety isn’t a Get Out of Jail Free card for ignoring responsibilities. But it may be a sign you have too many responsibilities. All the things the author mentions as helping with her anxiety–eating better, exercising, having a dog, getting a less stressful job–those all take time and effort, leaving you less for other things. It’s a good investment of spoons, and likely to leave you with more time and energy in the long run than if you *didn’t* take care of yourself, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t displacing something. And if you have anxiety about disappointing people or missing out, it’s really easy to overcommit.

I could have probably made this a much shorter post if I had just said, “If you want to know how to cope with anxiety without being a jerk, go read Captain Awkward.” She has a lot of great stuff on boundaries in relationships, and she does a really good job of explaining that balance where you respect your friends’ needs without ignoring your own.