Tone, emotional range, character

If you’d asked me ten years ago what I thought of the importance of tone when discussing contentious politics, I would have rated it low-to-non-important, this largely being down to having been tone-trolled by folks arguing in bad faith. Some people do have a tendency to expect you tread on eggshells around them, if only to distract you from what you’re actually trying to say.

“It’s the validity of the argument and the truth of the premises wot matters!”

If you’re only interested in the truth of a specific proposition, then okay, fine. But what if you’re interested in more?

Say you’re in the union movement and the prospect of a demarcation dispute with another union raises its head; you ask “Comrade, do you think X is the demarcation criterion we should be using to sort this out?” and get an answer in the affirmative. What does this tell you? Say you spool things out to have a discussion of why a given demarcation criterion is appropriate, and your interlocutor is on-point on all of the details. You absolutely agree on all the technical details.

Perhaps you bring an appreciation of social ques and historical context to this conversation. Perhaps they’re not telling you what they really think. Perhaps they do believe what they’ve told you, but are holding back that these details are actually irrelevant to their plans.

Maybe there’s no question of ideological trustworthiness, and you just want to make sure you’re both on the same page, or that you can campaign together from the same office. Perhaps the social ques and the historical context point to a healthy, stable solidarity. It could be that the tonal differences between bluster and genuine affection are what settles things and allows you to focus on the work.

It’s easy to take an appreciation of tone and character for granted, but it gets a lot harder to parse it all if your appreciation of tone is deprecated.

***

Over the last seven years, I’ve run into people who’ve had a pretty rough time participating in political discussions online, who’ve subsequently fallen into deep depressions. Blocking and withdrawing has been the order of the day, and seemingly with a relatively high error level; erring on the side of caution while realizing rightfully they don’t owe strangers their time.

But what about what they themselves are owed? The right to be healthy and aspire to happiness takes more than just being able to brush off abusers and trolls. What if, owing to an acquired tone-deafness, one lost the ability to tell the difference between passive-aggressive concern trolls, and genuinely caring individuals with valid criticisms? Or the difference between someone willing to offer moral support, and someone just looking to establish their base by flattering vulnerable people? Wouldn’t that be a bit isolating – unhealthily so?

“I’m happy to have a small, select circle, thanks! I don’t need to keep my enemies that close.”

Well, maybe. Maybe you’re due a break, and it’s not like you earn 4 weeks paid leave arguing on Twitter. You don’t need my permission to walk away.

Still, I’ve been seeing people adhering to crude, tone-deaf, by-rote heuristics to work out who is and who isn’t a bad actor; seeing people of good faith being turned aside, and seeing a number of those doing the turning aside winding up even more miserable for reasons they can’t begin to articulate. Worst case scenario; I’ve seen someone clearly isolate themselves this way, then blame the people they’ve turned away for making them do it.

“LOOK AT WHAT YOU’VE MADE ME DO!”

A lack of range in your emotional capacity can do this. The numbness of depression can beget self-neglect. Self-neglect can beget further depression. It helps to have trusted people around you to help prevent this from spiraling out of control, and for that you’re probably going to have to put up with at least a little political disagreement.

Which brings us back to the matter of how to know who you can trust, and how tone helps.

***

A friend and I were musing the other week about two guys with a couple of very similar radical left sensibilities; sensibilities that friend and I regard as problematic. Two guys with the same particular tribes, much the same particular ideations, and to some extent even the same incoherence and inconsistencies. But independent of each other, friend and I decided that we regard their character as immensely different, such that one stands out as clearly more trustworthy.

There’s no particular political transgression that sets them stand apart. A crude, political dot-point heuristic couldn’t possibly clear things up; they’re both equally on-point with their political tribes. And yet, one of them would easily be welcome at a dinner party among like-minded(ish) friends, while the other is regarded as more than a little suspect.

One guy is clearly driven by empathy and good intentions, erring on the side of sappiness, while the other seems to have more pride invested in his tribalism, resulting in what passes as a mildly venomous smugness. Both will make the same dismissals, but while one will appeal to what he sees as people’s better nature, the other will lace his assertions with subtle backhandedness, and deliver them with a not so subtle sniff.

It also helps that it’s clear – at least to those of us familiar with their tone – that one of them is both warmer and more capable of uttering the words “I think I may have made a mistake.”

There’s something to be said for having political disagreements with people you can trust – for one they serve as a check should you turn out to be wrong. Potentially this serves as a check on self-harm. So if your criteria for allowing social proximity is a reduced, narrow list of marginal political differences, well, that’s a bit daunting. And what’s it like for a political community, or a family with politically contentious advocacy needs, if most of the adults therein are isolated like this?

“You’re expecting ethnic minorities to sit down and sup with white supremacists? To never punch a fascist!?! That’s the politics of civility!”

No. I’m not expecting that. Obviously.

For the most part we’re talking narcissism of small differences level disagreements here, not overt, intentional political hostility; fine-grained disagreements about ontology or epistemology; arguments over the merits of deontology versus utilitarianism; concerns over to what extent functions of a mutually supported organization should be decentralized; differing perspectives born of differing material interests on what clauses of proposed legislation may have unintended consequences, and so on – all argued with what a healthy appreciation of tone would inform you is good faith, and what an appreciation of material, political reality would inform you is not being treated as an abstract, intellectual plaything.

If a democratic socialist can’t sit down for coffee with a social democrat to talk their differences over, then their problem isn’t political theory. Their problem is personal and it won’t be resolved or navigated through with the use of an ideological spot-check.

Tone and emotional range go a long way to helping here, and I was wrong to ever doubt it*. I for one am happier and healthier knowing this now.

~ Bruce

* PS. Neil, you were right.

Empathy, narcissism and survivor status

I appreciate that this is a dismal issue, but… there’s an awful dynamic that can take hold in informal circles purposed to supporting survivors of abuse, or discussing the politics of support, and I guess it’s borne of a kind of black and white thinking; the victim can’t also be the perpetrator. By this, I don’t mean that we should blame the victim for their own mistreatment, but rather, that there probably needs to be greater recognition that abuse survivors aren’t magically immune from also enacting abuse against others, and further that they are capable, if willing, of enabling abuse if they’re not willing to get their hands dirty themselves.

Abuse, while providing a particularly horrid array of experiences, doesn’t actually qualify a recipient in combating or preventing more of the same further down the line. If this were true, it’d be marginally easier to break free from abusive relationships – some of the trap is often socio-economic, but so much of it is a mind game as well.

In social circles with an emphasis on empathy, we’re told to respect, and if we can, emulate other perspectives, particularly those of survivors. But this doesn’t actually provide terribly much in the way of solutions, so much as it provides a qualitative approximation of a set of problems.

Using empathy in dealing with survivors can be like walking the proverbial tight rope.

***

The other thing about empathy, in addition to being potentially perspective widening, is that it also makes you vulnerable to narcissists and other apaths. This doesn’t mean you should categorically suspend your empathy, but rather that you need to be aware that given the chance there will inevitably be individuals who view you as an easy mark.

This doesn’t mean that they have to see you as a potential victim – although they could – but rather that you’re an angle for gratification. Maybe you’ll provide them with their own victims, so they can feel better about their own experiences. Maybe you’ll provide them access to a potential pool of followers for their egos to be stroked because they’ve always liked their egos stroked since day dot.

Narcs are pervasive minority that cut across all manner of social groupings. Expecting that your group operates in isolation from this could very well be folly.

***

For seemingly the umpteenth time in the past few years, I’ve just seen a rape survivor condescend to another on the topic of what they’re allowed to feel anxious about (particularly in relation to the proximity of penises). There was no immediate indication in this case of whether or not PTSD was involved, wherein the sight of a penis was a trigger, but I’ve already run across a couple of incidents of rape survivors gaslighting rape survivors wherein it was.

It takes a special kind of callousness to barge into an online support group for lesbian victims of rape, and just tell them the harden the fuck up and get used to cocks; that “feminism” means they should be infallibly strong, and not so (supposedly) self-pitying. And yet I found out that a former acquaintance, herself a rape survivor, did exactly this. I’ve since resolved to pay more attention to the warning signs.

Who are you going to trust in these situations? Are you going to have a “who was raped the worst/most?” or a “who is the most oppressed?” competition to determine who to acquiesce to? Are you just going to acquiesce to the loudest party so you don’t get your own ears boxed, or your job threatened? Or are you just going to look at shitty behaviour and call it for what it is, knowing the damage it can cause?

It’s not like narcs are terribly good at showing genuine solidarity with other people even if they are in the same in-group; a part of the definition is that they’re self-absorbed, self-interested and have a poor conception of other people’s personal boundaries. How do you get to the kind of group-affinity required for a supporting environment from there? Well, you don’t.

I’m not arguing that the suffering of apaths is morally unimportant – it is important. It’s just that in the aftermath, involving them in any healing process, or in any attempts to stem ongoing damage, is a task fraught with risk.

***

You can’t envy people who have to deal with this shit for a living – to simultaneously care, and then have to compartmentalize. It doesn’t help that for any number of reasons, people look to narcissists for direction, sometimes even resulting in those who care – genuinely – taking a hiding.

The trick, I think, in many cases is this:

Step 1: Find a group of people who like you, have suffered a certain abuse, but unlike you, are not apaths. Preference those individuals with the most over-developed doubts – they’ll need you more. Identify with them on the basis of your shared bad experiences if you can. Even if you don’t belong to this group – even if you haven’t been abused at all – this trick can be pulled off by “good allies” as well. These broken people are your base.

Step 2: Find an argument or statement that advocates the interests of your base that is just and obviously so, except to the obtuse – you will need the obtuse; they’re your foil. “Abuse is bad” is far too obvious, but there’s just enough ambiguity around topics like victim blaming for you to never be redundant in condemning it, while importantly, for your supporters to harbor their own doubts and insecurities about certain specifics.

Step 3: Memeify your objection. Make it rote. Make it repeatable. Make it short. It needn’t be ill considered, but it can be, provided it rings true, provided it can be easily repeated by supporters, and provided it has the short, percussive force required of an interruption. It can educate, it can inform, but it is not purposed to this end so don’t bother wasting your time worrying. Also, don’t worry terribly much about plagiarism when working up your material, although you may need to develop a portfolio of memes to rotate through so as not to evoke ennui.

Step 4: Establish your creds by finding an obtuse, enabling sort who’s spouting horseshit about your people’s situation that you have just the bromide for – an easy if near-universally annoying target – and firing your rote objection at them for the benefit of your base as an audience. Your audience will see you being confident in the face of mendacity, in support of their cause, and they will feel more confident for it by extension. They’ll even try to emulate you. But not being narcs themselves they’ll be dependent on you for that confidence going forward too, which is by and large the point. Repeat as necessary to instill the required level of emotional dependency in your base.

Step 5: Reap the rewards. Construe any frustration or slight as being an attack on your person, and by extension an attack on your base by way of your shared social grouping/allegiance. Don’t worry too much about stretching the logic beyond breaking point. On the whole your base will gladly support you, and even overlook abusive behaviour on your part. Remember that for a lot of them, to lose you is to loose their newfound confidence. If you’re really canny, you can get them to attack people who’ve only ever had their best interests at heart, or attack other members of their own group. Maybe you can even get a medical practitioner fired!

Of course, all of this requires you to be a cynical narc. I’m not sure you the reader can actually manage this, and if you can’t, well good for you for being that much better a human being.

***

Stepping entirely back out of semi-satirical mode, I’m not actually sure that the various narcs I’ve seen engaging in this kind of behaviour have actually planned it. It just seems to come naturally to them; they just gravitate towards the exploitable, have a penchant for thinly-veiled self-serving ideation, and a need to weaponize people in the service of their own egos.

And yeah, I’ve seen it derail and break up more than one informal support group. This is especially when the narc in question no longer needs their base, and can benefit personally by doing a deal with some entrenched power broker.

Old support base? Get under the bus!

My point in all of this again, while simple to repeat but difficult to execute: If you want to take care of abused people, you have to entertain the possibility that some of their number may aim to further the abuse, and have some idea of how you’re going to respond. And yeah, if you’re obviously aware of this, any narc in question may just try to single you out in order to make things go more smoothly (for them). The fact that they may have survivor status doesn’t change any of this.

Leaven your empathy with situational awareness.

~ Bruce

Medicated #04: If you can’t come out swinging…

Contra this time last year, I can sleep quite well, actually. Thanks for asking. Too well, in fact.

An appointment with the doctor has it that the source of a persistent narcolescence is likely something other than my medication. Apparently my SSRI of choice doesn’t do that.

To test the hypothesis, my dosage is being dropped by half.

Gym has been suspended, and then given the green light, owning to the need for an opinion on an umbilical hernia I likely first obtained when body surfing across Gawler Place. It was either that or a taxi would have ground me into road pizza. I’ll take the hernia, thanks.

As it turns out, it’s not so serious, and it would have been better (with the benefit of hindsight) had I stayed at gym. Gym helps with my depression. It also makes me sleepy.

Now I’ve been away from the blogosphere quite a bit this year, but don’t you think that means I’ve been doing nothing.

In my spare time, when not twiddling my thumbs, I’ve been trying to organise the drafting of a harassment policy for the Humanist Society of South Australia (HSSA). We’re going to do this democratically, or not at all, so that takes a little more time, work, and patience than if we were to opt the route of executive power. I like to think that discussion both makes for a better policy, and keeps the membership aware of why the policy is there.

In dribs and drabs of I’ve-got-to-get-it-finished-soon (although it really leads into an event in May), I’ve been working on an article I started in December of last year. Suffice to say, the fact checking, verification and investigation took longer than I thought, and I now know a bunch of stuff related both tangentially and directly to the subject, than I ever knew before.

Some of it I wish I didn’t. Some of it agitates my clinical depression.

I’m forced to ask myself; which is more depressing, the knowledge that a problem exists, or inaction on said problem? Because if inaction is more depressing, then being depressed into inaction is going to cause feedback.

Problem; Inaction; Depression; Inaction; More depression; More inaction.

It’d be a lie to say that I’ve been inactive, generally, but by fuck (which is sacred around here), I can’t half feel the blanket pressing down on me.

Which I guess is an improvement over the last twenty years. The blanket always did press down on me to some extent, only for the most part, I wasn’t aware of it. I guess the meds have been doing their work.

I guess the crux of it is that the blanket doesn’t give me room for a good swing and hit. The alternative is struggling?

I’ll labour on. I mean, you do that when you’re depressed anyway, as best you can. The trick though, is to find the things that motivate you, which contrary to the cliché, are not necessarily the things you love.

Burning moral outrage doesn’t burn in me like it used to, which has had the twin effect of helping me see things clearer, and investigate further instead of getting my jocks in a twist. But a little more impulsiveness along these lines would at least help me get my volume of writing up.

Of course, I don’t burn out, either, being as I am at the moment.

I can’t even act out anger for the rhetoric of the rant anymore. Or at least, not for an extended period.

Poetry, or at least poetic prose is starting to flow more freely, and with humanistic intents. One of the themes emerging the HSSA has been religion’s monopoly on hope, and it seems to me that a godless literary tradition could offer competition.

Short of the suspended critical thinking of some of the transhumanists, the selfishness (and self-serving readings) of the Randroids, or the totalitarianism of some of the worst of the 20th century’s godless dogmas, that is. A literary tradition that speaks to what good humans can do, without getting all bleary-eyed about it.

The thing is, human folly notwithstanding, there’s still reason for hope without recourse to divine intervention, or secular fictions. Denmark does it pretty well, and largely without recourse to deities.

I have selfish reasons for wanting to see these hopes recognised in my own time, and my own circle, if only to motivate me through my own depression. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t this side to it.

That being said, I’d like to think that this would be a good way to get out there, if not quite swinging. I’d like to think that it’d be a good way to help others, and to fulfil an ethos of contribution.

But more on that, hopefully soon enough.

I have things planned and in the works. We’ll touch base again, and hopefully (I’m not ashamed to use the word) I’ll have a little more to show for my efforts.

~ Bruce