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

Merde melancholic…

The campaign against my dysthymia goes on. The ‘ups’ are more frequent, and on the whole, the norm. However, they’re differentiating from the ‘downs’, so much so that I’m starting to get an idea of what circumstances precipitate my occasional bouts of depression.

Not surprisingly, these are for the most part, things that touch tangentially upon topics I’ve raised before. In the interests of my sanity, and your patience, I’ll try not to be too repetitive in this catalogue of frustrations.

Allow me to regale you with a few observations…

***

Excessive self-regard. In 2003, I took part in the protests against the Iraq War, not because I thought that Saddam was alright, not because I hate America, and not because I thought it would match a bohemian wardrobe. Truth be told, my father was in palliative care at the time, and died quite soon after – I had other things on my mind.

So, taking time out from seeing my father, to attend to something else I thought more immediate and serious, what did I come across?

I remember this horrid, rent-a-crowd lady, appointing herself as the natural leader of a newfound throng of protesters, instigating an impromptu ‘Altogether now! All we are saying…!’ I’m glad to say that rather than enable her self-importance, those in earshot were in an appropriately sombre mood, and rebuked her celebratory command with stern expressions.

Indeed, this is actually the clearest memory I have of the march.

Yet I got the impression that most people in attendance were of the view that the cluster-bombing of Iraq, and the interruptions to utilities, would take a terrible toll on the Iraqis, and that on balance, this was too high a price for the removal of Saddam. The ‘woo look at me! I’m so moral! I’m taking a stand!’ crowd, while loud, seemed thankfully minimal.

Cluster-bombs aren’t a cause for celebration.

I feel much the same way about, and think as much of, people who take advantage of any other cause to promote themselves. I distinctly remember an incident on Twitter, where a self-declared ‘activist’ gave the kind of patronising advocacy for mental health that only someone who didn’t know anything about it could give – followed by a celebration of how he (not the issue) was trending.

(Seriously, it was about as ill-thought-out as telling someone with depression to ‘cheer up’. And the dude wants recognition as an ‘activist’. Fark!)

Observation: Twitter needs an #UnfollowFriday for these parasites, and anyone foolish enough to enable them.

It doesn’t always work out for people who have to live with depression, but the really important thing is that depression works out well for ‘activists’, right? (Sarcasm doesn’t depress me).

***

Grandstanding ignoramuses. So, you want to lecture people? You want to deliver exposition in the most didactic method possible? How about you do a little reading first, eh?

I was at a gathering of poets at Gawler the other weekend, when some bloke recited an ‘Ode To America’. I don’t normally mind the phrase ‘you just don’t get it’, at least not above and beyond its status as clichéd, but this guy was supererogating supererogation in his overuse and overemphasis of the phrase.

Moreover, in his list of crimes committed by America (a good number of which I’m not happy about myself), there were factual errors – such as Saddam’s regime being largely created by US support. If you’re going to address a gathering of people as if you’re capable of schooling them, you first need to do enough homework to be able to safely assume you know better than them.

Having an uniformed opinion, and bleating on about it as if you’re some kind of guru is cheap and easy, and I guess, easily accessible to stupid and lazy people. I found the poem more depressing that a shit sandwich served up as gourmet appétit.

(Yeah, I was supposed to be supportive, so I clapped two fingers together).

I have a similar, related response to self-aggrandizing conspiracy theorists, who in being infallible, what with their ‘evidence’ always being unavailable, manage to expect to be taken seriously while at the same time shifting the burden of proof to their audience. What arrogance!

It’s not just paranoid, or credulous, it’s totally devoid of work-ethic; ignorance elevated to the stature of philosophy, with the maximum of taking one’s self too seriously as a source of wisdom.

***

People who cultivate a troglodytic public image in the hope of adoration. It’s not enough for me to say that I don’t like being expected to play along with the game of treating misogyny as a defining trait of masculinity. I mean, I do encounter lads who are okay with my not joining in, but still expect me to be somehow vaguely impressed.

This usually occurs with the out group being belittled isn’t in attendance. I’m treated as if my opposition to misogyny is just an act to be entertained, there for the benefit of ‘the girls’, or ‘the Abos’, or whoever else.

As soon as my ‘act’ is supposedly over, I’m expected to be a supportive mate, so much so that whatever I seem to say, gets contorted into words of praise via some of the most conceited of mental gymnastics I’ve ever seen.

I guess they’re projecting their own two-facedness onto the rest of the ‘blokes’ (it’s usually guys, but not always). My mistake perhaps, is in being too specific, analytic, and measured in my responses, in the hope that they would be less defensive, and more able to learn from criticism.

It doesn’t seem to ever work, and it’s just stressing me out.

And laughing at them, because I think they’re pathetic, always seems easily misconstrued with laughing with them. Even when I explicitly mention that I think the point of contention is pathetic.

‘Go fuck yourself, racist/sexist/misogynist’ is gradually working my way to a permanent position at the tip of my tongue. If they aren’t going to learn, that’s their own responsibility, and I’ll be fucked if I’m going to take responsibility for their self-esteem.

Really, is it reasonable to expect, that on top of whatever other damage they’re doing to whoever else, I should pay a price in depression just so they can feel better about themselves? My patience shouldn’t, and can’t be endless.

***

People who monopolise group spaces for their personal, comparatively trivial, shit. You could have someone wanting to talk about being tortured, or raped, or mutilated, or beaten, or whatever else, and there’ll be some selfish arse who comes along to whine about their own existential crisis that arises out of some non-trauma. Often, it’ll be the same existential crisis the same time, over and fucking over, like a broken record (apologies if I’m doing this – in my defence, I have been tortured before, not that I really want to talk about it).

Look, I don’t have a problem with their expressing their issues per se. It’s just that in a shared, finite space, priority is a necessity every responsible adult in a group needs to consider. If some things won’t be able to be talked about, then you’d better get the serious stuff done in short order.

‘Whaaa! My father once mocked my collecting of baseball cards! Am I really a man?’

Please, spare me.

***

The list goes on, but there’s one I’m anticipating from those who can’t read the signs, or listen to the warnings. Eventually, when depression isn’t as much of a dampener to action for me as it is now, I’m going to be more aggressive about these things.

I suspect inevitably I’ll be up against a tirade of ‘well why didn’t you say something?’ / ‘I thought you were a friend!’ / ‘BETRAYAL!’

Yeah well, I think I’ve spelled it out well enough, at least for anyone smart enough to know better, or anyone smart enough to deserve my attention in the first place.

I’ll not be handing out tissues. I’ll not be doing much mourning over lost friendships.

This is shit, up with which I shall not put.

~ Bruce