tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[CW: child abuse, trauma]

There's gonna come a day when you feel better
You will rise up free and easy on that day
And float from branch to branch, lighter than the air
Just when that day is coming, who can say, who can say?

-- the Mountain Goats, "Up the Wolves"


I came across an extended excerpt from Catherine Woodiwiss, "A New Normal: Ten Things I’ve Learned About Trauma" on Facebook. I was struck by how much of it made the assumption that "trauma" doesn't refer to complex trauma; that when you address trauma survivors, you're necessarily addressing people who survived a single traumatic event (or a few discrete events) rather than an extended period during which we were repeatedly traumatized and could not escape. Like being held prisoner, which usually means being a child, since all children are held prisoner, though some prisoners are treated better than others.

So, point-by-point, I want to ask whether each of these ten statements applies to people like me who survived complex trauma.

"1. Trauma permanently changes us."

This is true, and this is even harder to reckon with when you have no "old me." The desire to go back to the "old me" is still there when your trauma began before you can consciously remember it, but the difference is that you have no idea who that "old me" is. Is there even an old me when the only "you" before trauma is a less-than-three-month-old baby?

I don't think the idea of "recovery" makes sense for complex trauma that begins in early childhood. You don't heal. You learn to live with what you have; to work around your limitations. If surviving trauma is like recovering from an illness, surviving complex trauma is like managing a chronic illness; it's more like a disability, which must be recognized and accommodated. Searching for a cure isn't useful.

And how do you know what is "you" and what is "only a result of the trauma", anyway? I imagine that people who have survived a single traumatic event as an adult have an easier time sorting that out, since after all, they remember the baseline of who they were before and can compare. We don't get that. So I think we might as well accept that our traumatic experiences are an inextricably part of who we are -- beyond "trauma permanently changes us", and into "trauma is us." People, usually those who are not survivors, tell us "don't let your trauma define you", but the alternative is to have no self at all.

2. Presence is always better than distance

I suppose that in some abstract sense, it is. But surviving childhood with no reliable caretaker teaches you that other people are dangerous; that it's not safe to be close to anybody, that all expressions of love are Trojan horses. And when people who do show up ask questions like, "So what did your mother do that was all that bad, anyway?" it seems better to avoid them; and to, when you have to be around people, put in the huge amount of energy required to fake normal.

3. Healing is seasonal, not linear.

Can't argue with that, with the caveat about healing.

4. Surviving trauma takes “firefighters” and “builders.” Very few people are both.

What does this look like when you had a fire burning for 16 years and everybody refused to see the flames, pretended they didn't smell the smoke, because parents are considered all-knowing when it comes to what's best for their children and so if they're setting the house on fire, it must be because it was cold? If nobody helped then, why would they help now, especially when survivors of childhood abuse constantly hear the message that we should just get over it, when adult survivors who exact revenge on their parents -- or even just talk about their experiences -- get labeled as whiny spoiled kids?

The author says "trauma is a lonely experience", and I agree -- but even more so when you can't describe what happened and if you try, few people hear you and then you have to experience the trauma of being unheard or unseen again. The risk of being unseen and unheard is so much more pernicious when your trauma centers around an extended experience of being unseen and unheard than when it's a one-time blip in a life where the people around you were mostly good enough. Who's going to show up for you when you look fine? And if someone does show up, how can you trust them?

5. Grieving is social, and so is healing.

The problem with grief about complex trauma is that the change that precipitates the grief is not trauma, but the achievement of consciousness that trauma occurred. And, possibly, the realization that it's not occurring now, despite what all of our bodily and emotional reactions tell us. These realizations are their own kind of trauma. By means of awareness that it is better, we feel worse. And sometimes we "get worse" -- we become less functional -- once we're no longer dissociating or numb all the time. We feel that other people might prefer us in our dissociated state, during the time when we weren't so "sensitive" and didn't ask for accommodations, when we didn't defend our boundaries.

So grief looks completely different for those of us who have survived complex trauma -- perhaps unrecognizable as grief to those who have only grieved the loss of a loving person in their life. How can grieving something you never had be social? Not very many people want to confront the reality that many people who raise children aren't competent to be parents, and that resilience is mostly the product of environment rather than character. How can you show your grief to others when you're not even sure what it is you lost? And when it's not so much "lost" as "never had"? Does that even meet the definition of grief? Are you entitled to ask for help if that's what your grief looks like?

6. Do not offer platitudes or comparisons. Do not, do not, do not.

I agree with this: "What we need in the aftermath is a friend who can swallow her own discomfort and fear, sit beside us, and just let it be terrible for a while."

7. Allow those suffering to tell their own stories.

Also agreed.

8. Love shows up in unexpected ways.

I suppose. But again, if you've had no practice dealing with love that wasn't the kind of love that puts your needs ahead of its own need to express itself, love may not be recognizable at all when it does show up.

9. Whatever doesn’t kill you …

Again, I suppose. But again, how can there be an "after" if there never was a "before"? "insatiable anxiety in places that used to bring you joy" implies there were places that used to bring you joy "before it happened". If everything that did really bring you a little bit of joy while it was happening was a coping mechanism, it's hard to figure out which of those could be set aside once you're in relative safety, and which ones can still bring you life.

10. … Doesn’t kill you.

"In the end, the hope of life after trauma is simply that you have life after trauma." Except that -- again -- when there was no "before", "after" is complicated. I take a few moments most days to appreciate that I'm now free to go where I want (except in those dreams where I'm somehow living with my mother again, despite being an adult and am trying desperately to find a way to move out), free to choose who to be with and who to reject. I appreciate the magic of that in a way that people who aren't survivors of complex trauma probably never will. I remember the deliciousness of moving into my dorm room at Wellesley when I was 16, having a space that was shared only with a roommate close to my own age who had no desire to control my life, and feeling that from now on, I got to make the rules. It wasn't that simple, but on that day, it was. I think most people get a rush from the sense of freedom of moving out of their parents' house, whenever that happens, but it's that much of a sweeter memory for me. So yes, this part of the advice isn't wrong. But I still wish there was more written for those of us who can't partition life easily into "before" and "after".

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[CW: Discussion of child abuse.]

We all know about the distinction between ask culture and guess culture, right? If we've read about the difference between these two approaches to communication, we've probably read that ask culture is better, whether the writer phrases it subtly or not-so-subtly. Jonathan Chait, a guy who's wrong like it's his job, does his job here by saying:

"This is actually pretty simple: Guessers are wrong, and Askers are right. Asking is how you actually determine what the Asker wants and the giver is willing to receive. Guessing culture is a recipe for frustration. What's more, Guessers, who are usually trying to be nice and are holding themselves to a higher level of politeness, ruin things for the rest of us...


Lots of people agree with Chait. It's best to be explicit, to ask for what you want, to not play guessing games, right? If you wait for your roommate to notice that you end up with flies in the kitchen when they put the compost bin lid on loosely rather than just emptying the compost, for example, you're just going to get frustrated and treat them negatively because of your bottled-up resentment, right? And it'll all be your fault: if you had just said, "Hey, I prefer it if you take out the compost when it gets full," they would have known what you needed and probably would have done it; then your need would have been met. Isn't it best to be explicit, to ask for what you want, to not play guessing games? It's bad to be passive-aggressive. It's a sin.

Maybe you've read about learned helplessness. If you have, you've probably come away with a lot of value judgments about people who experience it, too. They just sabotage themselves. They just stand in their own way. If your friend says, "I'm not going to ask my manager for help because he's just going to tell me I'm stupid," you should tell your friend, "You'll never get what you want if you don't ask for it, right?"

When it comes to school projects, open-source projects, or that job you get paid to do, it's best to collaborate, right? Nobody ever accomplished anything big by working on their own, so if somebody is more comfortable working alone, they just need to get over it, right? It's nobody else's responsibility to make them feel comfortable reaching out to others -- rather, they need to get over themselves and reach out. If you prefer to work alone, or you don't feel comfortable working with others, you must not want to be productive, and in a capitalist society, we know that it's bad to be unproductive.

In the valuation of ask culture over guess culture, of pulling yourself up by your emotional bootstraps over learned helplessness, of collaboration over solo working, there's a common pattern: the attachment of moral virtue to personality traits. In all three cases, the personality traits that get imbued with negative moral value are the ones that people who have survived trauma tend to have. (If you're a survivor and you don't feel that you're a guesser, that you experience learned helplessness, or you're a lone wolf on the job, great! That doesn't mean your trauma isn't real, too. It might mean that you've had some counterbalancing experience that helped you trust people more than your traumatic experiences would have taught you to do.)

Personality as Survival Strategy

"Personality is a strategy for getting out of childhood alive." -- Frank Sulloway
People who grow up in environments where it's not okay to express their feelings or needs, where they're punished for asking for things or where they just don't bother asking because they know that if they do, they won't be heard, learn that they need to take on all the emotional labor themselves. They learn that to ask explicitly for what they need is to step out of line, to do something incredibly dangerous. Other people operate by mysterious rules, and the only way to survive is to work as hard as possible to infer those rules based on what you can observe, because asking will just lead to the humiliation of being ignored altogether or worse, given an answer that shows that the person you thought you could rely on actually isn't listening.

For example, maybe you're a child with sensory sensitivity that causes most foods to taste overwhelmingly bitter or otherwise unpleasant to you, and when you tell your parents that you don't like the food you're being given, they just tell you that you have to eat it anyway. You've just learned that what you want doesn't matter -- there's no point in asking for food you can eat without experiencing intense discomfort, because when you say what you need, you'll be ignored. If you're raised by people who consistently respond this way, you learn pretty fast that the way to survive is to suck it up, perhaps to dissociate from discomfort rather than doing something to stop the discomfort. And that lesson will manifest itself when you're older in situations that seem very different, and which no one coerces you into: maybe you'll do a form of exercise that you think is good for you even if it's physically painful, or continue wearing clothing that no longer fits you because you feel buying new clothes would be un-frugal.

"Guess culture" is just the aftermath of being a child who's punished for asking things, or who grow up in environments where they can't rely on other people to be responsive to their feelings (whether because no one expresses feelings, or because when they do, they're ignored). Similarly, passive-aggressive people are those who feel they're not allowed to say outright when someone hurt them. If your parents hit you, for example, and when you say you don't like being hit, you're told that they're "spanking" you, which everybody says is normal, and it's for your own good, then you learn that coping with other people violating your boundaries has to be done in any way other than directly defending your boundaries. To suppress all communication when you're being hurt is highly self-destructive, so when saying it explicitly is forbidden (either because you fear retaliation for doing so, or when you've internalized those rules so well that nobody needs to retaliate), you have to let it out somehow.

And lone wolves are just people who haven't had trustworthy people in their lives. Even if you desperately want to connect with other people, if your experience is that close relationships are dangerous -- that people who you need to rely on are likely to violate your boundaries and use you as if you're an object (say, by demanding physical affection that you don't want to give) -- then you'll do anything to avoid close relationships. That includes working relationships, since intellectual intimacy is still intimacy. To admit you don't know something, or to express a half-formed idea, or to rely on somebody else to carry out a commitment they've made to you: these all require the ability to be vulnerable without experiencing intense fear that you will be destroyed. If you grow up getting laughed at for not knowing the things other people know, or if people shame you for saying things they don't understand, or if they don't follow through when they say they're going to do something, that stays with you for the rest of your life. Better to do things for yourself. You might let yourself down, but at least in that case you experience famiiar shame -- rather than the feeling of disappointment in somebody else, something you've spent your life so far protecting yourself from.

Survivors survive. We "guess" because guessing allows us to survive an environment where it's not safe to ask for anything, and where we have to intuit others' emotional states in order to avoid physical or emotional violence and can't just ask people how they feel. We are passive-aggressive to preserve our autonomy in an environment where we can't express ourselves directly. And we are lone wolves because we've learned that intimacy is dangerous and likely to be disappointing. In many cases, we've been punished when we tentatively try to interact with people a different way. We learn that by punishing ourselves with isolation, we avoid a worse form of punishment.

So when you expect somebody to just ask their roommate to take out the compost, or to ask their co-worker for a review of some half-finished code, or to tell their partner they like this thing and not that thing sexually, you're expecting a person to change behavior patterns that have made their survival possible. Letting go of a survival mechanism is risky, and can rarely be done individually, but rather, sometimes happens when other people have established themselves as trustworthy.

Shame is Not a Motivator

My friends and I live in a culture where shame is considered a motivator. For example, we suppose that being thin is healthy (a questionable assumption on its own) and conclude from there that the way to make fat people healthier is to make them feel ashamed about their bodies. Likewise, people like Jonathan Chait shame those of us who don't ask; lots of people shame loners and passive-aggressive folks. Learned helplessness is considered shameful, without regard to how you might have learned that. But shame doesn't change behavior. Perhaps paradoxically, shame locks you into maintaining the exact behavior patterns you're being shamed about: if you are inherently broken, then why should you change how you act? You're just bad, or broken, or unwanted, or unlikeable.

The relentless insistence on labeling character traits as "good" or "bad" is useful for making people feel inadequate, but not useful for helping people be everything they could be. What if we stopped judging people for being passive-aggressive, or for being guessers, and asked ourselves how we can understand the circumstances that lead somebody to be the way they are? It's scary to admit that "character" counts, in fact, for very little, and that we are largely the product of our experiences. To admit that we're strongly shaped by our experiences, especially childhood experiences, means admitting dependence on other people. We live in a culture that expects people to be able to collaborate, to make friends, to make small talk, but also expects people to be equally happy if they're denied social connections, as encapsulated in the pop-psychology lie "You have to love yourself before you can expect anybody else to love you." (This isn't true.) It's an impossible set of demands -- useful if you're trying to get people to channel their feelings of shame and inadequacy into buying lots of consumer goods, but not so much otherwise.

We also need to stop expecting trust as a given. When you say, "I say what I mean, and I expect you to say what you mean, or else I won't make any effort to understand you," you're demanding trust without necessarily having done anything to prove that you deserve trust. When you say, "Why don't you assume good faith? It seems like you're taking the worst possible interpretation of what I'm saying," you're talking to somebody who has had to figure out the worst-case scenario in every interaction in order to defend themselves, somebody who has never had anybody to step in and defend them -- how can you expect them to assume, without proof, that you're different from the others? Sure, it's not fair that you might have to do more work to earn the trust of somebody who's survived trauma -- it isn't your fault that that happened to them. But it's not their fault, either.

And when you're a manager and you tell your employees that it's their responsibility to ask for help when they get stuck trying to solve a problem -- and then assess their performance negatively when those who have learned that asking for help is a trap -- you're setting trauma survivors up for failure. I guess you could take the approach of weeding out everybody who hasn't always been treated as if they were welcome in the world, but why would you do that when we have things to offer, too? Why not take on some of the work of communicating that your team is someplace where no one will be punished for not knowing? This goes against the "RTFM" attitude that's so popular in technical scenes particularly, but rarely do we benefit by picking an arbitrary group of people and deciding we're only interested in working with them.

In her article "Nurturance is About More Than 'Tasks'", Nora Samaran addresses the dismissal of survivors -- specifically women who've survived abuse -- as crazy or broken:
Rather than blame women who have had early trust bonds break (for instance by complaining about how ‘women like jerks,’ or attachment-shaming anxious, disorganized, or insecure attachers) feminist men can put the pieces together. Want to be a feminist man? Contextualize, don’t stigmatize, the insecure attachment that may show up in your romantic relationships, including short term ones.
While contextualizing insecure attachment styles is particularly important for men in romantic relationships with women, it's important in all kinds of relationships, not just romantic ones. When someone behaves in a way that confuses or frustrates you, you have a choice: you can treat the other person as disposable, you can give up -- break up with them, fire them, or do all the work on the group project yourself instead of talking with them. Or you can try to figure out what you can to show that you're a safe person. In Samaran's words:
If you find yourself involved with women who don’t seem secure with you, consider the effects of patriarchy and misogyny across the lifespan, and ask yourself if perhaps you need to be more securitizing: available, responsive, and attuned.
When Samaran refers to "attachment-shaming", she's talking about the stigmatization of behavioral traits shown by people who have attachment styles other than secure attachment. What popular culture calls guessers, loners, and passive-aggressive people tend to be, in psychological terms, people with insecure, avoidant, or disorganized attachment styles. But every attachment style is a completely sensible adaptation to the circumstances that a young child finds themselves in. A person's attachment style isn't an indicator of their inherent virtue, or their merit, but rather, how people treated them when they were helpless. You can demand that people with a different attachment style change to suit your needs, or you can recognize that people with different attachment styles exist in the world and that it's everybody's responsibility to figure out how to live with each other. If you're privileged enough to have been raised in circumstances that resulted in having a secure attachment style, you have the option of using that privilege to create safer spaces.

It might be difficult to confront the reality and pervasiveness of child abuse and trauma -- it might be easier to dismiss survivors as flawed, lazy or broken rather than people doing the best they can with what they were given. It's easier to believe in a just world than to accept that good people experience pain and suffering for no good reason, that in fact everyone is born good. It's easier to blame individuals for their adverse experiences than to recognize how we all benefit from social structures of domination, from institutional sexism to domestic violence. Recognizing that personality differences aren't character flaws also puts you at odds with a criminal justice system centered around punishment, indeed, with a society fundamentally structured around discipline and punishment: when you start asking what you can do to make it easier for other people to do the right thing, rather than how you can coerce them into doing it, you become an outsider.

I can't convince you that the reward of challenging conventional wisdom about character, trust, and punishment is worth the cost. It's more comfortable to make fun of passive-aggressive people, to sneer at your frenemy who always seems to be fucking up their own life, than to create relationships and communities where it's safe to express feelings. The reason it's uncomfortable to try to understand why people do things you find shameful is that it forces you to admit that it could have been you -- that you don't carry any protective crystals inside you that gives you the strength to ask, "hey, could I have some plain noodles instead?" no matter how many times you get ignored. It's easier to say, "No, I'm not like that -- I'm direct, I say what's on my mind, that could never have been me."

So when you react to someone's personality, consider: are you actually horrified at the circumstances that must have caused them to adapt in the way that they have? Are you redirecting your anger at what you know they must have gone through onto them, because they're an easier target?

The cost of living comfortably is cognitive dissonance. If you believe that no child deserves abuse, how do you reconcile that with blaming and shaming adults with non-secure attachment styles? If you believe that guessers are just lazy and could be askers like you if they just pulled up their socks and dealt with it, aren't you saying it's fair that people who have survived abuse ought to have to do more emotional labor than those who haven't? And if you think having to do more emotional labor just to exist in the world is a suitable punishment for surviving abuse, doesn't that amount to saying that abuse only happens to people who deserve it? Every abuse survivor was an abused child once, and you can't consistently say that no child deserves abuse while rejecting adults for once having been those children. You can't claim you think all children deserve to be safe if your belief in our safety ends at the point when we become your co-workers, classmates, or friends.
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tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
CW: discussion of abuse, gaslighting, and silencing of abuse survivors
"I feel like a thing non-queer ppl seem to often not get is the importance of protecting children from their parents" -- [twitter.com profile] mcclure111 on Twitter
I was glad to read this tweet by [twitter.com profile] mcclure111 because it's a truth that's deeply known by many of us who are queer, or abuse survivors, or both. It's a truth that's as rarely stated as it is deeply known.

But the tweet provoked as much discomfort in others as relief in me. This reply is a representative example of the things people say to survivors speaking uncomfortable truths:

"(kids definitely need protecting from parental harm, but many parents I know, including my own, are Really Good)"

"Many parents are good" is a statement devoid of denotation. When somebody utters a sequence of words that say nothing, I have to ask what they are trying to do by saying those words. Are they trying to take control of the conversation? Are they putting the speaker in their place? Are they expressing discomfort at having their belief in a just world disrupted? Whatever the motivation, direct verbal communication isn't it.

"Many parents... are Really Good" may seem shallow and obvious, but when I ask what those words do rather than what they mean, there's a lot to unpack. Ultimately, "many parents are good" has little to do with the character of the unnamed individuals being defended and much to do with defending the practice of authoritarian parenting.

Read more... )


Thanks to the people who read a draft of this post and contributed feedback that helped me make it better, particularly [twitter.com profile] alt_kia.
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tim: "Bees may escape" (bees)
"I wish the war was on,
I know this sounds strange to you.
I miss the war-time life,
anything could happen then:
around a corner, behind a door."
-- John Vanderslice, "I Miss the War"


This is the long-form version of a series of tweets that I wrote about resistance to emotional safety. Everything here has been said before by people other than me, but I'm presenting it in the hopes that it may be useful in this form, without attempting to cite sources exhaustively. I probably wouldn't have thought to write it down, though, had I not read this series of tweets from [twitter.com profile] inthesedeserts.

CW: discussion of trauma, emotional abuse, gaslighting, self-harm

There's a thing that can happen when you've spent a lot of time at war. For some of us, it's hard to feel comfortable in safe situations. It's paradoxical, right? I've done my share of writing about codes of conduct and about content warnings (or trigger warnings). I've argued that creating an atmosphere of emotional safety is important, especially for trauma survivors. Because people in marginalized groups are disproportionately likely to be trauma survivors, diversity and inclusion are inextricable from treating survivors like first-class citizens. If safety is so important to me, why would I say that safety also often makes me feel uncomfortable?

It may not make sense, but it's true: safety is both something I seek out and something I often avoid when it's offered to me. In the abstract, it's desirable. But when it starts to seem like a real possibility, it can be super threatening.
Read more... )
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Content warning: Discussion of abuse, apologism for abuse, abuse culture, rape, rape culture, criticism avoidance.

I was reading a thread on a friend's Facebook profile when I saw a comment on it consisting of an image with the same text as this one. The text is: "I often worry about the safety of my children, especially the one that is rolling their eyes at me & talking back right now."



Somebody made the choice to introduce an image like this one into a space containing people they did not know (our mutual friend's friends-only Facebook post). Let's unpack the assumptions behind this choice -- but first let's try to figure out what the image really means.

The speaker in the image -- along with the person who shares it in order to communicate their feelings -- wants to harm their child, presumably physically, because the child has "talked back". This desire to harm is unmistakable -- whether it will be acted on is unclear, but what is clear is that the speaker wishes to distance themself from their desire through the use of linguistic indirection. It's a verbal trick that furnishes plausible deniability just as it communicates perfectly clearly: "I want to physically assault my child because the child used words that displeased me, and maybe I will... nah, of course I really won't, I'll just think about it! *wink* *nudge*"

Let's talk about the assumptions implicit in a choice to share this image:

Assumption 1: The desire to physically assault a child (as opposed to the actual act) is a plausible or reasonable reaction to the child's verbal insubordination.

All feelings and reactions are real, and sometimes we have feelings we don't like, such as the desire to hurt somebody we love. It's okay for a parent to admit that sometimes they want to hurt their child. It's okay to admit that we feel that way, but honesty and vulnerability are very different from jokes like this one. "It's just a joke" is a defense mechanism and is disingenuous discourse.

Assumption 2: The speaker would, of course, never really hurt their child; they're a good person who wouldn't abuse, and you're supposed to know that.

This assumption is predicated on another assumption, that abuse is a character trait rather than a behavior. Assuming "abuser" is a fixed category, or that in other words, only monsters abuse and good people can never commit harm, is a prerequisite for assuming that it's easy to tell who does or doesn't abuse.

This is part of how jokes create unsafe spaces: Why should we trust you, exactly? This is part of the reason (see assumption 1) why such discussions should perhaps be saved for therapy sessions. If you don't have friends who abuse their kids, you almost certainly have friends whose friends abuse their kids. In a Facebook discussion, you don't know who the real abuser is and who's just joking about it. The presence of these jokes in a group makes it harder to trust people in it. They continually remind group members that there are abusers their midst and some of them will use "I'm only joking" to disclaim responsibility for their actions. It's a reminder to stay on guard, even for adults, because let's be real, people who abuse their kids aren't people who are safe to be around (especially not if you're a survivor of childhood abuse) -- they may not pick on people their own size physically, but they don't usually hesitate to do so emotionally.

Even if you accept this assumption (and why wouldn't you, except for people you know very well?), something else happens if someone who's listening is an abuser: that person will interpret the joke as further evidence that their behavior is acceptable, that it's socially approved of enough to make knowing little jokes about. Just as rape jokes serve the function of telling rapists that their behavior is the norm, that anybody would do it, child abuse jokes serve that same function for abusers.

Assumption 3: "Talking back" (failing to accept a parent's authority unconditionally) is something that should be punished.

Alice Miller has written extensively about the enduring popularity of authoritarian parenting and the intense harm that it does to children, even in the absence of physical violence. I just wonder what kind of child you're trying to raise if you want to teach somebody to accept authority at all times, no matter how arbitrary.

Regardless of whether the speaker actually wants or intends to commit physical violence against a child, the joke doesn't make sense unless you agree that "talking back" by a child (or really, by any subordinated person to their subordinator) is unacceptable.

Assumption 4: Parents need a "coping mechanism" for dealing with their children.

It was suggested to me that jokes like this are a "coping mechanism" to let off steam. But coping is something that you have to do when you're in a situation you can't get out of -- when you're powerless. Parents have near-absolute power over their children. If you are a minor, your parents have the legal right to hit you without your consent. Under some circumstances, they can deny you medical care and education. They're legally entitled to money you earn. You don't have the legal right to run away until you become a legal adult.

Parents, on the other hand, choose every day to continue caring for their children. It may not seem like a choice, but it is. Every parent has the option of abandoning or surrendering their child to someone else's care. These options have serious consequences -- potential emotional ones for the parent, legal ones in the case of abandonment -- but parents have the privilege of choosing between facing these serious consequences, and continuing to accept responsibility for a child. Children don't have the choice to leave; they are subject to the coercive power of the state in returning them to their family of origin, except in cases of very severe abuse that can be substantiated. Even in those cases, the state has the right to place the child with other substitute parents without regard for the child's wishes, so the child still has no power.

Joking about hurting someone you have absolute power over isn't a coping mechanism; it's a threat. Parent/child relationships exist at the pleasure of the parent and without regard to the child's consent. You could hurt your child if you don't like their "talking back". Who's going to stop you? Why stop at joking about it? Why should anybody assume that you will stop at that, if you're joking about that?

A more extreme version of the "coping mechanism" line of reasoning is that autistic children are a burden their parents must cope with. I think there's a continuum between the assumption that a child is something to cope with rather than the result of a constantly-renewed choice to continue being a parent, and the assumption that a disabled child requires extra-strong coping mechanisms.

Assumption 5: Children have power over parents

Similarly to the idea that women really run the world or that married men just do what their wives tell them, the idea that children control parents is a reversal that helps people collectively deny inequality. One hears parents talking about kids manipulating them, about throwing tantrums to get their way, but children don't have total control over their parents' lives and bodies that is reinforced by the state. Parents do, over children.

Assumption 6: Survivors aren't listening

Even ignoring assumptions 1 through 5, I would think that most people would realize it's in bad taste to joke about child abuse when adults who have survived child abuse are listening. So there's an assumption being made that survivors don't participate in society, or at least aren't in your social group, or if they are, they will stay silent in shame about their survivor identity.

This assumption is similar to the widespread contempt shown for the provision of empathetic metadata (aka trigger warnings or content warnings) that's part of the ongoing moral panic about acknowledging and recognizing the existence of trauma resulting from widespread, structural violence. Anti-empathy thinkpieces declare: survivors don't exist, or if they do, what they say about their own experiences is false, or even if it's not, they have no right to complain about not being heard. Stop making the rest of us uncomfortable!

Assumption 7: Of course everyone knows it's just a joke.

Related to assumption 2.

Well... no? I mean, it's like those "ironic racism" jokes where a white person says something racist and you're supposed to know they're saying it "to make fun of racism". Maybe us white people should be working to dismantle racism rather than using it to score laughs, but I digress. In both cases, the jokiness is contingent on child abuse, or racism, not being a thing that really happens anymore. Or maybe being a thing that happens in communities very far away from your own. Another Facebook friend-of-a-friend recently expressed shock about student protests over racism at Ithaca College, stating that Ithaca isn't "Mississippi." In reality, racism is fundamentally woven into the fabric of all of the United States, and child abuse is common everywhere, in every region, in rich families and poor families. Parents of every gender abuse their kids. People with Ph.Ds abuse their kids. Maybe ironic child abuse comments will be funny when all of the abuse has stopped, but that hasn't happened yet. Authoritarian, emotionally violent parenting is even more common than outright abuse. In a way, it's the norm. How often have I read somebody on a "childfree" forum saying the equivalent of, "If I had behaved that way in public [where 'that way' amounts to being a child], my parents would have tanned my hide"?

Interpersonal violence is a thing that has happened to your friends, that is happening to your friends right now, and is something that your friends are doing to other people. It's not something that the Other does in some distant place.

Assumption 8: Joking about beating or killing your child is different from a man joking about beating or killing his wife.

The latter kind of joke was more acceptable at one point but seems to have mostly fallen out of fashion. Given how much more power parents have over children than husbands have over wives, you would think that the former joke would be less acceptable than the latter, not more.
It's interesting that people react differently if you ask them:

"Why is it socially acceptable to joke about hurting your child?"

than if you show them this specific joke. Maybe people assume that it's normal and natural to "worry about your child's safety" when the threat to your child's safety is yourself, or more to the point, that this is funny rather than something to bring up with a professional counselor. People see that the abstract concept of joking about child abuse is disturbing, but fail to recognize concrete instances of the abstract concept for what they are.

As with all jokes, the joke-teller expects to get a laugh. People tell jokes to get approval, validate their beliefs, and increase social cohesion. Jokes make a space less safe when they function to remind people in that space that it's natural, normal or necessary to subjugate others. Child abuse jokes serve the dual function of signalling that a space is already tolerant of abuse, and reinforcing and recreating tolerance of abuse. They're not so much a barometer of emotional danger as a thermostat for it. The audience's reaction to a joke provides feedback that determines what else might be acceptable to say or do; that's how jokes make a space unsafe. It's no different from how sexist jokes in male-dominated professional spaces make a space unsafe for women. In the same way that sexist jokes are primarily signals to other men, simultaneously checking that sexism is still acceptable and reminding men to accept and promote sexism, jokes about harming kids aren't directed directly at kids -- they're reminders to other adults that it's okay to be authoritarian and requests for approval from those adults that your authoritarianism is okay. The approval can be as simple as a laugh.

Next time someone tells a joke like this in your presence, don't laugh. Disapproval can be simple as a raised eyebrow, and it sends the message that jokes like this aren't okay to make around you. Online, disapproval can be as simple as typing the words "not cool" or "that's not funny." Online, the onus is on people who aren't survivors, who don't need to protect themselves by immediately blocking people who make jokes that suggest their lack of safety, to express disapproval. Few people are willing to admit to having been wrong immediately, but saying "not cool" can make an unsafe space a little safer; can let silent onlookers know that not everybody thinks this is okay.

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tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
I wrote this as a comment to a friends-only post and decided to rewrite it as a post on my own journal and elaborate on it.

I was responding to a post from a survivor who expressed a belief that trigger warnings[*] are a threat to their ability to recover and that writers or editors shouldn't be too sensitive.

Content warning: discussion of the effects of early childhood trauma in re: ability to trust.
On staying sick and not getting well )
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
Content note: In this post I discuss a particular form of emotionally abusive behavior called "criticism avoidance", and directly quote from criticism-avoidant discourse. Read with care if you find narcissistic behavior to be triggering. I also describe my own experience of being triggered and reacting with dissociation.

When you're a survivor of complex trauma in childhood, one of the things that might happen is that you don't experience triggers in the way that people who developed PTSD in adulthood do. In fact, you might get triggered all the time, without being aware that that's what you're experiencing, because habits developed when you're very young -- of not paying attention to what you're experiencing, because it isn't safe to pay attention to what you're experiencing -- persist.

While I am very much in favor of the widespread adoption of trigger warnings or content warnings (I prefer "content warning" since it's more inclusive of those of us who may not always be aware that we're triggered or may not be able to articulate what triggers us) I feel a little strange about arguing for them from the perspective of someone with CPTSD, but not from the perspective of someone who finds much utility in content warnings for common triggers.


I can tell you one thing that triggers me for sure, which is narcissistic behavior. Not everybody who's ever related to XKCD 386 is traumatized, but when you were raised by a narcissist and you experience the drive to re-enact, the Internet is a really great place for that.

The thing is that nobody can give me a content warning for the narcissistic behavior they're about to engage in, because if they were self-aware enough to do that, they wouldn't be behaving narcissistically. The type of behavior I'm talking about has been characterized by Issendai as "criticism avoidance" (content warning for extensive discussion of abusive, narcissistic parents) and by Patricia J. Williams as anxiety over loss of self-image (in contrast with loss of self). It's also been called "inquiry-resistant dialogue", and many specific examples of it have been catalogued on the Geek Feminism wiki, under the name "silencing tactics".

It is compelling to re-enact one's past conflicts with a narcissist, for a couple of reasons:

  1. The people on the Internet you're arguing with are probably not actually narcissists (if they really were, arguing with them would be like telling your cat to stop meowing), but are emulating narcissism due to socially learned behavior arising from unchecked privilege. When you directly or indirectly tell someone to check their privilege, you have a chance of getting them to snap out of it.
  2. Whether or not the people you're arguing with actually are narcissists, standing up to them lets bystanders know that people can and do stand up to bullies, and that's important.
  3. On some irrational level, it gives you hope that you can repeat the struggle you had with somebody who was all-powerful over you, the struggle that you perhaps fantasized about winning through the superior power of your persuasive skills (if you were a child who was getting good at intellectualizing), and win this time. This is false hope.


It's also often ill-advised, because sometimes you end up with a rage hangover and nobody learns anything.

But aside from the wisdom or lack thereof of re-enactment, I want to ask why people retreat into criticism avoidance. This is something that we all do to varying degrees. I do it, because it's possible to both experience and re-experience trauma and abuse and to act abusively to others. It's not either/or. There is no clear binary between abusers and abused people, as tempting as it is to believe in one. The binary, if there is one, is between people who are making an attempt to reflect on their own actions while being painfully honest with themselves, and those who are making no such attempt.

I also want to give you an example of what I'm talking about when I say "criticism avoidance", in the form of a quote from Brendan Eich from a 2012 blog post:
Ignoring the abusive comments, I’m left with charges that I hate and I’m a bigot, based solely on the donation. Now “hate” and “bigot” are well-defined words. I say these charges are false and unjust.

First, I have been online for almost 30 years. I’ve led an open source project for 14 years. I speak regularly at conferences around the world, and socialize with members of the Mozilla, JavaScript, and other web developer communities. I challenge anyone to cite an incident where I displayed hatred, or ever treated someone less than respectfully because of group affinity or individual identity.

Second, the donation does not in itself constitute evidence of animosity. Those asserting this are not providing a reasoned argument, rather they are labeling dissenters to cast them out of polite society. To such assertions, I can only respond: “no”.


Since we don't know what Brendan was actually thinking here -- he chose to write in a manner that obscured his actual thoughts and feelings rather than illuminating them -- I'm going to speculate about a fictional character I just invented whose name is Brandon and who fictionally said the same thing quoted above, but to my face instead of in a blog post. Since I'm talking about a fictional character and there's no point in understanding a fictional character's psyche, the goal here is to understand criticism avoidance, not to understand Brendan or Brandon.

Brandon experienced criticism when a series of donations, both to the campaign in favor of California's Proposition 8 and to a number of radical right-wing political candidates, that he made were exposed. The difficult, but more rewarding, thing for Brandon to do would have been to listen to his critics and try to hear what they were saying even if some of the words they were using made him feel upset or attacked.

Brandon chose the easy road, the one many of us choose, especially when we feel we have power. He chose to withdraw from genuine engagement and to use his defense mechanisms. The first defense mechanism he invokes is that he has never displayed open animus to somebody directly because of who they are. The second defense mechanism he invokes is that he has a right to behave as he likes and that, implicitly, he doesn't care if somebody is hurt by his behavior. The third defense mechanism, which he invokes in the first paragraph I quoted, is to defend himself against criticisms of his actions with an appeal to his essential character. This particular defense mechanism is so powerful because we can never know anybody else's essential character. If a person like Brandon is successful in recentering a conversation on who people are rather than what people do, that means the conversation will never lead towards accountability or restorative justice -- or even to so much as a genuine connection between two people with differences -- just to the defense of the egos of the powerful.

I've read Brendan's blog post several times over the years, so I no longer find it triggering as such, although reading it again just now, I still felt some of the same tightness in my throat and jaw that I usually do when I'm exposed to narcissistic behavior. Imagining a fictional conversation with the fictional Brandon that covers the same ground, though, I can imagine that I would be triggered; I would react in one of the two ways I react when triggered, which is dissociation. I used to think that word referred to watching yourself from outside your body, but it turns out that only describes some people's experience of dissociation. For me, it means that my mind and body, for the duration of the event that feels threatening, are no longer on speaking terms, or rather, are on speaking terms just enough for me to pretend that I'm still listening while my mind retreats into safer thoughts unrelated into situation, or just into white noise. In the fight-flight-or-freeze trichotomy, this is an example of freezing. It's like pretending to be dead, except the only person you're pretending to be dead to is yourself. It comes naturally to me because I spent most of my childhood in that state.

(The other way that I react is with anger, but since I've learned it's generally not safe for me to express anger directly, in face-to-face interactions, with someone who has behaved in ways I find triggering, I generally only react that way in a text-mediated interaction.)

In this hypothetical conversation, then, I'm triggered because I don't feel safe, and the way that I automatically protect myself when I don't feel safe is to dissociate. I'm also arguing that in this hypothetical conversation, Brandon is reacting semi-automatically as well: he experiences a threat to his ego (being called a bigot) and because he finds this threat too terrifying to engage with on the level of empathetic, connected conversation, he retreats into accusations ("false and unjust").

So are both of us triggered?

I don't think so, because his and my reactions have different causes. To return to Patricia J. Williams' framing, in this hypothetical situation, I am experiencing a threat to self and Brandon is experiencing a threat to self-image. Both his feelings and mine are genuine. But mine are rooted in re-experiencing of a situation in which my self was genuinely threatened, in which there were no boundaries between myself and somebody who was supposed to be responsible for helping me develop independently but didn't. His feelings, on the other hand, are not rooted in such an early trauma. Caring about what other people think of you is something that people start to do as teenagers. People can experience genuine distress because they are worried that other people think things about them that doesn't match how they think of themselves, but it is not the same as re-experiencing a very early and fundamental existential threat.

Brandon is retreating from connection with other people because he can't bear the risk that he might have to re-examine his self-image as a result of criticism from them. But when I react this way, I'm retreating from connection with both other people and myself. Interactions like this one didn't establish the habit I have of doing that, but it can reinforce that habit, and when people interact with me, they have the choice of reminding me, once again, that I can't trust people, or of acting in a way that might inspire trust.

It's their choice. I can't tell them what to do. One way in which people can act so as to inspire trust, not just in me but in many other people who are trauma survivors, is to think about us as if we're human beings who have thoughts and feelings that are just as complex as theirs. One thing that looks like, concretely, is the use of content warnings and trigger warnings in writing. In a one-to-one conversation, it has to look more like constant and active effort to maintain connection rather than to retreat from potential criticism.

Like love, in other words.

Ideally, we would always be understanding of others even when their behavior is making us angry, upset, or even triggered. In practice, I don't expect myself to be Jesus, at least not most of the time. I don't think it would be desirable, even. To quote Bob Franke's song "Eye of the Serpent", "Sometimes I try to be so good that I murder my holiest self." I think that sometimes, defending myself, taking time that is just for defending myself and not for understanding others, is a way of protecting my holiest self. Besides, people don't always want to be understood, because if other people understood them, they might have to understand themselves and confront some hard truths. This is all advice, by the way, that I have to remember to follow when I'm in the role of someone who may fall into the trap of engaging narcissistic defense mechanisms against somebody else, and I often am in that role.

But I hope I've gotten across one way in which being triggered can be different from just being upset or feeling attacked.
tim: Solid black square (black)
I was saddened to read Amelia Greenhall's account of co-founding Model View Culture with Shanley Kane. Amelia and Shanley are both people I respect. So reading that Shanley treated Amelia abusively when they were business partners upsets me primarily because Amelia was harmed, and secondarily because I feel deeply disappointed in Shanley.

One of the hardest things for me to come to terms with in my adult life is that abusers aren't 100%-bad figures of pure villainry. That somebody can both do good things for you and abuse you, and if they do both, it doesn't diminish the fact that they abused you or make it any less wrong. I still haven't come to terms with it, honestly.

In this particular situation, I feel that I'm in a no-win situation. I suspect many of my comrades in the loosely knit movement to redistribute wealth and power in the tech industry feel the same way. I have a choice between:

  • boosting the signal for Amelia's message, which contributes to the abuse that is currently being heaped on Shanley for separate reasons -- in fact, the reasons that she called out an abuser herself and had a past romantic relationship with another abuser -- even though that's obviously not Amelia's intent; or:
  • remaining silent, which, given the degree to which I've supported Shanley in the past, sends the message that I approve of abuse when it's from someone who I personally like and whose work I like, which is not a message I agree with.


I'm choosing in this case to not be silent. I believe Amelia and I support her unequivocally in her decision to tell her story. I don't think the fact that Shanley has abused people means that she's beyond redemption as a person. It also doesn't negate the value of her writing or of the writing by other people that she's published in Model View Culture. We can accept that Linux is a useful piece of software while refusing to tolerate Linus Torvalds' abuse of contributors in public; we can also accept that Shanley has done incredibly valuable work while refusing to tolerate her abuse of colleagues, or anybody else, in private. Trustworthy leadership is important. That means that we shouldn't accept someone who can't or won't treat others with respect as the leader of a software project, no matter how good we suppose his technical judgment to be. And that also means that we shouldn't accept someone who quietly abuses people in private as the leader of a social justice organization, no matter how good we suppose her activist skills to be.

Some people are choosing this moment to question whether Shanley sincerely believes in the work she does. I have no doubt in her sincerity. I know what it's like to get so carried away with doing what you think is right that you forget to consider the feelings of other people. That's a reason, not an excuse.

We can be a stronger community if Shanley chooses to take responsibility for her actions towards Amelia -- and anybody else, as the case may be -- and model what accountability looks like. Of course, whether her apology is adequate is up to Amelia to decide.

I also want to emphasize that there is no excuse whatsoever for the scurrilous harassment campaign revolving around media scrutiny of her past sex life that Shanley has been subject to over the past week. What's being done to her is an attack against her as well as a warning to every other woman who speaks up in tech. We have to get better at coming to terms with the fact that a person who has been abused, who, even, is experiencing ongoing abuse, can also abuse others. So just as Shanley's behavior towards Amelia does not in any way warrant the torrent of abuse that Shanley is receiving for being a woman with independent opinions, that torrent of abuse does not justify her in violating other people's boundaries. Our analyses need to be complex enough for us to condemn the misogynist terror campaign that targets every woman who dares to speak in public, without making the victims of these campaigns into unimpeachable heroes, beyond criticism.

Because when you hold somebody up as a person who can do no wrong, you're dehumanizing them, just as much as those who cast feminist women as evil misandrist sluts do. Part of being human is the capacity to do wrong; to hurt other people; to hurt other people a lot. The part we get a choice about is how we deal with it when it happens.

Comments are screened. I will assume it's OK to unscreen all comments unless you state otherwise. If you ask me not to unscreen your comment, I'll delete it after reading, since it irritates me to have screened comments sitting around :)
Edited to add: To the sockpuppet commenter whose username is a word cleverly spelled backwards: uoy kcuf.
Edited to add, 2: In case it needs to be said again, fuck GamerGate; Milo Yiannopoulos is the scum of the earth; and fuck everyone who's linking to this post in an attempt to make the analysis less complex instead of more. I didn't write about my pain and heartbreak so you could use it for your bullshit harassment campaign. I believe that people can be better than their pasts, and I'm still holding out hope that Shanley will prove she is rather than sinking into the same defensive tactics we've seen from so many. Amelia said she didn't want her words twisted and used in your petty little hate campaign, so show some motherfucking respect.
Edited to add, 3: To the person who asked me not to unscreen their comment: I wasn't going to unscreen it anyway.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)

Content warning: Discussion of violence against women, gun violence, death and rape threats, workplace harassment, suicide (and threats thereof as an emotional manipulation tactic), online harassment, abuse of the legal system to further sexual harassment and domestic violence, and neo-Nazis.

Italicized quotes are from Stephen Fearing's song "The Bells of Morning", which he wrote in 1989 about the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal.

It's All Connected

Donatenow

"Tonight I am speechless
My head is filled with pouring rain
As the darkness falls on Montreal
When violence is shrieking
The city streets will run with pain
Until the moon can shed no light at all"




"Gamergate": the word we dare not write on Twitter, for fear of a torrent of harassment. It started with a spurned ex-boyfriend doing his best to try to drag his ex's reputation through the mud. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, because she makes video games, and he -- as well as an army of supporters initially rallied using the 4chan hate site -- weaponized male video game enthusiasts' terror of women encroaching on their turf.

Why this fear of women? The term "witch hunt" is overused, but Gamergate is one of the closest modern-day analogues to a witch hunt. Teenage boys, frustrated in a culture that doesn't have much use for teenagers at all, were so dedicated in their zeal to spread lies and hyperbole that a major corporation, Intel, acted on the fear they spread. (I use "teenage boys" here to refer to a state of mind.) Like a toddler who has figured out something that annoys their parents and keeps doing it, and like the teenage girls of New England in the 17th century who figured out that they could set a deadly chain of events into motion, these boys are drunk on the power they have stumbled into. Their goal? Stopping a woman they believe to have strange powers: the power to pass off what they see as a non-game as a game, through bewitchment of influential men ("bewitchment of" here means "sex with"). I am being literal here. Read more... )

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Tim Chevalier

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