Coming Home

I went to bed last Saturday night with every intention of making it to church the next morning.

As many of you know, I’ve been looking for a spiritual community for most of my life. Brought up Catholic, but now functionally Buddhist, I always longed to feel comfortable in the place so many friends and loved ones have gone to in times of need or everyday spiritual sustenance.

Recently, I made a couple of major life changes that made the search for a church all the more pressing. I won’t go into them here (except to note them) because a) that’s not what this blog is about and 2) that’s the kind of thing I prefer to etch into a diary instead.

Now the church I was trying out is in downtown Boston and I live in the suburbs, about 20 minutes away by train. That means I had to get up extra early to make it to the 9:30am service. As I’m a morning person, this usually doesn’t present much difficulty other than the usual obsessing over the right bow tie and/or cologne.

But this morning was different. I woke up late, and managed to just miss the train. That’s when things got interesting.

My usual response when things like this happen is exasperation, frustration, and anger with myself. In fact, it should have been doubled as it was a snowy morning, and the train is usually late, so I figured it would be even more late. Yet lo and behold, the train was on time — on a snowy morning, no less.

I should have been pretty upset, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was filled with a cool calm, and just found myself saying to myself, “no biggie, I’ll just double back home and catch the next train. Instead of the 9:30 Mass, I’ll catch the 11:30. It’s bound to be better anyway, as the priest will have a chance to revise his homily.”

Then, as I traveled home, I realized something else. I realized that the church I was heading to — the one I’d been to visit twice, on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, recommended to me by a friend on Twitter — also felt, in a very weird and tentative way, like a home. I didn’t want to make too much of this at the time, but I made note of it.

A home. To appreciate the strangeness of that association you have to understand that Churches have mostly been a courthouse for me: places where judgment takes place.

As soon as I walk into a church, I can hear myself being judged in ways only Catholics can judge one another.

I’ll give you a small sample. I hear these things in my mind now, but many of them were actually said to me. Sometimes they were said far more kindly than I say them to myself. Sometimes a lot less.

“Why are you here? This is a church. We belong here. You don’t.”

“You see, we have some problems with people like you. And yes, when we say ‘we’ we mean the whole Catholic Church.”

“For one thing, you’re liberal. Liberals don’t go to church; liberals don’t even believe in God.”

“Another thing is you don’t vote Republican like we do, and sometimes as the priest tells us to. You think being gay is fine. You think priests should marry and that women should be priests. But worst of all, you don’t oppose abortion. That alone disqualifies you from being a Catholic.”

“Why? Because here we believe what we’re told to believe, not what we think or reason for ourselves. All of us believe the exact same thing in the exact same way, which is what gives our faith strength and power.”

“Your problem is you can’t listen to authority. We can, and yes, we think blind obedience to the right people on the right matters is a good thing. We know how to do that. You don’t.”

“We never, ever question our faith. We accept it. You’re so busy asking questions you don’t even have time to pray, which we do all the time. You should try it sometime, but not here. Go home and pray. This place is for Catholics only, and you are most definitely NOT a Catholic.”

“What are you even doing here in the first place? You don’t believe in God or Jesus. Your parents do, but not you. You’re too liberal and so-called ‘educated.’ We hear you also meditate, do yoga, and read Nietzsche. We know you’re not Catholic, and you may not even be Christian.”

“You don’t belong here. This is our church, not yours. Go away.”

I can’t remember a time in my life when I thought of a church as a home of any kind. As a kid I got dragged to church; the only times I went voluntarily after that were during times of intense personal crisis.

I said to myself in the car that while God may never have given me what I wanted (such as a clear sign on what to do about something very important), God did give me what I needed. That is to say, if it is true that what God calls us most to do is to be who we really are, then it’s clear God, the Tao, or the Universe has been nudging me more or less forcefully in that direction my whole life.

If I’d been paying closer attention, I’d have been creeped out by the fact that I was talking about God as a person rather than an experience and not having a major conniption about it.

About an hour later, I was on my the way to the train again. This time I gave myself extra time.

On that trip, I realized two more things. One is that I was going to church to find myself in some way. I know that sounds odd. Yet in some strange way, some part of me was already inside that building. It was simply calling out to me and I was simply answering.

Needless to say, if it had been calling me by name I’d be getting an MRI rather than the urge to write about it.

That led me to the second thing. For the first time, something was calling me to church, rather than pushing me to go from the outside or inside. Put another way, I was going to church because I wanted to, not because I had to or needed to.

There’s no way to know if this is just a passing thing or something more significant along a larger journey. But it felt important enough to share, so there you go.

On Information Asymmetries

Parent A discovers that their child doesn’t know something very important that they’ll need to know as an adult. “Hey Kiddo, I get the sense you may not know what a square root is. Let’s sit down for a few minutes to see if that’s the case. If so, I’ll bring you up to speed fast.”

Parent B discovers the same thing, but handles it very differently. “You don’t know what a square root is? Oh my God, I learned that in the fifth grade, and you’re a sophomore in high school? I can’t believe you’re 15 years old and don’t know what a square root is. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Boss A sees an employee is not doing their job. This boss pulls their employee aside and tries to find out if they’re aware of the specific expectations for their position. Boss A then tries to find out to what degree the employee is aware they’re not meeting expectations. Lastly, Boss A works together with the employee to craft a plan designed to improve performance, with clear goals and deadlines. 

Boss B discovers the same thing, but instead accuses the employee of loafing. When the employee expresses honest bewilderment, saying they thought they were doing their job well, Boss B becomes even more angry. “That just shows how stupid you are: you don’t even know you’re screwing up! Get it together or you’re fired!”

Spouse A is getting concerned over the household finances. Over dinner, Spouse A says to their spouse, “hey listen, I know this is an uncomfortable topic, but I really think you could be bringing more money into the home. Do you agree? And if so, what are your thoughts about what we can both do to make that happen?”

Spouse B is having similar concerns. Over dinner, and in front of their children, Spouse B asks their spouse to stop being lazy and get a job.

A has a boyfriend. A’s boyfriend has heard a rumor, and asks A if A is seeing someone else. A winces. “Yes,” A answers. A’s boyfriend is devastated, but not crushed, and is able to come back from this very common heartbreak by sharing it with others.

B has a boyfriend. B’s boyfriend has heard a rumor, and asks B if B is seeing someone else. B frowns. “That’s none of your business,” B says.

What’s going on here?

I recently came across the notion of information asymmetries while doing research for a project in political science. An information asymmetry is any situation where one person has more knowledge than someone else.

Given that no one is omniscient, information asymmetries are a fact of life. That is to say, we’re surrounded by people that have more knowledge than we do, and there’s always someone who knows something we don’t.


Now when the information is trivial, irrelevant, or otherwise useless to us, it’s no big deal. But when it’s important for our purposes or goals, or critical for our growth or safety, the situation changes considerably.

You need that information. Someone else has it. If they know you need it, they are in a position to share it or withhold it. This creates a power imbalance in addition to an information asymmetry.

And it can get more complicated. Remember back in school when you thought you studied well for a test but ended up doing far worse than you imagined? You didn’t know what you didn’t know until you took the test.

So sometimes we know we’re missing information, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we know we’re missing information but don’t know how important it is. Sometimes we know where to get it, sometimes we don’t. All of these constitute information asymmetries of their own, and they overlap to make the total asymmetry even bigger.

Either way, someone else almost always has the information you need. And far more often than not, that person is in a position to know if you need it, and in a position to provide it.

This is the situation between parents and children, bosses and employees, teachers and students, and politicians and their constituents, to name a few examples. It’s also the situation between societies, cultures, institutions, or other groups and their members. One partner to a very important relationship has information the other partner needs in order to grow, stay safe, or even in some cases to survive.


The question then becomes: how are such information asymmetries handled?

Ideally, they’re handled in such a way as to dissolve them. That is, in the ideal condition, information is shared along a knowledge gradient so that the information gap disappears.

When this is done repeatedly, in an atmosphere of trust and respect, whatever portion of the power dynamic that depended on the asymmetry also disappears. This is the core informational feature of effective parenting and effective teaching.

This is how children grow to become effective parents, and students effective teachers. And while the power differential disappears, what’s often left in its wake is a feeling of respect and at times even love for the teacher.

One important feature of the ideal scenario is that information is viewed here as a positive-sum game. That is to say, the value of the information increases the more it’s given away. Here when information is shared, not only does everyone win, but people (and institutions) become individually richer than when they held the information alone.

In a positive-sum information asymmetry, someone with information is content, but never truly satisfied unless and until that information is shared with another. Very often in this scenario the information in question is viewed as far more important than the person temporarily carrying it. This makes the bearer of such information feel far more of a steward than an owner.

When the information is communicated in such a way that now two people have full access to, share, or otherwise command it, the interpersonal wealth of the situation grows, sometimes immeasurably. A relationship is created that is far richer than the information itself.

To borrow some terms from Pierre Bourdieu, this is how cultural capital turns to social capital.


This is not always the case, however. On many occasions and in many relationships, knowledge is withheld so as to create, maintain, or even exacerbate information asymmetries. This is almost always done for the political or psychological benefit of those who hold the information.

Here information is a zero-sum game. It’s viewed as a precious commodity that is lost whenever it’s shared, and whose value increases the more it’s withheld. In the extreme, it can become fetishized, and its retention even eroticized.

In my experience, these situations most often revolve around issues of power, control, and self-esteem. Information is withheld in order to create, maintain, or expand a power relationship over another.

Sometimes this is done for the feeling of control it gives. Someone who’s used to feeling out of control in other areas of their life may feel much better knowing they can control someone else. Or they may just enjoy the rush that sometimes accompanies the feeling of being in control over another.

Other times, it’s a way of boosting self-esteem. There are individuals who learn to feel good about themselves primarily by way of making others feel bad about themselves. Shaming and blaming are probably the two most common strategies here.

Typically the people who need to do this the most are people who have been deprived of power, self-esteem, or control in their lives (especially in childhood), or had it wrested away from them suddenly by another.

In another blogpost I’ll describe these more toxic kinds of information asymmetries in greater detail, as well as suggest some strategies for handling them.

Empathy: More Than a Feeling

I was listening to the radio some months ago and got the beginnings of an answer to something that has been pestering me for quite some time.

As a teacher and as a therapist, I’ve struggled against the idea that empathy is nothing more than a feeling. Usually people who say that don’t have nice things to say about feelings in general, but more on that some other time.

Anyway, people tell me this all the time, in the process confusing empathy with sympathy, which is another can of worms in itself.

Here’s what I think empathy really is.

For empathy to be real and effective, it has to contain three sound components: cognitive, affective, and behavioral. Put another way, it has to involve effective thinking, feeling, and acting.

The first thing you need in order to have empathy is emotional contact. That is to say, you have to be able to feel what someone else is feeling. Let’s call this affective or emotional resonance. Someone’s feeling X, along a particular frequency, amplitude, and wavelength, and suddenly you are too, just like them.

Now some people can’t do this. Try as they might, for whatever reason, no matter how much someone is feeling something — sometimes sitting right next to them — they just can’t pick it up.

This isn’t a moral failure; it’s just our training, how we were raised, and/or our neurology. Some of us are wired to resonate more easily than others, that’s all.

Incidentally, it’s not hard to see how resonating too much or too often presents a different kind of problem.

So you’re feeling what someone else is feeling. Of course you could stop there; if not, the next step on the road from sympathy to empathy is being able to recognize what it is you’re feeling.

Is it something simple, like anger, loss, excitement, or boredom? Is it a more complex emotion, like guilt, shame, or betrayal? Is it some mixture of either group, perhaps in some tension or even outright conflict with one another?

The cognitive part of empathy involves being able to name the feeling you’re picking up from someone else. This, in turn, involves being able to step outside of the emotion — theirs and yours — just enough to be able to circumscribe it and give it a label.

Here we come to what I like to call the first paradox of empathy. On the one hand, you have to have contact with the emotion in order to resonate with it. To paraphrase a line from commercials often used to sell the lottery, you have to be “in it to win it.”

At the same time, however, you have to be able to step outside of the feeling just enough to be able to say “this is what I’m feeling” and not something else.

So the first paradox of empathy is that you have to be inside and outside of a feeling at the same time. Needless to say, not always an easy task; especially when the feelings are mixed, intense, or complex.

Last but not least, in order for empathy to be effective, it has to do something. That is to say, it has to be able to effect a particular kind of change in a relationship or the interpersonal world.

Most often done this is done verbally. You feel something that someone else is feeling, you put it into words, and then share you share those words with them. But it can be done non-verbally as well. A gasp, knowing glance, hand on the arm or shoulder, or a facial expression is sometimes all that people need to know you get them.

If you’re right (or even in the right ballpark), then a bridge gets built between the two of you that most of us call understanding. And if you keep at it (whether as a therapist, partner, friend, or family member), the bridge widens and gets sturdier.

That’s when it gets strong enough to carry trust.

This brings us to what I like to call the second paradox of empathy. When you say what you think someone’s feeling, you can be right or wrong. Either way, for someone to tell you how you’re doing with regard to understanding them presupposes a certain amount of trust. Absent that trust — most often a trust that good things can come from conversations like these —  people may not tell you whether you’re even close to getting them.

And empathy is what allows that trust to happen in the first place. So the second paradox of empathy is that it both presupposes and is responsible for building trust.

I love paradoxes 🙂

How to Avoid Mansplaining

All right, mansplaining.

I know.  I’m a guy and I’m about to explain how to avoid mansplaining.  I’m gambling on a few things here.  I’m fairly confident there’s a form of explaining that avoids the pitfalls of mansplaining; what’s not clear to me is if it can work here, or how much (especially given my own history with mansplaining) I’m up to the task.

One strategy I came up with to deal all this is to address this post exclusively to men.  Of course this would be done in full knowledge that women are reading too; the idea is that if I did end up mansplaining (despite my best efforts to the contrary), at least I (a male) would be doing so to men instead of women.

For a number of reasons, I found myself uncomfortable with this approach. It seems itself rather patronizing (which is a lesson in itself!).  Also, I’ve just never been comfortable with excluding anyone from a conversation like this.  Just doesn’t feel right, for reasons I can’t fully articulate.

Thinking about it for weeks, it seems my only option is to be empirical.  That is to say, I could continue playing around with the idea in my head, but won’t find out for sure if it’ll fly unless I actually try.  So here we go.

What is mansplaining?  Most accounts describe it as uniquely patronizing, condescending, or even infantilizing way of men addressing women.  Now while I by no means disagree with this definition, I don’t think it’s quite enough to help stop a lot of the mansplaining that takes place.

I prefer to see mansplaining as a genderized form of hierarchical monologue.  Now I don’t see my understanding as in any way at odds with the previous understanding.  What I do think, and I’ll offer this for your consideration, it that it might be a bit better in terms of helping us unpack what’s really going on inside mansplaining.

Mansplaining is hierarchical in that its primary purpose is to promote power relations.  It’s genderized in that it does so along gender lines, specifically according to the dictates of patriarchy.  And it’s a monologue in that it’s a one-way form of communication.

The end result, it seems to me, is a form of discourse where what’s communicated is a view of men as superior to women, with very specific demands made on the listener.

As an aside, here’s where I may differ from others.  I think conversations like these have been happening since time immemorial across race, class, religion, social, and economic lines, as well as between adults and children.  This leads me to suspect (and I may be on thin ice here) that the genderized piece is secondary to the hierarchical one.

Now you may disagree with me completely here, and your options are far from limited.  You could say there is something qualitatively unique about genderized inequality as a matter of history, and that this makes the gender component primary rather than secondary.  You could also say that situating mansplaining within the broader context of power relations intrinsically diminishes the gender component, thereby relegating it to secondary status.  This could even be seen as yet another instance of simultaneously and covertly masking male privilege while reinforcing patriarchy (ouch).

In defense of my definition, I think it allows us some important conceptual and political flexibility.  It follows from the sketch I provided that while mansplaining is typically and predominantly done by men, it can be done by anyone who identifies with male privilege.  That is to say, in this view mansplaining is (usually but not always) men explaining things to (usually but not always) women in an uniquely condescending, patronizing or even infantilizing way.

Can women do it?  I suppose so, in the sense that oppressed groups often act out among themselves the inequalities, injustices and injuries visited upon them by outsiders.  Have to say, though, the vast majority of mansplaining I see is done by men.  And to anticipate another set of objections, I don’t think that’s completely because of biology or anything essential to the concept of maleness; I think, rather, that it’s largely due to men being raised to think and behave along particular lines.

So while this doesn’t absolve men of the responsibility to cut the crap (instructions provided below), it does suggest powerful social forces are at work in mansplaining, alongside often critical personal and moment-to-moment choices, as well as qualities.

Now I don’t think we have to agree on what comes first or is more important (the gender or the hierarchy) to have an effective dialogue on mansplaining.  I could be wrong here, perhaps even egregiously so. Nevertheless, I still think the key point is that both get mixed up in an interesting way such that what’s being communicated is not so much information but (the importance of) a patriarchal relationship.

So what’s inside mansplaining?  It occurs to me that the mansplainer is attempting to sell you (his target) a number of Very Important Ideas, ideally without question.  I’m assigning them numbers not so much to rank them in order of importance (though some of them do depend on others) as to make it easier to refer to them in case they provoke any discussion:

  1. that they possess something you lack (usually knowledge or expertise, but sometimes also wisdom, maturity, or even moral fiber)
  2. that this something is not just a quality or skill, but a human virtue
  3. that this is not just true of you but everyone in your (let’s say gender) group
  4. that this makes it even harder for you to understand what the mansplainer is trying to tell you (or, in some cases, appreciate his wisdom or brilliance)
  5. that this, in turn makes any difficulty understanding or accepting what the mansplainer is trying to say (or any communicative failure at all) entirely your fault
  6. that all of the foregoing makes the mansplainer qualitatively better than you (once again, along some dimension of consequence), which in turn justifies a number of attendant social, economic, and political privileges
  7. that this is (or ought to be) as clear to you as it is (or ought to be) universally acknowledged
  8. that your primary socially obligations are to internalize all of these Very Important Ideas (e.g., believe them deeply and without question), work hard to promote them, and prove to any and all mansplainers that you have done so to their satisfaction (usually through a display of social deference; professional titles are especially helpful here)

Another thing: while the bulk of the communication is verbal, there are often important non-verbal components as well, such as a sigh or a well-timed eye roll. All these combine to reinforce the “I am better than you and you’d better publicly agree” message.

The sum total of the interaction is to make the mansplainer feel better than the listener at her expense.  That is to say, it’s one of many ways people have of boosting their self-esteem by taking someone else’s down. When this happens in a blatant or egregious manner, it’s easy to see and call out.  However, I think it happens far more often in far more subtle ways.

This brings me to the notion of microaggressions: tiny little paper cuts to the self-esteem that add up over a lifetime to destabilize or even erode the listener’s own confidence in her intelligence, perceptions, virtue, or even adequacy.  It’s saying “I’m better than and in charge of you” or “you are defective compared to me” through a gesture, a tone of voice, an image, an advertisement, a song, etc.

Now it’s bad enough when this happens to grownups, who’ve already had some chance to build up a sense of self as well as self-efficacy and self-esteem.  Here we’re annoyed at best, but our basic confidence in ourselves and our abilities remains intact.  You can imagine the damage it can do when it’s targeted at a group of people from the earliest age.

So that’s the basic process I see at work.  Given this analysis, how do we stop it?

One hope I have is that a greater awareness of the viciousness and cruelty that lies at the heart of mansplaining goes a long way towards eradicating it.  But I’ve also come up with more specific suggestions as well.  I saved them for the end because I don’t think they have quite the same power without a closer look at the power dynamics, psychology, and social role of mansplaining.  Once again here they are, and in no particular order, although some typically occur before others:

  1. If you haven’t already, brush up a bit on gender and privilege (and especially if you have, resist the temptation to think you know all about it already).  Keep in mind nobody’s completely free from the effects of bias, prejudice, and bigotry; specifically, that everyone has biases and is victimized to some degree by inequality.
  2. Be careful about thinking of individuals as representative of particular groups, and privately acknowledge any biases you’ve likely inherited from your family of origin or the larger culture.  As with any belief, keep in mind the all-important difference between having a bias, reflecting on it, and acting on it.
  3. Keep in mind the difference between taking effective responsibility for bias and shouldering blame.  Blame is often an invitation to feel worse about something and can be deflating.  Responsibility, on the other hand, may include remorse but empowers individuals to make bad situations better.  Put another way, it’s one thing to make you or someone else feel bad about having bias, it’s quite another to say and do things that encourage people to roll up their sleeves and get to work on it.
  4. When your bias or privilege is exposed without your knowledge or consent, treat it the same way you’d treat falling trousers.  That is to say, don’t pretend it didn’t happen, just smile, realize everyone has a derriere, pull up your pants, try to extract the appropriate lesson, and move on.
  5. If you haven’t already, ask someone who knows and/or who’s studied it about the concept of microaggressions.  Learn about how they can affect the quality of a home, workplace, or relationship.  Learn how they add up over the course of a brief period or a lifetime to demoralize, deflate, and oppress individuals or entire groups of people.
  6. If you’re feeling especially bold, look into the ways we deauthorize people as knowers on a regular basis, often without knowing it.
  7. Before explaining anything, ask yourself if you’re really in a position to do so.  Some questions to consider here: do you really know more about the topic than your listener?  Is this really the best (or even the right) place and time for it?
  8. Ask yourself if you want the explanation to be more of a monologue or a dialogue.  Be mindful of the differences between both forms of speech, especially the different expectations each makes of its intended audience.  Have some plan to handle the frustrations that typically arise when certain expectations aren’t met (in this case, when you set out to have one kind of conversation and instead get the other).  Also beware of taking this frustration out on your audience; if you feel it’s appropriate or useful to share, consider using the most respectful words possible.
  9. Make sure you have at least one way of explaining the thing you want to explain.  Wonder to what degree these different ways of explaining take into account someone’s level of knowledge as opposed to social status.
  10. Consider also any effects your different explanations or styles of explaining could have on your listener as well as the larger audience, especially if there’s a mismatch along any key dimension.  How will you know if your style or mode of explaining is succeeding?  How will you know if it’s failing in some important way?  What adjustments are you prepared to make or willing to consider as a result?
  11. Remember that you are no more your explanation than your listener is their response to it.  That is to say, your explanation can succeed or fail without this saying anything whatsoever about how good you are in any of your most cherished roles (parent, teacher, supervisor).  Likewise, resist the temptation to judge your listener by the success (or failure) of your explanation, or their response to it.
  12. Be prepared to look at your explanation as pragmatically and non-judgmentally as possible.  Also, when listening to feedback, let past experience be your guide here, and don’t dismiss someone’s experience simply because you don’t share it.
  13. Ask yourself if you think the knowledge you’re about to impart makes you a better person than your listener. If the answer is yes, ask it again until you get the right one.
  14. Wonder how useful your information is likely to be to your audience.  Wonder how you might handle it if they disagree with your assessment of its value.
  15. Wonder about hierarchies and emotional overtones.  Will the explanation help empower someone, let’s say bring them up to your level of (not virtue but) expertise?  Or will it keep or even push them down?  Be especially careful here about sharing information that’s designed simply to show off what you know or make someone else feel stupid.  If you suspect that’s happened, ask, and if so, apologize.
  16. If you get into a back-and-forth (and especially if you didn’t set out to), keep in mind the crucial difference between positions and persons.  That is, it’s one thing to say a position (belief, view, etc) is wrong and quite another to say a person is wrong (i.e., don’t say “you’re wrong”).
  17. If you find frustration mounting (yours or your listener’s), take a step back and beware of taking it out on your listener.  One often key mental step is to avoid thinking (and saying!) that your interlocutor lacks certain virtues or values.  While entirely possible, more conversational (and hence more persuasive) opportunities are opened up by assuming the other person simply has values other than yours, however well they’re articulated or even known to either of you.  Put another way, assume everyone acts according to principles and that, for the curious, it’s just a matter of patiently discovering what they may turn out to be.
  18. If things get heated, consider the possibility that maintaining the relationship may now be a greater priority than communicating the explanation.  Be especially aware of threats to the respect of all parties to the conversation, such as the temptation to engage in name-calling and insults.
  19. When you’re done explaining, listen.  Keep an ear open to the possibility you may not have explained well, that you used the wrong words, or that others’ equally valid experience produced complementary or even contradictory information.
  20. Be especially tuned in if you find yourself losing self-esteem or social status if your listener doesn’t agree with you more or less completely.  That’s often a sign, in my view, that what’s at stake here isn’t sharing information but reinforcing power relations.  If so, allow yourself a small chuckle at your expense, go back to the beginning of this list, and start over.

I’m sure I’m going to be revising this list and post down the road, so be generous with your feedback 🙂

History and Critical Theory

One of my most vivid memories of high school was a beloved former teacher of mine saying, citing Thorstein Veblen, that education was a “leisure class activity.”

Whether or nor this is an accurate characterization of Veblen’s views, I remember howling at this statement. Sure, I thought, things like history and philosophy could be idle diversions for some. For others, however, especially (but by no means uniquely) those on the wrong side of a class, racial, gender, religious, sexual, or other divide, they were emancipatory disciplines, to borrow a term from Habermas (whom I didn’t hear about until college).

They weren’t leisure activities, I remember saying back. They were survival strategies. I only remember two other things: my classmates looking at me like I was from another planet, and my dear old teacher smiling at me.

Anyway, tonight I came across a quote that brought back that old memory in a wonderful way. Ostensibly about women, I think the point generalizes nicely across all forms of injustice rooted in inequality, as well as to those choosing the difficult but rewarding path of facing their family or personal history:

Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for woman more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.

Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

― Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (h/t @sacredflow)

Surveillance is the New Internment

By now, many people are aware that the New York Police Department has been conducting an extensive surveillance of Muslims. This has understandably set off considerable discussion about the legal, civic, and moral questions raised by this practice. Luckily, we have centuries of history, jurisprudence, and political theory with which to raise and address such questions.

What we might miss behind those very important questions, however, are the effects of such practices on individuals; specifically within the minds of those surveilled. To understand and appreciate this, we have to rely on more recent work.

In Surveiller et Punir (the English title is Discipline and Punish, but a more literal translation is “To Keep and Eye On and Punish”), Michel Foucault offers some interesting thoughts on the matter. He uses Jeremy Bentham’s notion of the Panopticon to illustrate the history of attempts to regulate behavior, from prisons to schools to retail outlets to psychotherapy.

It’s important to note that Bentham proposed the Panopticon as a plan for a modern and more efficient prison. In it, cells are arranged along a large circumference, such that 1) no cell can look into the adjacent one and 2) all cells are visible to a guard seated in a central tower behind a mesh window. This creates a primitive sort of one-way mirror wherein the guard can see the prisoners, but the prisoners cannot see the guard.

The idea is to induce in the prisoner the idea that s/he is being watched at all times, in the hopes that this places some restraint on undesired behavior. This effect is often referred to now as Panopticism.

In case the effects of Panopticism are not immediately clear, imagine using a hotel room, restroom, or dressing room in a department store and not being sure if you heard a noise behind the large mirror. Are you being watched? You’re not sure. What you do know is that the culture is quite ready to pathologize your feeling of being surveilled. So absent clear and convincing physical evidence, you’re some version of “paranoid.”

Parents and teachers also know that at a certain age words like “I’m watching you” or “God is watching you” have a tremendous capacity to modify behavior. Depending on how well some of us internalize the lesson, we may grow up more or less inhibited with regard to what we think, in addition to what we do.

The idea behind Panopticism is to erode an individuals’ expectations around privacy. Needless to say, you don’t need to actually be monitored in order to feel its effects. All you need is the sense that it’s possible and that the means of doing so are hidden from you.

As an aside, there’s an argument to be made here that in a Panoptical culture, exhibitionism may be every bit as much a form of civil disobedience as steganography.

So what does all this have to do with the NYPD and internment? Well, the admittedly cynical answer is that interment is so 40’s.

But more importantly, it’s much more expensive. From the standpoint of controlling a population, what’s cheaper: rounding people up into detention centers (plus the legal costs lawsuits are sure to incur) or simply letting them know they’re being watched? Especially in their schools, colleges, and houses of worship?

Here, panopticism means trying to ensure that whenever and wherever Muslims gather, from now on, each and every one worries about who’s a spy and who’s for real. From the standpoint of intelligence gathering, of course, this is a setback. Less trust means more reticence to speak and thus less actionable intelligence.

But from a political standpoint — let’s say of demonizing a group of people and presenting yourself to an anxious population as their only hope against certain disaster — it’s incredibly cost-effective. You can cut back on the number of agents now that everyone’s watching what they say, perhaps even redeploying them in places and ways nobody’s thought of yet.

By the looks of it, it seems to be working. As with other laws targeted at other minorities, in order to feel comfortable with this exercise of government power one has to feel reasonably confident the power they’re identifying with will never, ever be turned on them.

Twitter Bullies

Well, it finally happened. I met my very first cyber-bully.

Many of us remember bullies from grade or high school. Growing up, we all get more or less solid training expressing frustration with others. Parents are our first model in metabolizing anger, and then come teachers and peers.

What most of us learn, in our earliest years, is how to tell someone that they did something that bothered or hurt us and why.

Along the way, we notice an interesting group of people. These are the people who get furious with you when you tell them they did something wrong. While nobody likes to be told they bothered someone, this group of people responds with particular outrage: how dare you tell me I bothered or hurt you. You wimp! Now you’re really going to get it from me.

And then you get the abuse. Insults, threats, intrusions, unwanted contact…anything, it seems, in the attempt to intimidate you, get you to back off, or show you they are far more powerful and important than you.

So what happened? You just told them they did something wrong or that you didn’t like. Why didn’t they just say sorry, or even “no, don’t think what I did was wrong, and here’s why.”

What happened is you humiliated them, usually but not always in front of a crowd (often a gang) whose regard means as much to them as your parent’s, family’s, or significant other’s love regard means to you.

Here’s a common but by no means exclusive possibility. You didn’t know this (now that you do, you’ll probably be more careful), but when you took them to task for doing something they probably know is wrong, unwise, or ill-advised, you took them back to a horrible place. This is a place they may have long forgotten (or just long to forget) where they were the ones on the receiving end of criticism, yelling, teasing, exposure, shame, intrusion, threats, or even physical violence.

Truth is, many bullies live in deep, close, and intimate knowledge of what it means to feel inadequate, worthless, and powerless. When you cross them, it becomes your turn to find out exactly what it is (or was) like to be them.

For a number of reasons I tried to explain elsewhere, communication here has to be inductive rather than discursive. That is to say, it usually works better in these situations to help someone feel something rather than (just) telling them how they made you feel.

So now you’re going to get attacked, verbally or physically, but always emotionally. You’re going to get picked on, taunted, bullied, harassed, or even assaulted.

The luckier folks with this background learn to put those painful feelings to words, music, or art. The unluckier ones are left with using whatever means at their disposal (usually fists or words) to let you know just how much it hurt them to be told they hurt you.

If you have the presence of mind to say, “whoa, I just told you I take issue with something you’re doing and now you’re calling me an X, Y, and Z,” they’ll invariably say “no, you started it.” In a certain sense they’re right, in that you inadvertently exposed a strong vulnerability. But when you step back and compare what you did with what you got in return, you’re left scratching your head.

Many of us know the eggshell feeling we have around certain bosses, partners, and workmates. We can easily feel controlled by their volatility, but my sense has always been they’re not out to control us so much as stabilize a very vulnerable and precarious self-regard.

Put another way: if the thermostat in your car is broken, and the heat or air conditioning kicks on hard at the worst possible times, you’re going to have strong feelings about a passenger touching the controls, opening a window, or even complaining about the temperature.

Self-esteem is a little bit like the ambient air: when it’s doing its job, we don’t notice it, but once there’s a sudden change in temperature, pressure, odor, or oxygen level, we feel it. And we’ll go to great lengths to correct the situation, regardless of how little or differently the situation seems to be affecting others.

These days on twitter, the cyber-bullies I see the most are the ones who’ve developed a strong sense of loyalty to a politician or even another tweeter. When you say something critical of the beloved leader, you threaten the glue that holds the group together.

You don’t usually hear, “hey, you got your facts wrong, and here are the right ones,” or “what you said is inaccurate, unfair, or untrue.” What you get instead is “oh yeah? Well this is what you do that makes you an even worse person!” or just the far more economical “you’re an asshole!”

You don’t typically get engagement on the issues, because that’s not where these folks live. They don’t inhabit a world of issues to be discussed, so much as personalities to be protected: at all costs, against all enemies, foreign and especially domestic.

They may or may not use military or totalitarian language approvingly to describe their paramount virtue: loyalty to a beloved leader experienced as extraordinarily vulnerable to criticism.

My sense is that the leader is question is often far more tolerant (or even welcoming) of criticism that the loyal devotee. I also suspect that loyalty here doesn’t mean fidelity (as in to principles) so much as a promise: never, ever to hurt the beloved, and to gang up as quickly and fiercely as possible on those perceived to be a threat to the cohesion or self-esteem of the group.

Why, you ask. Why is this discussion for you about the NDAA, health care, abortion, or the best ways to get out the vote, and why is it for them about what an awful, rotten person you are? In more general terms, why is this conversation, for you, about what’s being said whereas for them it’s all about you?

Well, truth is, we don’t always know. And that’s something important to say in the context of this article, so let me emphasize it. We can and often do speculate about what goes on in someone’s head, but they’re the ultimate authority with regard to what happened to them, what they feel, or how they think.

Be open to the possibility (if you’re lucky and the winds are right) that someone may inform you that you’ve got your facts or narrative all wrong. Let them surprise you and display some non-bullying behaviors. They may, for example, tell you precisely where and how your understanding is in error, without insults or invective.

You should also be prepared for it to get ugly. For some, the Rubicon has been crossed the moment (they think) you’ve called them a thug or bully, and there’s just no going back from there. Not that you’ve got them all wrong and here is how, no: you insulted them, grievously, and now you’re going to pay.

In general, I think, people who are not (afraid they are) bullies tend to respond with confusion or bewilderment and then clarification when accused of bullying. I also think people who have been accused of this before are more likely to retaliate instead.

Like me, you may have also seen people getting threatened in addition to insulted. It’s important to note that, to my estimation, no political party or other group has (yet) cornered the market on bullying behavior.

My advice if and when you find these folks is much the same as if you bumped into them outside of twitter: leave them alone. This doesn’t mean letting them intimidate you or stop you from speaking out as best you can on things that matter to you. It means give them as wide a berth as possible when they float into your timeline.

If you follow someone who RTs the bully a lot, consider muting or even unfollowing them. If you unfollow, be prepared for some anger if this is perceived as a hostile attack rather than wish for relief. Expect retaliation if the individual in question identifies as part of the bully’s gang.

When a Twitter bully does something you disagree with, consider carefully how directly you want to say so and why. If they engage you, be clear about your twitter rules (mine include no verbal abuse) and politely decline (no matter what you want to say back!) their invitation to make the exchange about persons rather than issues.

Realize that even though you always could have chosen better words, there’s probably little chance you could have escaped their wrath for calling them on some misbehavior.

If you decide to engage them, be prepared for all labels, descriptions and accounts (regardless of their intentions) to become names, and for all names to be hurtful; that’s just their world. They typically blame their anger on others, and you may even be held fully responsible for their choice of words and tactics.

Needless to say, I don’t recommend this.

My best advice is to wish them well, as this is not only the right thing to do but often has the side benefit of disarming them (if you’re extremely lucky, a bully will be touched enough by your kindness to convert their contempt for you to respect on the spot). Most bullies aren’t used to being treated with genuine respect, to say nothing of kindness; by the time they realize you’re not engaging them in the typical way, you already have a great chance to head for the exit.

If they follow you and chase you, consider a firm request to go away or unfollow. Or you can block them.

I’ve rarely seen bullies persist after that, but it’s always possible. If so, consider reaching out to friends who’ve dealt with these exact or similar people before, or have a look at many of the wonderful online resources now available on bullying and cyber-bullying.

Oh, and good luck. Despite the bullying and other inconveniences, Twitter remains an intriguing world for the social explorer. 🙂