Technical Terms and Language Change

If you’ve been a reader here for any amount of time you probably know that I’m a big proponent of letting language be language. It is a perennial concern of Very Important People that language is changing: words change meanings, new words show up, people start using new constructions, or simple vocal habits and tics change (see: vocal fry). For the most part, I like to remind people that language change is a natural and healthy part of a language. A language that doesn’t change tends to die, and there’s absolutely nothing grammatically improper about creating new ways of speaking, new words, or new definitions for words. Prescriptivist tendencies in language tend to be sexist, racist, and just straight out discriminatory.

But there are a few important exceptions to this belief, and I think it’s important to explain why.

The two most visible examples of language change that rub me the wrong way are “dissociate” used to mean “disassociate” and the slide of “trigger” from a very specific psychological term into a general term for anything that upsets someone. Both dissociate and trigger are words that were coined within psychiatric circles to describe symptoms of mental illnesses. They’re both fairly technical terms with specific definitions that are used in psychological studies, papers, diagnoses, and treatments.

There’s already a lot of confusion and misinformation that surrounds mental illnesses, especially around what different diagnoses and symptoms mean, how in control someone is, and how serious symptoms are. Most people misunderstand what the term trigger means when it’s used in a psychological context and use that lack of understanding to discount how serious it is to be triggered. Very few people have any idea what dissociation is or how serious it can be. Because of these larger public perception issues around diagnosis and understanding, it is extremely hard for people who have these symptoms (as well as disorder that have come into common parlance but aren’t truly understood) to get compassion, accommodations, or help when they’re struggling. One of the ways that people who have mental illnesses are doing activism is by trying to educate others about these terms so that if someone says to you “I think I’m dissociating right now, can you bring me something soft to touch,” you won’t think they’re making no sense and you’ll be able to help them out.

That might not seem like it’s hugely important for someone who doesn’t have these symptoms, but for a person who deals with them, it can be the difference between serious backsliding or competent coping skills.

So when people start using these terms to mean only partially related things, it doesn’t seem to me that it’s basic language change. It seems that it’s a misunderstanding of what certain diseases are and a breakdown in education. In these cases, using the language in a different way does actively harm people. It’s similar to using OCD to mean neat. While most people can understand what you mean, it’s the kind of language change that relies on a stereotyped image of a diagnosis to get its meaning, something that makes it harder for the people who actually have the diagnosis to explain what their lives are like.

In many ways, there are parallels to humor here. It certainly is possible for any subject to be funny, but a good rule of thumb is to punch up, to make fun at the person with power in a given situation. Similarly all words have the ability to change, but in general it seems like a good idea to be tolerant of changes that don’t hurt anyone or are specific to an oppressed group, while resisting changes that rely on punching down at a group.

Of course it’s not entirely possible to just stop language from changing, but what we can do is continue to inform people of the definitions that we use and that are used within communities of mental health, and ask that others do the same to stop confusion. We can continue to educate people about what mental illnesses are actually like. And one way to do that is to stop using trigger to mean “annoying thing” or dissociate to mean “move away from”.

In Defense of Graham Moore

The Oscars were this weekend, which I conveniently forgot and missed until Monday morning’s storm of response articles and videos. Patricia Arquette aside (that’s a whole different ballgame), one of the most noted acceptance speeches was from Graham Moore, the writer of The Imitation Game.

Moore seemed to draw a line between the struggles that Alan Turing faced and his own struggles as a teen, saying

“When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird, and I felt different, and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here, and so I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise you do. You do. Stay weird. Stay different. And then when it’s your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along.”

It seemed to echo many of the It Gets Better speeches from gay celebs. Except of course that Moore isn’t gay. And so there has been a minor media frenzy to point out that being weird and being gay are not the same thing (thanks to the Brigade of Obvious for that one).

New York-based writer Kevin Joffré said “Being gay means more than ‘being weird.’ It means living as if you owe people an explanation for your feelings and your life. Your loved ones can be the biggest burdens in your life. You can be actively otherized every day of your life. That’s what being gay means.”

Meanwhile Guy Branum, a gay comedian and writer added: “The primary purpose of the gay rights movement is to make it OK for straight white guys to talk about how they got picked on in high school”

Slate posted an entire article explaining that Moore’s speech is indicative of a larger cultural way of thinking that equates being gay with any other sort of difficult life experience like bullying or feeling awkward in high school. But the way that all of these people are talking about Moore’s speech seems very off to me. Take the way Slate described his youthful experiences: “Moore…revealed that his own vague adolescent weirdness and concomitant difficulties led him to the precipice of suicide when he was 16.” Wait…vague adolescent weirdness? That seems to imply that what Moore experienced is the average teenage angst that happens to nearly everyone in high school.

The problem with all of these people saying that Moore’s experience was not predicated on structural oppression seem to be missing the ridiculously large elephant in the room: Moore has depression. He did not just come to the brink of suicide. He made an actual suicide attempt.

“I grappled with very severe depression when I was young, but I would also say this is something that has not gone away,” Moore said in an interview after the speech. “This is something I’ve had to deal with every single day of my life. It’s something that a lot of people deal with but not a lot of people talk about publicly.”

While Moore didn’t mention his depression in his speech (which I might chalk up to the obvious anxiety he was feeling), the world as a whole should be able to figure it out: over 90% of the people who commit suicide have a mental illness. An awards show obviously isn’t the place to get into the nitty gritty of his depression, so the quick and shallow explanation he gave of feeling “weird” seems to be a gesture towards his clearly more serious depression.

So here’s where this gets complicated: is being depressed the same as being gay? No, of course not. Are both of them axes of oppression? Yes, of course. Are both extremely difficult experiences that have some similarities, especially when you’re a young person who feels as if there’s no end to the struggles? Probably. So is it useful to bring them up in the same speech? Umm…maybe?

We know that it doesn’t help to equate or compare different kinds of oppressions in some kind of weird Oppression Olympics or “gay is the new civil rights” (sorry civil rights is the new civil rights). While Slate might imply that the bullying Moore (or other straight, mentally ill kids) faced was just the cool kid in math class, not the whole of society, what that misses is that having a mental illness is not some teenage phase. It’s possible that some people with mental illnesses don’t face structural oppression (although as a whole they do), but the constant torture of living with a brain that is driving you to suicide is a very real kind of oppression, even if it comes from your own brain. Just as much as you can’t stop other people from tormenting you, you can’t turn off depression.

I don’t know that there’s a good point to be made here, because bringing up a different oppression as a parallel to being gay or being black or being female doesn’t always make sense and isn’t always helpful, but sometimes it can provide a bridge between two communities. Was an Oscar acceptance speech about a movie starring a gay man the best place to talk about depression? Probably not, but at the same time people use their Oscar acceptance speeches for really random shit, so at least Moore made some attempt to be topical.

But please, whatever you do when discussing this speech, do not erase mental illness. It happens too much already. Don’t equate depression and suicide attempts with average high school difficulties. The conversation we need to be having is not whether being weird and gay are useful parallels, but whether mental illness and sexual orientation are useful parallels.

Integrated Sports

I’ve recently become a fan of pro basketball, something that I never in my life thought would happen. I watch it often with my boyfriend and a couple of our other friends (all male). And more often than not, I’m struck and annoyed by the casual sexism that comes across in the reporting, who gets to report, the cheerleaders and dancers, and of course the fact that the league is still exclusively men (MenBA) while the WNBA is discounted (often by the same people I watch basketball with, who in many other areas are big proponents of gender egalitarianism).

So it isn’t unheard of for me to opine that we should integrate genders in sports. We have trans and intersex people who are trying to compete, amazing female athletes who do beat male athletes in a variety of sports (equestrian events are integrated and women win medals regularly, Billie Jean King beat out Bobby Riggs in tennis, many of the top rock climbers in the world are women and top distance runners are often women), and the current system tends to devalue women’s sports and create an extremely unhealthy environment for men who participate in sports (see: the NFL’s horrific record on domestic abuse).

The problem is of course that we do have statistical data showing that in many of the most popular sports, the elite men have a significant advantage over the elite women. In the NBA for example, height is such a high predictor of success that almost 17% of all men over 7 feet tall are in the NBA (this is so ridiculous I can’t even process it, as the league as a whole is one of the smallest professional sports leagues, with only 15 members per team). The tallest woman in the world today measures in at 7 ft 3 inches, whereas the tallest man is over 8 ft, with the next few trailing in the inches behind them, making it far less likely that women will physically be able to compete against the taller men.

There are many similar examples, like upper body strength in swimming, or weight in football. And unfortunately, most of the extremely popular sports are those that trend male: football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and soccer all skew towards the male body type, whereas some sports that are geared towards women’s strengths, like ski jumping, open water swimming, gymnastics, figure skating, and shooting are not advertised, supported, or seen as important in the same way that male sports are. While there’s no surefire way to change the attitudes of people towards these sports, media coverage of them would go a long way towards showing people that they are actually interesting (also note that gymnastics and figure skating get huge numbers of views during the Olympics when they are broadcast widely).

There’s some good evidence that the cultures that make up male dominated sports are harmful both to the people who engage in them and the people who interact with them, pushing men to view women as objects and socialize exclusively with other men, giving them a skewed idea of what women are like and what they’re capable of. That means there’s good reason to consider integrating sports, especially as the sports that are integrated (for example cheerleading) show good evidence of being healthier for everyone involved and bestowing benefits like teamwork, understanding, and respect for women’s leadership abilities. So why don’t we integrate sports, and if we do, how should we go about doing it?

The first and most obvious way to integrate would be to simply have one league in which everyone plays, potentially with an A and B league so that we get the same number of athletes playing and so that we get the same set of less powerful athletes playing at the B league (something that many people find more interesting for the different styles of play it encourages).

The problem with that is that in the most popular sports the A league would de facto be predominantly male even if it wasn’t in a de jure fashion. It might even lead to less women in sports if there are events that are so skewed towards male bodies that men would make up the entirety of the A and B leagues. Ok, bad solution.

Another possibly more helpful way to integrate by gender but keep the playing field relatively even would be weight classes. Of course this won’t work for every sport, but it would be a start and could be instituted in sports where weight is a significant factor. For something like the NBA there could even be height limitations in some leagues. Or consider leagues that are mixed genders and require a certain number of men and women on the playing field at any given time. Even competition, but probably a slightly different game than the basketball we see now.

It also seems entirely possible that there could be leagues with slightly altered rules to make women more competitive. Some people might whine and moan about how this would destroy the sport, but all our rules are completely arbitrary anyway and the way we set up our competitions is completely arbitrary, so why not make it more accessible to women? I know you all love dunks, but imagine a league in which dunks weren’t legal and how that would change the playing field for gender equality. Ok MenBA fans, stop throwing things, you can still have a dunking league too if you want.

Of course a lot of the work when it comes to gender integration of sports is going to be convincing fans that women are both athletic and interesting to watch. It’s convincing people that sheer power is not the most interesting athletic attribute (or at least not always). It might even be shifting the massive amount of time and effort that certain leagues put into maintaining a masculine image towards one that’s more inclusive and accepting of people who don’t just want to commit exclusively to sports and only sports all the time by proving that they’re men, manly men, the manliest men.

There are so many interwoven cultural signifiers that take up residence within our conceptions of sports, both in the way they’re coached and presented to boys and men, as well as the way they’re consumed (typically by men and in coded male settings). Simply changing the rules to integrate women isn’t going to convince people to value different athletic traits and abilities or new ways that the games might develop if women were integrated. Too many people will simply see it as artificially lowering the playing field because they value power and sheer strength over balance, flexibility, finesse, or skill.

So even if we could find a great way to integrate sports, there’s probably a lot of work at retraining our brains and societal expectations to appreciate new things.

tl;dr I don’t see gender equality in sports happening any time in the near future.

 

Who Gets To Define Sick?

Disability activism is an area in which I often suck. I’ve only just started to dip my toes into reading work about disability and theories of neurodivergence and so on. Which means that I’m still on the fence about a lot of stuff and thus this post will be fairly speculative (and quite possibly overly 101). Most particularly the thing that I want to focus on today is technology and the way that new technologies interact with disability and illness, especially the ways that we define disability and illness.

For a long time, things like blindness and deafness were not the kinds of things that we debated on whether they were good or bad. We couldn’t change them and so for the most part services for those people were about simply helping them get by in their environments with the skills that they had (when it was decent. Sometimes it just turned into locking them away. That is definitely not good). However with the advent of certain new technologies, we may have the ability to reverse some of these conditions. Cochlear implants are a great example. Deaf individuals can choose to use technology in order to hear as most other people do.

But with the ability to make the change comes the question of whether or not we want to make the change. For many deaf individuals the answer is no. They see deaf as an identity and don’t feel as if they cannot manage in the world as they are. Some deaf people say that cochlear implants are a way of telling deaf people that they’re wrong or less than. If the default position of society and the medical establishment is that you need technology to change a fundamental fact about yourself, it’s certainly easy to see how someone might get the impression that the message being sent is “you need to be fixed.”

On the flip side, there’s really no question that as society today stands, it is easier to be a hearing person than a deaf person. Especially when a baby is born deaf (particularly to hearing parents) and the parents have to decide whether or not to give the child a cochlear implant, most people assume that it would be cruel not to give the child that leg up. Most people speak a verbal language rather than a signed language, most schools and jobs are set up for hearing individuals, technology often relies on sounds. There are some clear benefits to being able to hear.

Let’s change the script a little bit. There are clear benefits to being white in society as it stands today. White people are far more likely to hold high paying or powerful jobs, get promoted, get hired, get good grades. The dialects that are common to African Americans are devalued while standard white dialects are held up as normal and correct. Being black is just harder than being white.

While most people would agree with the second script (and if you don’t then you need to brush up on your racial politics), almost no one would suggest that the solution is to just make black people white. Similarly, many of the reasons that being deaf is hard in society isn’t because there’s something wrong with deaf people but because society is just set up around the needs and abilities of hearing people. We could easily say that life would be easier if we all had more legs (because more is better right?) but the way things are set up now wouldn’t work for those people. There’s nothing inherently better about having doors the size they are or schools set up to teach through vocalizations, it’s just what’s common and works for a lot of people.

The autistic community is a great example of this kind of reframing. The more we learn about autism the more we find out that autism itself doesn’t actually cause very many problems. It’s far more likely that interacting with a society that has different expectations is what causes the problems. When people with autism are met where they are, they’re astoundingly talented and functional (for example when they’re communicated with in clear and literal ways, when they’re allowed to learn while moving or standing, or when they’re given weighted blankets or clothes to help them with sensory sensitivities). The problem comes when everyone assumes that people should all function the same way. It’s actually not that hard to adjust and help meet someone’s needs.

Now to contrast these basic disability 101 concepts let’s look at something that is pretty clearly a problem: eating disorders (I know, I’m repetitive). There are many people with eating disorders who don’t want to go to treatment, take meds, eat food, have therapy, etc. It is a hallmark of eating disorders that people who have them don’t want to get better. And yet we can very clearly point towards the fact that eating disorders are harmful, they can kill you, and when people do recover they tend to see that it was really not in their best interest to resist treatment.

There are some clear differences here: there is no society in which having an eating disorder would make your life easier or better, whereas it’s absolutely possible to have an autistic or deaf community where those conditions are normal and great. But there are other things that live in between these two examples, and with the advent of medical technologies that might be able to cure them, how do we decide what counts as an illness, disease, or disability, and what is simply a difference? Who gets to make those choices? In a wholly hypothetical world, if we could ensure that a child is born hearing, seeing, mentally sound, etc. are we morally obligated to ensure these things because they’re “better”?

At the moment, the medical establishment, whether that be through the DSM, Big Pharma, or doctors, makes most of these decisions. It’s probably good that doctors are involved in the definitions of disease and disability, but what’s really missing is the internal perspectives of the people we define as disabled. There is a lack of respect for the rights of individuals even in cases in which they are clearly harming themselves by not seeking treatment (such as eating disorders, where people are often pressured or bullied into treatment). More than anything, the assumption that a condition has to mean the same thing to every person is a huge problem. Not every deaf person will experience their deafness as an identity they care about, but not everyone experiences it as a hindrance either.

I seriously doubt there will be a clear answer of where to draw the line between “totally acceptable and not a problem difference” and “thing we really should work to change.” But what I worry about is that going forward technology will put more and more power in the hands of government, pharmaceutical companies, and doctors instead of individuals to promote certain treatments. I hope we don’t walk blindly towards it.

Bad Things Will Always Happen

One of the things that many people who struggle with depression or mental illness find extremely difficult is understanding what it means when people say that life can be better. It’s very easy to look at the bad things that happen to basically everyone at some points in life and wonder how things will feel or be better. It’s especially difficult to imagine how other people can go through life without being overwhelmed or sad about the state of the world as a whole. When you’re a naturally fairly reactive person, it can seem as if the only way to not be hurting is if nothing goes wrong.

I have good news and bad news for people who are really struggling with the idea of imagining recovery.

The bad news is that bad things will always happen. Sure, getting some of your emotions under control and learning better ways to interact with people will probably improve your external circumstances to some extent. If you’re doing relatively well at your job and not getting into fights with your spouse, things will feel calmer overall. But there will always be random, nasty things that happen. In the last two weeks I’ve lost my key card for work (which was also holding my bus card and gym membership card), popped a tire on my car, had another tire on my car repeatedly go flat, and had an unexpected fee added to my rent bill.

All of these things are stressful. This kind of stuff isn’t ever going to stop happening. It’s the nature of life that unexpected things happen. Sometimes good things, sometimes bad things.

This is where the good news comes in: bad stuff doesn’t always feel that bad.

All of these things were things that I could deal with. None of them put me in a financial situation that was untenable, I’m fully capable of fixing all of them with a few phone calls or a trip to the lost and found of the bus service. Of course it’s a nuisance and things I have to add to figuring out in my day to day life, but none of them is the kind of irreversible issue that can’t be solved.

The total revelation for me came when I realized that I can both be upset and frustrated, and still be functional and capable at getting stuff done. Maybe I need to run off to the bathroom for 15 minutes and cry in frustration, but then I’ll pick myself up and fix the problem. This might not seem like a revelation for some people, but when a stressful event can trigger a complete meltdown, it’s amazing to realize that the stress and anxiety isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t stop you from being competent.

There is often an assumption, especially in the more competitive and high test areas of society, that if you have an emotional reaction to something, then you aren’t handling it. That can snowball quite quickly, as feeling the emotion will trigger feelings of inadequacy or a sense that you’re out of control. The emphasis on logic over emotion tells us that if you’re feeling an emotion you’re not in a state to deal with problems. That’s straight out not true: one of the most important skills of being an adult is the ability to feel an emotion and act in a way that isn’t dictated by that emotion. In fact feeling stress, anxiety, unhappiness, or anger at situations like these is entirely healthy and can help you set up ways to keep them from happening again (in cases where you might be able to be more proactive).

So for those who feel mired, imagine this: something stupid and shitty happens. You get a parking ticket. You feel annoyed and frustrated, but you get in your car, you drive home, you pay the ticket, and you cut out something fun in the next week to make up the cost. And then it’s over. It can be that easy. That’s what recovery looks like.

 

Social Media, Shaming, Bullying

Today’s post will probably not be particularly coherent. I’m working out a variety of thoughts related to a wide array of topics that all seem to come together in the phenomena of online shaming and harassment. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts about the appropriateness of shaming, the role social media and the internet play in allowing people to shame each other, and the differences between harassment and activism.

There have been a lot of stories lately about people using shame or attacks on the internet to change other people’s behavior. Gamergate is one of the most obvious examples, although in that case shame was not the tactic, but rather threats and attacks (with at least one instance of someone physically attempting to injure another person). It doesn’t seem like it takes much thinking to realize that threats (especially death and rape threats) are not acceptable ways to change someone’s behavior, and neither is driving to their house with the intention of killing them. So we have a far end of the spectrum that is unequivocally Not Ok (I’m sure there is a freeze peacher out there somewhere who is apoplectic that I’m taking away their right to say whatever they want. When I say Not Ok I mean that this is a horrible, unethical way to try to change things you disagree with, whether that be women in games or super racist people).

But other examples are not quite as obviously horrible ways to participate in a decent society.

Recently, Gawker did some trolling of Coca Cola in a way that tarnished their brand. Coca Cola was in the midst of a campaign turning negative tweets into happy little pictures, and Gawker managed to make them tweet quotes from Mein Kampf. Was this useful? Was it cruel? It seems like Gawker might have been pointing out the ways that it’s really unhelpful to tritely paper over the actual harms that happen on the internet, especially when Coca Cola actively takes part in some extremely negative, harmful, and oppressive things. But did that message come across, and is it ok to shame or trick them?

At Skepchick, Kerry suggests that trolling a huge company is different from taking the same actions towards an individual. A recent New York Times article documents the ways that backlash to tweets can completely change an individual’s life, leading to them losing their job, developing mental illnesses, and even being afraid to date on the off chance that their date Googles them. The repercussions for Coke were that the company had to pull their campaign. So it does seem that there’s an important difference between using social media to ask someone (or someones) with power to change their behaviors and piling on the shame to an individual to get them to change their behavior.

BUT…one of the most effective ways to push social change is by upping the social costs of behaving poorly. So when more and more people start speaking up and saying that they don’t like shitty rape jokes, or that they won’t tolerate hearing racism and sexism, the more people learn not to engage in behaviors that actually hurt other people. When someone does something that is really a nasty, inappropriate thing (even if it’s simply saying a nasty, inappropriate shame) it does make sense for them to feel some shame, and for others to show their disapproval. Sometimes this does cross over into shaming for shaming’s sake, like name calling or mocking. That seems to be less helpful, although it’s something that happens with or without the internet: it happened in the past in public punishments like the stocks or public executions and whippings. It happens in individual friend groups all the time. It can even happen at larger events like performances or athletics.

So it makes complete sense that some of these shaming behaviors that are actually pretty effective ways of groups policing what behavior they find acceptable or not would move over to the internet. I’m curious if the people who think that this constitutes a destruction of free speech would think the same thing about the instances in which people are shamed or berated for saying shitty things in meatspace.

Of course there are some pertinent differences. The internet lets shaming happen on a scale far larger than most in person shaming ever would. It sticks around for a lot longer, and can get broadcast to a lot of people, even if just for their entertainment. Those differences can lead the shaming to follow someone for longer than it might have otherwise, but the emotional effects of being shamed don’t seem like they would be much different whether they were in person or online.

It seems like there’s a lot of nuance in which behaviors of calling someone out or asking someone to change are actually effective and aren’t horribly damaging to other people. There have to be some repercussions in order for a person to make any changes, but too many repercussions and you venture into “being a total shithead” territory (like death threats). For people who are extremely thoughtful about how they engage with other people this might not be a problem. There are actually people out there who are fairly careful on the internet about how they try to engage in activism, particularly when interacting with an individual.

But the problem is that the internet gives us all equal access. So especially if someone who is thoughtful and nuanced starts a critique of another person online, it quickly becomes a shitfest of insults and shaming, whether or not we intended it to be that way. This can still be surprisingly effective at getting people to understand that they’ve said something horrible, or at educating a larger group of people about a certain social justice issue, but it does seem to come at a cost. That cost involves hurting some people, the people who said something racist or stupid or awkwardly and then got attacked.

When does it cross into bullying?

I really don’t know. I don’t know how much responsibility we can take for the ways that companies respond when an employee has said something stupid. Calling for someone to be fired doesn’t seem relevant (unless that person is heading up some kind of policy or their actions would affect their own or their coworkers abilities to do their jobs). But sometimes when an employee is the source of bad PR, it’s in the company’s best interest to let them go. Are the internet masses responsible? Was it bullying or shaming to say that a person’s actions were gross or racist or bad? How does it change if that person has 170 followers vs. if they’re a CEO or entertainer?

Our gut instinct says that those in the public sphere should be willing to put up with some flak, but is it really fair to say that they deserve the kind of overwhelming shaming, criticism, and mob mentality that can come when a celebrity screws up on Twitter? How responsible do they have to be for the fact that their words and actions influence more people than the average joe?

Even if you’re one of the Good Ones, how responsible is it to join in the criticism if you know others are going to jump in and take it to a ridiculous extreme?

Guys I just don’t know anymore. I don’t know how much hurt is the acceptable amount of hurt to ask the privileged to put up with. I don’t know when criticism moves to bullying moves to harassment or how to decide what amount of privilege shields you from the worse end of that spectrum. I know that it’s really important that there are repercussions when someone says something racist or sexist or shitty or oppressive because saying those things actively harms the more vulnerable people. I just don’t know how.

Empathy and Sympathy: What’s What and Who Deserves It

In this week’s episode of “my boyfriend and I had an interesting discussion and now I will use my online platform to tell him why he’s wrong”, we come to the case of Snape (sorry Jacob, it really just means I find your ideas engaging enough that I want to write about them).

The essence of the question is whether Snape is a sympathetic character or not. I’m going to start with some nitpicky details about empathy and sympathy, feeling bad for someone, condoning actions, and understanding reasons. Because these are all very relevant to why Snape is such a divisive character and how we as human beings can both hold people responsible for bad actions while simultaneously understanding in a deep way why they engage in such actions.

First, the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy is about feeling compassion for someone, or commiserating when they feel down. It often can have an element of pity in it, but it’s generally the feeling you get towards people when you haven’t experienced the same things that they have. Empathy on the other hand is to put yourself in their shoes and feel what they’re feeling. Now some definitions specify that it also includes compassion, but it seems entirely possible to me to be able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes, feel what they’re feeling, and still be frustrated, angry, or otherwise not compassionate towards that person.

As an example, I can certainly empathize with people who are depressed. I can feel their feelings fairly easily. But depending on their actions, it’s also very easy for me to be angry at how they’re behaving, or feel as if they’ve made bad decisions that are the cause of some of their problems. It’s especially possible for me to understand someone’s emotions and still think that they’ve behaved abominably (for example threatening suicide to keep a loved one close, or blaming someone else for their depression). I’m uncertain whether that means I feel compassion for them, whether I feel bad for that person. I can certainly feel sad for the circumstances that hurt them, or for the brain that makes it hard for them to be happy, but the choices that people make that are actively bad for them and that hurt the people around them are things that don’t make me sad. I do not condone their actions, even if I do understand their reasons.

The long and short: being able to understand how someone is feeling and why is not the same as feeling bad for someone or even feeling sad about their situation, nor is it the same as condoning the actions that come out of that feeling. Sometimes the ability to empathize with someone in the sense of putting yourself in their shoes can actually make it harder to accept their actions or feelings, as your own choices and reactions would be so much different.

So what on earth does all of this have to do with Snape?

Well I have almost no sympathy for Snape. I don’t feel bad for him, I don’t feel that his story is particularly tragic, I certainly don’t think he was a hero. I can empathize with him in many ways: it’s hard to have unrequited feelings for someone, he came from a really nasty home, and the Marauders were fairly shitty to him. I know what it’s like to be lonely and socially awkward. All of those things suck.

But the problem with Snape is that all my sad feelings for him dried up round about the time that he called Lily a Mudblood and started spending all his time with the Death Eaters. He made horrible choices that drove away the people who actually cared about him (Lily), and hurt innocent people, felt little to no remorse about those choices, and then stayed bitter at everyone else because he thought it was their fault he was alone (James). Which is why I deeply disagree with people who assert that we should feel really bad for him, that he’s a hero, or that he is the center of a tragic love story.

We only have a little bit of information to go on when it comes to Snape, but what we have indicates that he’s not a very nice person. Lily befriends him as a kid, but he’s mean to Petunia because of her bloodline, and even shows some hesitation about Lily due to her parentage. He continues to show a strong preference for those who will eventually become Death Eaters while he’s in school, including Avery, Mulciber, Evan Rosier, Wilkes and Sirius’s cousin Bellatrix Lestrange. These are the only people we know that he was friends with. While we can’t absolutely make pronouncements about someone based on the company they keep, his use of the word Mudblood as an insult to Lily when she tries to help him, his treatment of Petunia, and his choice of friends don’t paint a rosy picture of young Snape.

So Snape grew up in an abusive household and was bullied when he got to school. These are shitty, shitty things. His response? To double down on some of the most vile aspects of his personality and insult his oldest friend in a racist, horrible way. No sympathy Snape, no sympathy.

The weird part of this is that the flashbacks seem to indicate that Lily and Snape weren’t horribly close at this point in time, yet Snape continues to nurse his crush for Lily, not making any efforts at dating anyone else and appearing to blame James for the fact that he doesn’t get the girl. So where there might have been some sadness for Snape about the fact that he had an unrequited crush, he made 0 attempts to move on, to be nice to Lily, or to take responsibility for the fact that maybe she didn’t like him because he said some utterly horrible things to her.

Some people have suggested that it’s incredibly romantic that Snape continues to care for Lily and acts to protect her son later in life. If this seemed to be a good faith attempt at being a nice person because he cared about someone I might be more swayed to feel sadness about his final fate and loneliness. The problem with that interpretation is that Snape is the one who brings the prophecy to Voldemort, and only gets angry when he realizes that Lily might die too. He goes to Dumbledore only seeking asylum for Lily, even though he knows how deeply she loves her family. And he only grudgingly agrees to care for Harry after Lily is dead (which he’s angry about and seems to have no joy that her son survived). He proceeds to make Harry’s life miserable, out Remus as a werewolf, attempt to subject Sirius to a Dementor’s kiss, and generally act like a petulant five year old because when the Marauders were kids they bullied him.

That’s not to say that their actions were good, but rather that Snape is now an adult who needs to behave like one rather than using his childhood as an excuse to put others in danger. In order to have a measure of sympathy, a person has to be able to grow, or at least attempt to grow over time, hopefully from the bad things that happen to them. Not every experience has to result in a major personality shift into a better person, but responding to hardship by blaming others and digging even deeper into bigotry, loneliness, and bitterness is really not charming.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the Snape redemption narrative is that he claims to love Lily, but proceeds to seriously hate her son. He treats Harry horrifically throughout the books, even after knowing that the supposed love of his life literally gave up her own life for this kid. If Lily were still alive and Snape treated Harry in that fashion, we would clearly understand that he was being manipulative and potentially abusive.

It’s certainly possible to empathize with Snape, to understand how he fell into the path that he did out of shame for his own mixed blood, out of fear of people like James, out of a certainty that no one would love him after he drove Lily away. But with that understanding comes the understanding that Snape made choice after choice that was cruel and unethical, and actually made his situation much, much worse through his own lack of empathy and care towards others. So I have very little sadness left for Snape as an adult who made his own choices and now is suffering the consequences.

Of course there’s sadness for the kid he was before he made all the shitty choices. But as an adult, even when there are bad things in your past, you’re responsible for what you do. And unless you make at least a little bit of an effort not to be an abusive shithead (especially when you’re in a position of power over other people, like a teacher with power over kids like Neville), you become at least somewhat responsible for how bad your life is.

I hope it’s obvious at this point that I’m not just talking about Snape. All of us have shitty things in our lives. Some people manage to turn out decently, or at least make the old college try to get better. Not everyone is capable of getting over all their baggage. That’s ok. The problem is when someone unrepentantly blames their past for their bad actions, or when they don’t even make an effort to deal with the bad things. It’s important to find the balance between empathizing with someone and understanding where they come from, while still holding them responsible for what they’re doing now. That’s where Snape becomes informative: I see bits of him in lots of men who have been hurt in the past but who use that hurt to turn against other people. And I no longer have sympathy for how much they’re hurting because they have actively made it worse, held on to the hurt, and probably caused a fair amount of it.

None of this means that someone who’s brought pain on themselves doesn’t deserve respect or to be treated decently. But they do deserve to be held responsible for their actions.