What’s the Harm in Belief?

Sometimes I get mail and the other day I got a Facebook message asking me about this post. Now first of all I have to say YAY I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU PLEASE TALK TO ME AND ASK ME THINGS.

But second I wanted to respond to this message because it asked some great questions and was wonderfully thought-provoking. If you’ll recall, that post in particular was about the fact that I find philosophical questions deeply important and that they are driving forces in my life, therefore I would appreciate it if others would not mock or deride people who care about those questions.

So here are the questions that were posed to me.

1. How is it that I have managed to care so deeply about philosophical questions and not fall into religion/supernatural/spiritual answers? Many other people who deeply explore the world and who are driven to find certainty and understanding look to god. Why didn’t I?

2. Would there be anything wrong with choosing to believe in the supernatural if it made me/a hypothetical person with the same intellectual drive as me feel better?

The first one of these is obviously personal so I’ll only touch on it briefly, but I think the second one is something that creates a fairly large rift between the religious and the non-religious. Many atheists have a lot of bitterness towards religion and sometimes that rubs off on their feelings towards any belief in the supernatural. Many people who do believe in the supernatural don’t think they’re hurting anyone and don’t get why anyone would want them to change if they get comfort from their beliefs. These are both valid points of view, but there are a few other elements that I’ll touch on.

So, question one.

There have been some times in my life where I wished I could just believe in a god because it would make everything so much simpler. I was raised in a Catholic school and for some time I thought that it was the right thing to do to believe in God, but I just really wasn’t convinced. I never felt any presence like other people talked about, and when I became old enough to dissect the logical arguments none of the reasons for God’s existence made any sense for me. I might have felt a yearning, but it seemed clear to me when I looked at the evidence that God didn’t exist.

I suppose I could liken it to daemons. In the Golden Compass series, everyone has a little animal companion who acts something like their conscience. When I first read the series I desperately and deeply wanted daemons to be real. I wished I could have one. It seriously caused me some loneliness because I so vividly imagined what it would be like while reading the book that it felt like someone had ripped my daemon away from me and left me empty and alone. But no matter how much I wished that daemons might be real, I knew they weren’t. God was exactly the same for me. I saw no evidence that he existed, no signs of his presence, no reason to believe he was there. I didn’t even want God as much as I wanted a daemon, I really just wanted some sort of certainty so I sought it out in logic, philosophy, and science instead.

I deeply want truth and in my mind I have already examined the hypothesis of God and found it wanting. Therefore it’s not truth and not what I want. That’s the best way I can explain my atheism and why spirituality didn’t do much for me.

So question 2: what might be wrong with choosing to believe in God if you think it would make you happier? I think this is a really good question. Some people believe that truth and accuracy is the most important value in the world. I disagree. I’ve mentioned before that I think truth is an instrumental value: there’s nothing about accurate perception in and of itself that’s really super great but truth and accuracy are extremely important when it comes to creating a happy life, to being healthy, to having good relationships, to being safe and secure…really any other value you can think of you can only achieve if you have an accurate perception of the relevant parts of the world.

So because I don’t value truth for itself, I do think that there might be some times and places where it’s ok to let yourself believe something that’s not true or to do something that goes against the facts you know, but generally under controlled circumstances wherein you’re fairly in control of the situation.

The problem with making yourself believe in God seems to me to be twofold. First, I don’t think it’s really possible to choose to believe in God in this way. It’s like trying to convince yourself that unicorns exist because it would be really a nice thing. You could surround yourself with unicorn believers and read unicorn scripture and avoid anything that questions unicorn existence and spend a lot of time trying to feel the unicorn presence each day. But when you get right down to it, there will probably be a part of you that never believes, that sees the evidence against unicorns, that is just waiting for someone to mention anti-unicorn arguments so that it can pull down your carefully built facade.

And that would suck. Losing belief is often a painful process. If you force yourself into belief it seems pretty likely someone could force you out again, and then you’ve lost your worldview and possibly a community and you have to start fresh, now with a loss of certainty just behind you. That hurts and it’s confusing and it’s frustrating. It also means you’ve spent a lot of wasted time arguing with yourself, trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe, and trying to silence a part of yourself. Rarely if ever does telling a part of your mind to shut the fuck up make you feel happier.

But the second problem is that you’ve built your whole life around a lie. I’m not even going to touch on some of the moral problems of organized religion, so let’s assume for now that you don’t join an organized church. But let’s just think about creating a whole set of morals, values, beliefs, and knowledge around something you don’t actually think exists. This seems like it would be pretty ineffective and would probably collapse at some point. Trying to incorporate one premise into an already created worldview also seems like it would require some mental gymnastics.

As an example, I’m pretty much a materialist. I suspect that there’s probably a physical and scientific reason for just about everything, and I’ve built most of my life around that viewpoint. Imagine trying to stuff a god into that. How would it function? What would it do? The paradigm would probably have lots of inconsistencies and would require me to change other things that I hold as true or else hold a lot of cognitive dissonance. And if I changed things, that would lead to other problems, like the fact that I was now acting based on lies I tell myself in order to support my believe in God.

Particularly when it comes to moral questions, I would hope that everyone in the world attempts to be as truthful as possible with themselves when it comes to creating their moral system. Generally a god comes with a morality built in or affects your morality in some way, as metaphysics and ethics are pretty closely linked. If there’s an afterlife it will change how you act in this life, if everyone is interconnected in some way, it will affect how you act in this life, if things are supposed to be the way they are, it will affect how you act in this life. That means god affects morality. If you’ve lied your way into a god, then you’ve built a lie into your morality. This seems deeply bad to me.

This is not to say that every religious moral system is deeply bad because it includes god, but rather that if you don’t actually believe the foundation of a moral system it seems that it would be vulnerable to adjustments that are not actually very moral and that it would likely not actually be the most moral system available.

In addition, I think there would also be a lot of cognitive dissonance. If you had come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist in your life already, there would probably be reminders of that everywhere, things that don’t fit into a religious worldview for you, evidence in your mind of the materialistic nature of the world.

The person who posed this question included gods like Poseidon as a fanciful example of something that might make you feel more comfortable to believe. I’m going to go along with that theme and look at Zeus. So imagine convincing yourself of the existence of Zeus, the all powerful god and creator of lightning and stuff, and then going out in a thunderstorm. You look up and see lightning. “Evidence of Zeus!” you exclaim, but in the back of your mind you can’t help but think of the fact that you know scientifically how lightning works and that it is not in fact caused by Zeus. Imagine all the time and energy you’d spend fighting with yourself and trying to convince yourself and probably feeling kind of crappy that you can’t actually make yourself believe. Cognitive dissonance is a horrible feeling. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s almost maddening. I would not want to make choices that increase my cognitive dissonance.

I would also worry that it would make you more likely to accept other falsehoods, perhaps more dangerous ones, in the future. This is a bit of a slippery slope argument and on its own I don’t think it would be enough to discourage people, but in conjunction with some of the frustration of the other reasons, I would suggest it would lead to a decrease in good behavior and in happiness. Think about the process of constantly reteaching your brain to believe something that you think isn’t actually true. This is a skill, and the more you do it, the better you become at it. Think about making a choice to believe a lie in order to feel good. These two things combined seem like they might get a little bit engrained and would lead you to keep convincing yourself that your comfort and happiness is more important than external reality. This might be an extreme portrayal and I doubt anyone would just abandon all morality, but I wouldn’t want to set the precedent of choosing lies.

Now it’s possible that some people manage to convince themselves to believe in God and not have any of these problems, never experience any cognitive dissonance, have a really sound and fantabulous moral system, and never let themselves believe anything else that they actually know not to be true. It’s possible that there would never be those stabs of doubt that make you really miserable, or a moment that it all falls down and leaves you feeling even worse than if you had never believed in the first place. It’s possible you wouldn’t waste any time retraining your brain. If that is the case I can’t really see anything wrong with choosing to believe in a God you don’t actually think exists in order to satiate a deep desire for certainty and understanding. I just suspect that practically speaking it wouldn’t work and would really leave you feeling more confused and frustrated than you started out.

How to Not Know

A lot of questions that have been floating around in my mind for long periods of time have finally been coalescing into clear concerns and questions, and this blog post is about one of them. I have long been bothered by the nonchalant attitude that many people take towards questions that truly and deeply disturb me, and I think I’ve finally hit upon why. In a piece at alternet, Greta Christina addresses one of the main tenets of skepticism: “If we don’t know the answer to a question, it’s better to just say, ‘We don’t know.’ And then, of course, investigate and try to find an answer. We shouldn’t jump in with an uninformed answer based on our cognitive biases. And we definitely shouldn’t assume that, because we don’t know the answer to a question, the answer is therefore God, or something else supernatural.” In general, I agree with this principle. As a skeptic it seems perfectly logical. But there is a problem with this mindset, which is that sometimes we really do need to know the answers to things in order to continue to act in our lives.

Greta says this quite clearly when she asks:

“What do you do if the question on the table is one you really need an answer to? What if the question isn’t something fairly abstract or distant, like, “Why is there something instead of nothing”? What if the question is one with an immediate, practical, non-trivial impact on your everyday life? Something like… oh, say, just for a random example, ‘What are my chances of getting cancer, and what should I do to prevent it and detect it early?’”

This paragraph is fascinating to me. Most people are understanding that you want more answers and that you will struggle with trying to be a good skeptic while also continuing to find appropriate ways to act when your questions are things like Greta’s concerns. These questions are very clearly life and death, and people understand that you want the best possible answer to act in the best possible way when your life is in the balance.

What I don’t understand is why people are not willing to extend some of the same sympathy when you feel the same sort of emotional gut-punch from abstract, philosophical questions. What I really don’t understand is how people assume that things like philosophical questions can’t have huge real world impacts for someone. real world impacts like…oh, say, just for a random example, whether or not you walk through your life with overwhelming depression every second of the day.

For most people things that are abstract like “why is there something instead of nothing” don’t lead to anxiety or impact their day to day lives in any major way. It’s the kind of question that you can go through your life being fairly uncertain about without it gnawing at you or without it causing any major fear. Or at least that’s what everyone tells me. Everyone SAYS that it’s the sort of thing that shouldn’t bother you, the kind of thing that doesn’t affect how you live your life, the sort of thing that is just a philosophical exercise.

Unfortunately for me, it’s not. I cannot understand how people think that it doesn’t or shouldn’t have a direct impact on your life whether or not there is a reason we’re here, how our morality is formed, how much access we have to reality. I cannot understand how people feel that it’s appropriate, logical, or acceptable to go through life without any sort of answer to these larger questions, because without these larger answers, we have no overall guiding compass that puts all the rest of our actions into a context, a scope. Answers to the deep philosophical questions are what should be guiding us through each choice we make in life. I don’t know how to make decisions without answers to some of these questions, just like someone who doesn’t have all the information about their cancer diagnosis would have a hard time pursuing appropriate treatment options.

Some people might tell me to simply learn to ignore these questions, learn to live with the uncertainty. I would love to be able to do this and I have been struggling to do this for quite some time. However philosophical meaning and existential crises are deeply tied into my mental illness, and when I just ignore the purpose of my life, I tend towards suicidal ideation. For some people, these questions have serious consequences, and I am one of those people. It is just as life and death for me as the question of cancer is for Greta.

The number of atheists who are happy to just shrug off these questions with a “we don’t know” is upsetting to me, not simply because it ignores a fascinating question, but because it actively ignores something that deeply affects my life, and it tells me that the questions which are extremely important to me are trite and silly. It tells me that I shouldn’t be at all worried that I don’t know about something that affects my life. While I do need to learn to accept what I don’t know, it is unhelpful and dismissive to tell me that the struggle is unimportant. Just as it would be entirely disrespectful to tell Greta that she should just get over the worry of whether or not she might get cancer, it’s disrespectful to me to tell me that I should just get over the worry of whether I am going to be depressed.

There’s a reason I become so upset when people tease about being a philosophy major, or imply that philosophy is just an academic circle-jerk. I went into philosophy not because I wanted to use big words or nitpick about semantics, but because it was a matter of my life quality. Trying to come to grips with real, deep questions is not an exercise: it is a process of self-acceptance. The abstract is very real to me. It hits closer to home than many literal discussions about real-world problems. Some people may not be able to relate to this, but I still deserve the basic respect that says my concerns are worthy of time and discussion.

I have a request for the entirety of the non-religious world: please stop telling me that the questions that drive my life are unimportant, or that it makes no difference if we just have to accept that we don’t know. Not knowing about something that is upsetting or confusing to you is difficult and it sucks, and it’s not easy to just create your own meaning. While this may not be on par with the possibility of cancer that Greta faces, it does play into my own serious illnesses (depression and an eating disorder). Saying that the questions are abstract tells me I’m making a big deal out of nothing, when in reality the meaning of my life is anything but abstract for me. This is gas-lighting on a movement wide level. Stop.

Losing Reality

I haven’t spent much time on this blog, or really much of anywhere talking about body image. Obviously I think about it: I don’t like my body and I never have. I have issues with my body that I take out on it through violence and starvation. But body image is simply not one of the aspects of my eating disorder that I find fruitful to write about, and generally when I bring it up in person I just get frustration and straight out disagreement from my audience. While I understand the impulse to tell me “YOU’RE WRONG” when I call myself ugly, there are times when I want to be able to express and explore my feelings about my body without being immediately shut down. This is one of those times. This exploration may not have a clear point, but I think it’s important to give voice to the thoughts and feelings that are a part of the disorder.

 

Lately my bad body image has been acting up quite badly. I’ve increased my food intake and put on a bit of weight. This means discomfort in my clothes, discomfort in the mirror, discomfort when I eat. But the worst part of it is that when I worry about my body image, I often find that I cannot accurately identify reality.

 

No, this does not mean that I hallucinate. I don’t see my body growing larger before my eyes, I can tell that I’m smaller than many people. However despite all this, I cannot understand what the truth is about my body: is it acceptable or not? Is it too skinny or not skinny enough? Is it healthy, or do I need to lose weight or gain weight? Now most people would find it fairly easy to figure out the answers to these questions by consulting a doctor, by looking at their weight in numbers, by assessing their current diet and activity level, and generally thinking about how they feel in their skin. However when I do these things I am left with strong evidence for mutually contradictory things. The scale tells me that my BMI is a certain number. That number is within the healthy range. Certain magazines tell me that the number is unacceptably high. My dietician tells me it’s acceptable but that I’m still not getting enough calories and need to increase my intake. My eyes and emotions tell me that my body is hideous and fat and horrible. My mind flicks between sources, trying to decide who is the most right, who I should believe, what combination of sources are right, where reality is.

 

It’s enough to leave anyone feeling as if they’ve completely lost their grip on reality. When that happens, all I can do is meltdown. When you don’t know what reality is, you don’t know how to proceed. You are left with no appropriate steps. When faced with a meal in this state, every choice feels wrong and every choice feels right. It leads me to a deep feeling of self-hatred that I cannot figure out even the most basic question of whether or not to put food in my mouth. The reason my body image drives me up the wall is not just because it’s bad. It’s easy when it’s just bad. What’s hard is when it disconnects me from any sort of rational thinking. For someone who prides themself on intelligence, skepticism, and clear-headedness, it destroys my concept of self.

 

It leaves me feeling like my concept of myself is a battleground between different messages of what’s appropriate and what’s not. I don’t want to live in a battleground. I don’t want to live in this body.

Sex is Disgusting

I have recently been obsessed with disgust. Weird? Yes, but so am I. Disgust is an emotion that we don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about and understanding. Very few people question where disgust comes from or why it exists. I’ve been doing a lot of reading around these topics, and in this reading I stumbled on a question that grabbed me: can something be sexy without an element of disgust?

I’m sure a lot of you at first glimpse will say “duh yes, I love my partner and find them very sexy and am not disgusted by them in the slightest”. But I think to get at the heart of this question we have to get at the roots of what disgust is: most current theories suggest that disgust is a reaction to things that remind us that we are animal and thus mortal. Obviously we have disgust towards things that might contaminate us: bodily fluids and the like (generally termed primary disgust), but most other things that cause us to feel disgust are things that remind us we’re fallible: gore, destruction of our bodily envelope, or things that make us feel someone is acting in an inhuman or bestial manner. For more on this theory of disgust, check out Paul Rozin or Martha Nussbaum. I’m not going to spend much time here arguing that this is the appropriate theory of disgust so if you want to hear more about it do some reading on your own (there are a good number of studies supporting it).

Behind this theory of disgust is the idea that we as human beings are afraid of our own mortality and that we cannot live every day with the full knowledge and awareness of our mortality. Realizing we are like animals (particularly animals that we see as fallible) reminds us that we are mortal. Reminders of birth also remind us of death. These things place us squarely in front of our own mortality, and so we try to shy away from them so that we don’t have to be confronted with them. One way that we as human beings often deal with our own mortality and animal nature is by creating a group that elicits disgust (e.g. Jews in Nazi Germany) and imbuing them with all the qualities of animals and ourselves that we find unacceptable. We then use them as a buffer zone between ourselves and our mortality. They are people who are not quite human but not quite animal: they are less than we are, and if we keep ourselves pure from them, then we are safe from the contamination of things that remind us of our animal nature.

Sex reminds us that we have bodies. Sex reminds us that our bodies are not all the way in our control, and is associated with the life and death cycle. So sex is disgusting on some level. It is inherently an animal act: it is something that we do that could contaminate us and that reminds us in an immediate way that we create life and we die and we are mortal. Don’t tell me it’s not disgusting. You know when you’re all finished and out of the moment you look around and you’re all sweaty and sticky you feel a little eensy bit grossed out. And if disgust is the feeling we get when we’re reminded that we’re animals, you sure as HELL feel a little disgusted after sex.

Does this mean that everything associated with sex has some disgust associated with it? Can the fact that sex and disgust might be inherently linked tell us something about negative attitudes towards sex? Let’s explore further dear readers.

As a caveat, I have exactly 0 evidence for most of what I’m going to talk about next. This is primarily theoretical and is more an explanation of possible connections between ideas, emotions, and behaviors than a proposition of a fully fleshed out theory. I would love to hear reactions and feedback.

I suspect that in order for something to turn us on, it has to remind us that we have a body. While there are probably some people out there who get turned on exclusively by intellectual things (I won’t deny that I may or may not have masturbated while reading philosophy before), the moment you start to get turned on you have an immediate reminder of your body, your bodily fluids, and your animal nature. Your desires start to take over. It is an incredibly animalistic place to be. For something to be sexy, it has to be something that will give your body a reaction (I’m talking sexy in the very literal sexual sense, not “a sexy car”). Sexy is always and inherently related to your body, whether you’re turned on by a touch or a word or a thought or an idea.

If disgust is what we have made it out to be, this means that in all sexiness there is an element of disgust. I’m not sure if others have experienced this, but I often find myself shying away from the loss of control that comes with getting turned on, with the way my body pulls me to be present when I feel it reacting. When that first blush of “mmm, sexy” hits, I turn my mind away from it. That moving away or pushing away is the basic disgust reaction. It’s the desire to avoid contamination. Even if you do not have a moment of pulling away, you are still being reminded of your body. There is likely still some element of your brain that wants to remain “pure” and unaffected by the animal body.

Now this may not be true for people who are more at home with their mortality and their animal nature. I’m not sure if these people exist or not, but I will add that if you feel no worry about death or about being out of control or contaminated, then there is probably no element of disgust in sexiness for you. But for those of us who feel disgust, I suspect that there has to be some element of that revulsion with yourself and your body in order for something to be sexy. Likely it’s not a major element or you would shy away too hard, but some purely intellectual part of yourself that wants to be immortal is not down with the down and dirty.

However I would argue that disgust heightens sexiness for many people. Disgust is an extremely powerful reaction. It viscerally reminds you of your body. It can elicit physical reactions, like vomit or the hair standing up on your arms or the back of your neck. When it is paired with a desire to move towards the object of disgust, you can have an extremely powerful feeling. This is something that people interested in kink often play with.

Interestingly, disgust is a learned reaction. Small children are willing to touch or play with primary objects of disgust (feces, vomit, etc). Only after time do they learn to feel the deep revulsion towards these things (theorists suggest that there is still a biological component though, much like with language). In their youth they seem quite interested in and fascinated by them (children playing in mud, anyone? Bugs?). Perhaps this fascination comes back in our sexuality when we can go back to the innocence of being young and unaware of our own mortality. Perhaps the sexiest thing is intentionally embracing and forgetting mortality all at once. It seems that we do have a draw towards things that are “disgusting” and when we recognize this and move back towards a youthful point of view, we might have a stronger pull towards them.

But more often than not we cannot forget all the fears of our lives. They peek in here and there. Many of us try to sterilize sex: we turn off the lights so we can’t see each others’ bodies, we trim and clean ourselves so that we don’t smell or look animal, we try to keep the act controlled or only about intimacy and love. But no matter what, at the end of the day, sex reminds us that we’re animals. This is frightening for many people.

And here is where we find the connection to the taboo and to misogyny. For much of human history, women were deemed disgusting. Disgust is a reaction that asks us to distance ourselves from the object of disgust, to cast it out. However men’s sexuality and women’s sexiness makes this impossible. The proliferation of the species is a constant reminder to men that they will die and that they will not be in control. Sex is one area in which you are always and ever reminded that you are not in control of your body. And so perhaps turning the other into the object of disgust allows men to distance themselves from the disgust or contamination they might feel towards themselves in the sex act. Misogyny may in part stem from the fear that men feel towards their animal nature (I am in no way saying women don’t feel this too. I suspect the brute strength of men allowed them to enforce their disgust a bit better than women though. Also being the penetrative partner tends to make others think of you as disgusting. See: homosexuality).

Perhaps this is where much sexualized violence stems from: it is an attempt for some people to distance themselves from the sexuality that disgusts them. We tend to kill or hurt the things that disgust us. That is the most control we can have over them, and the most distance we can put between them and ourselves. When we combine violence with our sexuality, we may be able to fool ourselves into taking the disgust out of the act by putting all of it onto the other person and only feeling the power and anger of the violence. Foisting the disgust of being human onto someone else protects you, particularly if your disgust is only for women, because it makes you different from the mortal, the animalistic, and the disgusting. But female sexuality and the boners it causes in the menfolks are a constant reminder to men that they cannot control their bodies and that even if they try to foist the disgust of sexuality onto women, some of it remains in them.

In addition, this may be where some of the fear of sexuality and the desire for purity comes from. Sex and death have long been associated in many cultures (The French word for orgasm means “little death”), and it’s fairly clear that the desire for sexual purity seems to come with a fear. But a fear of what? Some people might suggest God’s judgment, but I suspect that the disgust that comes with sex is the larger motivation. Many people think that sex is nothing to be disgusted by, but if we break down what elicits disgust, it may actually be an appropriate reaction. Perhaps this is why purity culture is still so strong. Sex is a reminder that we are not Godly or perfect, in control, immortal, or clean. For those people who dream of being this way (which tends to be the religious), sex is the ultimate reminder that they cannot be purely spiritual beings without bodies that will die. It is the ultimate fear: it reminds us of the oblivion after

However simply because something elicits disgust does not mean we should legislate against it or judge it morally. We cannot avoid reminders of our mortality forever, and simply because something “grosses us out” doesn’t mean it’s actually bad or wrong. Disgust is not an appropriate emotion on which to base moral judgment. Martha Nussbaum argues quite persuasively in her book Hiding From Humanity that disgust does not tell us whether an action has harmed another person, it simply tells us something about our fear of death or about how we perceive something as animalistic. If we take a rational approach to morality, we should look at what harms others, and disgusting things do not harm others (I am excluding things like nuisance laws here in which you inflict something disgusting on another person or primary disgust that is aimed at something which might actually contaminate you or bear disease). Just because something may elicit disgust does not mean it’s bad or wrong. We are all free to do as many potentially disgusting things as we want, and perhaps it’s time to start embracing some of the disgusting things we do: we’re human, we will die, and we need to accept that.

In other realms we’re willing to temporarily suspend disgust. We sometimes play in the mud like little kids and we get great joy out of it. Why is sex any different?

So perhaps sex is disgusting. Perhaps it’s disgusting to be sexy. And maybe, just maybe, that shouldn’t be a negative judgment of sex.

Reality Informed by Emotion

Disclaimer: I was in a car accident on Thursday and am still a little loopy from a minor concussion. If this post makes no sense, I blame it on the fact that my brain was forcibly rattle less than a week ago.

Reality is something that confuses and bothers me. After spending enough time in any philosophy class, it becomes fairly clear that we never will have an objective access to reality. We have subjective access, but our perception of reality is always filtered through our senses and our mind, and distorted in some fashion or other because of these things. Obviously this can be taken to the extreme, a la The Matrix or the Brain in a Vat thought experiment, or we can simply ignore it and say that our senses are the best we have and we can use scientific instruments to measure the world. Most people don’t think a whole lot about this. We assume our senses are basically ok, or that if we verify with another person we can work around any potential problems we have in our perception of the world. Most people are ok with an intersubjective reality.

I am not.

The reason I am not is because intersubjectivity means that everything is a matter of perspective. While we can do our best to put as many perspectives as possible together, things will always look different when you’re standing in a different place, and you can never look at something from all angles at once. You never get a complete picture of reality, and you never get unfettered access to reality. To me, this makes all my conceptions of truth extremely shaky. Particularly in a world where every scientific study has a corresponding paper that says exactly the opposite, and where every therapist has a counterpart telling you exactly the opposite, it’s hard to figure out what is reality. Most people would suggest that being out of touch with reality is a pretty extreme version of mental illness, but let’s look at something that I struggle with every day:

Am I fat? This might seem like an easy enough question for most people to answer. No, Olivia is not fat. You can look at the numbers and see that her BMI falls in the normal category, look at her clothing sizes and see that they are on the small end of average, and look at pictures of her and decide whether she looks fat. That is all information that I can take in and understand. However I can also take in the fact that I am not in the underweight category of the BMI scale, regardless of how much I restrict, that I can see fat on myself, that when I look at myself I can see where I think there is too much fat, and that people similar to me in appearance have been called fat. I have all sorts of contradicting information from internal and external sources, and often I find myself utterly incapable of figuring out which one is “reality”.

It seems to me that this is one of the most important roles that emotions play: telling us what is real and what is not. In studies of individuals who have brain damage in emotion processing areas of the brain, scientists have found that they are incapable of making basic decisions such as chocolate or vanilla. I think that ascertaining basic reality is very similar to this. If you can logically examine something from absolutely every angle but never have that moment of gut certainty that something is right or is what you want, you’ll be left confused and frustrated nearly indefinitely. Emotions spur you to accept something as plausible or real. Now of course they need to be tempered with logic, but trying to exist strictly in a logical mind leaves one incapable of functioning or accepting anything without 100% proof.

Our emotions help to determine our reality, and having any sense of reality seems to me to be impossible without an emotional compass. It also seems to me that emotions are further evidence that we do exist in some exterior reality that acts upon us: while they are primarily made up of brain responses, they do have physical symptoms and these physical symptoms can sometimes trigger the brain response. While it’s possible that these exterior reactions are also only being felt in the brain, it is interesting that if we focus on the physical symptoms of an emotion and calm those, the emotion calms as well.

It seems clear to me that while we have some evidence for the existence of reality, the exact nature of that reality is absolutely something that we have to take at least partly on faith because we have no better information. This bothers me, especially as someone who hangs around skeptics who continually focus on the idea that we should not accept things without adequate evidence.

Faith and emotion often get conflated in situations like this. When you “go with your gut” you’re just taking something on faith because it feels good or right. In reality, our emotions are actually a source of good information about the reality around us. They’re a very quick way to process information. Most emotions have a content or an object: you are angry at something or disgusted with something. Each emotion tells us something specific about its object. Anger tells us that something might harm us or something we care about. For some reason I have spent most of my life discounting the information that emotions provide, despite the fact that it can be understood just like any other source of information.

Reality requires the information of emotions, otherwise it is incomplete and we cannot ascertain the best possible intersubjective reality. Emotion also can give us some sense of comfort or certainty in our reality. Most people who are out of touch with reality are those who spend too much time in their emotions and cannot bring themselves back to logic to analyze different perspectives or possibilities. It’s important to recognize that the opposite is also true: someone who lives their entire life in a philosophy class or a science lab will not have an adequate conception of reality.

So how do we bring ourselves back to reality and trust reality? How do we sort through which constellation of facts constitutes “reality”? Most likely through some form of emotion. Sorry skeptics.

Will Follow Rules for Rights

“FOLLOW OUR RULES AND YOU WILL HAVE YOUR FREEDOM” IS THE BIGGEST LIE OPPRESSED PEOPLE ARE TOLD IN THIS COUNTRY

 

This morning I was looking at the twitter explosion over the Texas abortion bill and ran across this tweet from @rare_basement. I don’t know how to explain what this tweet means to me or my neuroses. I don’t know how to explain how this sums up all the intersectionality of my gender and mental health. But I’m going to do my best.

 

This is the lie I’ve believed all my life. No, I am hardly the most oppressed person in the world, but I grew up in the 90s, when girls were told that “you can be anything if you believe and work hard!”, despite the fact that sexism is still alive and well and making life incredibly difficult for women. But boy did I fall for that line. I still believe it, despite trying to make myself grow up over and over again. Because you want to know what happens when you buy into a cultural myth that disappoints you repeatedly, one that tells you that you’re responsible for your disappointments? You begin to think you’re the problem.

 

The line that oppressed minorities are fed is that hard work will get them whatever they want, including the rights and freedoms that have been denied to them in the past. This is the myth of meritocracy. Unfortunately, it’s not true, and minorities simply are denied rights and freedoms, as well as opportunities, because of their status as oppressed. But the myth puts all of the responsibility for these problems back on the oppressed: it tells them that they haven’t followed the rules appropriately or they have not worked hard enough.

 

This is the worst form of victim blaming because it can make everything an individual’s fault, and it can obscure from the individual the larger forces that are at work. And in my mind, the most insidious part of it is that it essentially sows the seeds for mental illness. One of the traits of many people with mental illness is personalization: thinking everything is either your fault or aimed at you. This myth directly tells you that everything is your fault. It builds personalization from the ground up and repeats it over and over until it’s been hammered into you. What’s worse is that it doesn’t just wait around until something bad happens and then tells you it’s your fault. It points to structural inequalities that already exist, and when those begin to affect you it tells you that you should have known better and followed the rules so that you didn’t make these problems for yourself. It retroactively blames you for problems that were there before you were born, so you are suddenly responsible for a disturbing amount of things.

 

An additional problem with this is that the “rules” for oppressed populations are contradictory and impossible to follow. No matter what you do, you’re doing something wrong and thus don’t deserve rights and freedoms. An example of rules for women: Be good looking but not shallow, and definitely not overly sexy, and definitely don’t flaunt your body but don’t be a prude either.

 

Is it any surprise that we have a generation of girls who have grown up thinking that they are constantly not doing enough, not right, or need to be perfect? A generation of girls who catastrophize everything? If you were told throughout your whole childhood that you’ll be treated with respect, dignity, and liberty if you follow the rules and then are NOT treated with those things no matter how hard you tried, doesn’t it seem logical that you would conclude that you had done something wrong? What amps up the anxiety of this is that you don’t know what it is you did wrong. You can’t figure out what went differently between the times when you got what you wanted and the times you didn’t (hint: the difference was probably not you, it was the circumstances outside of your control), so you get paranoid that at any point you might be doing something horribly wrong and you don’t know it. You might be messing up the rules which can have disastrous consequences. And if you don’t follow the rules exactly perfectly, if you don’t get straight As and no detention ever and dress modestly and act politely, then it’s your fault if you get raped or harassed or if you get denied a job.

 

This is an enormous amount of responsibility and guilt for any individual to take on. It leads almost directly to a paranoia about one’s actions, to a sense of personalization about everything, to perfectionism and to anxiety. For a while I wondered why nearly every girl my age was a budding anxious perfectionist, but this quote makes it so clear to me: we are because we know we have to be in order to be deemed acceptable and in order to try to keep ourselves safe.

Another problem with this message is that it tells minorities that their feelings are not valid or right. When your rights are denied, you have every right to be angry and upset, but this myth tells you that feelings of anger are always wrong because you are always at fault. You don’t get to be angry ever, except with yourself, because society can never do you wrong if you play by the rules. This undermines so much of an individual’s identity, confidence, and emotional understanding that you can be left with no conception of what an acceptable feeling is. In DBT when we talk about the circumstances that can trigger a mental illness, an invalidating environment is one of the first things that comes up every single time.

 

It’s no surprise that oppressed populations have some mental health problems different from those of privileged groups: they’ve been put into a situation where perfection is expected of them, everything is personalized, and their feelings are invalidated. It’s the perfect storm, and yet we sit around wondering why women feel so bad about themselves. This is somewhat akin to leaving tripwires everywhere and then asking why people keep falling.

 

We as a society need to start discussing and addressing the mental health effects of these expectations of women and other oppressed individuals because they are creating mindsets that are rife for mental illness. They are creating expectations of perfection in individuals, they are telling individuals to personalize everything, they are heaping guilt and responsibility on individuals who should be looking at the societal discriminations for their difficulties.

The Internet Is Not a Free Pass

Last week I posted a status on facebook bemoaning the fact that some people on the internet feel that they have a right to give other people random and unsolicited health advice. In response, I got a fair number of people saying “well it’s the internet, what did you expect”, or “you put your information out in public, that means you want people to comment and converse about it.” This was not exactly what I had been expecting.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to assume that because people often behave really badly (harassing, insulting, generally just being offensive and condescending douches) on the internet, that means that we shouldn’t care when people behave badly on the internet. They say that people are anonymous on the internet, so it’s bound to happen. They ask “are you surprised?” They act as if everyone has license to treat you however they choose online, because you have chosen to be in a public space. Oddly enough I’m not really convinced by all these arguments that I should just stop caring and let the assholes run wild.

So there appear to be a few reasons that people seem to think that the internet is and should continue to be a complete free for all in terms of civility and behavior. One is because the internet is impossible to regulate. “There’s just too many of them out there, we might as well give up!” Oddly enough I hear this argument pretty much nowhere in the real world. “There’s too many murders, we might as well give up!” Generally, when a bad behavior is prevalent we take that to mean that we should work harder to get rid of it, not throw our hands up in despair. Even if we can never solve the problem entirely, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best to improve how people treat each other. Yes, it’s entirely true that we may never solve the problem of incivility on the internet, that we can’t regulate it in the most effective ways because of the medium, but we can still do our best.

Another is that the internet is the place of free speech! NO ONE CAN TOUCH THE HOLY SHRINE OF THE FREE SPEECH! So here’s the thing about free speech: you may have the right to say what you want in a public place, but you don’t have the right to say whatever you want in my space, you don’t have the right to say whatever you want without criticism, and you absolutely don’t have the right to be heard no matter what you say. I have the right to ban you, to delete your comment, to ignore you, to criticize you, or to tell you what’s wrong with what you just said. None of these things infringe on your free speech. In fact the benefit of free speech is that it allows these kinds of interactions to happen and we all grow from it. The beauty of free speech is that we can alert people to the fact that they might be saying something absolutely horrible and then argue for our point.

But perhaps the most pernicious myth about the internet is that that’s the way it is, so that’s the way it is. The internet is anonymous and so it will never be improved because anonymity will always lead to asshattery. We can’t do anything about it, and we shouldn’t, we should simply accept it as is. Here’s my problem with that: if we did it for any other problem, our world would become a stinking cesspit of hate and filth and cruelty. It is a huge logical fallacy to assume that because something is a certain way that’s how it should be.

When I mention something that I find inappropriate, I don’t do it just to complain. I do it to illustrate to people who do it that it’s not appropriate. I generally try to explain why I find it inappropriate, and what they could do differently. I expect more of my fellow human beings and I’m willing to tell them so. Even if it is harder to be kind and empathetic online, I believe that we can do it, or at least that we can do better than we’re doing now. There are ways that we can improve how people behave online and when they’re anonymous, and that’s by having consequences for bad behavior. In the offline world, there are absolutely consequences for being a jerk: people stop listening to you, stop hanging out with you, stop dating you or inviting you to parties, they call you out and make you feel ashamed of what you’re doing. We can do all these things on the internet. We can ban those who act inappropriately. We can call them out and tell them we don’t like it. We can tarnish their reputation with their own actions. We can make them unwelcome because they are treating us poorly. Yes, this may take some energy and some time, and there are still places that they can slink off to where we have no power. But we can keep our own spaces safe and kind and healthy. None of this is bullying or cruelty: it’s simple cause and effect. If you come onto my blog and insult me, I will make you feel unwelcome. That is my right.

Anywhere that’s not the internet, our public spaces have rules and expectations. We don’t condone someone running down the street screaming at people and insulting them. We understand that just because we’re in a public space that does not mean that we should accept being treated poorly, and in general we work together as communities to build certain expectations into our public spaces. The same goes for the internet. If we want to claim this new public space as somewhere that we can be safe and comfortable, then we have to be willing to police our own space, demand more from others, and create consequences for those who act inappropriately. For me, that’s calling people out and reminding them that just because you’re online that does not give you a free pass. It’s banning. It’s commenting on bad blog posts. It’s actively engaging where hate and cruelty are happening and saying “that’s bullshit”. We’re still all human beings, even when we’re on the internet, and I still expect all of us to act with the basics of human decency.

 

P.S. I have no idea why I chose the image I did but it came up when I googled internet.