First Person Narratives, Objectivity, and Scandals

Over the weekend I had a realization.

I was watching a panel focused on autism called Thriving on the Spectrum, and found myself frustrated with one of the panelists who seemed to be fairly defensive and called out other panelists a number of times when they didn’t agree with her. She was vocally antagonistic to parents of autistic children, seemed extremely upset that other panelists didn’t completely condemn Autism Speaks (instead saying that they have increased awareness but are problematic), and seemed quite agitated for the whole panel.

A few days later, the same individual posted a long comment on a mutual Facebook group, detailing the ways that the other panelists acted inappropriately. She called on convention organizers to do better, to not include parents or spouses of those on the spectrum, and to police the panels better, even going so far as to suggest that some of the behavior was abusive or condoned abusive behavior by others.

I have tried throughout my time on the internet to read and/or listen to the first person experiences of people who don’t have the same privileges I do. I have tried to take them at face value and accept that someone else lived through something that I didn’t. First person narratives are often privileged because the individual was actually there, because none of us know what happened except for the person telling the story. And it’s certainly true that no other person can tell you that your experience was wrong. You experienced what you did.

I strongly want to distance myself from those people who suggest first person narratives are suspect because people lie. This is not a post about people lying. This is a post about objectivity.

Now some people out there might look at this pair of experiences and say that I am the correct person because I am more objective. I was not emotional or upset, I wasn’t personally involved in anything that was happening, I spoke with someone else about the panel afterwards and verified my perceptions. The person on the panel is not neurotypical, she was agitated, she was “oversensitive.” Of the two of us, my perspective is the socially validated one.

The problem of course with this set of assumptions is that neither one of us is objective. As important and helpful as first person narratives are, they are not great at giving other people a clear and unbiased collection of facts, and they’re really not supposed to. They are one experience.

Where this seems to become a problem in my mind is when someone uses a single personal experience as a source of outrage or scandal, or when prior individual experiences start to overwhelm current experiences. Of course we can never have complete objectivity, and of course we all view things through the lens of prior experiences. And in the moment all we can do is use the current information we have.

But when it comes to blog posts, social media, complaints, and formalized repercussions, it seems highly important to me for everyone involved to recognize that immediate impressions are nearly always more extreme than thought out and measured responses. If you are going to publicly object to someone’s behavior, it seems pretty important to just do a double check of what happened and why it’s unacceptable, as well as double checking with other people who were there to ensure that you’ve got the events right.

These might seem like really obvious statements. And I think on some level most of us know these things. I hate the idea that we live in the midst of an ‘outrage culture,’ but I do think that there are some ways people pushing for social justice and change can do a better job, and this is one of them. No, being angry or having emotions doesn’t make your perspective less valid. But that also doesn’t mean we have no responsibility to double check and question our own perceptions, because human memory is faulty and people aren’t objective.

Experiences like this not only lead me to question my own perceptions, but also lead me to feel a lot of suspicion towards first person accounts, leaving me wondering if all the people who report microaggressions etc. are exaggerating. And then I remember that my first, emotional perception might be flawed and I think again.

And I suspect that my perception is being colored by my own privilege. And so I take into account the facts of multiple hundreds and thousands of experiences of other people. And so I don’t make a complete ass of myself by tromping all over the experiences of someone with autism (I hope).

Good gosh I love meta cognition.

Hierarchies of Eating Disorders: A Spiritual Perspective

If you’re someone who reads lots about eating disorders, you’ve probably already seen this article by Maree Burns floating around recently. For those who aren’t enmeshed in the world of post-structuralist and feminist critiques of eating disorders, you may want to try to read it anyway. It’s a little long and at times jargon-y, but it’s also fascinating and makes important points about the hierarchies we set up around eating disorders. Similar to Burns, I will not be using this post to posit anything about the actual nature of eating disorders, but rather about how they’re constructed in the common conscience of Western society.

There are many points in Burns’ article that I’ve spent time grappling with: the fact that anorexia is both held up as perfect control and derided as sickness and disgusting, the way anorexia and bulimia can be mapped onto the virgin/whore dichotomy, and the tendency to view anorexia as the ideal eating disorder. There is an hierarchy of eating disorders, one that is held up by nearly everyone. Anorexia is considered cleaner, more respectable. Many people even view many of its characteristics as positive, but simply taken too far. On the other hand, bulimia is considered disgusting, animalistic, and out of control.

Burns looks at this hierarchy from the perspective of post-structuralism. I’d like to take a different perspective that I think can illuminate some other elements of the hierarchy and the ways that eating disorders make a certain kind of sense. Spirituality is something that Burns does not touch on at all in her article, despite the fact that moral language runs rampant in descriptions of eating disorders, and in the past eating disorders often happened in religious contexts.

Throughout her article, Burns draws on the Western concepts of dualism. She looks at it particularly from a feminist lens, in which female is associate with body/disorder/evil/animal, and male is associated with mind/rationality/control/order. However there is a slightly different version of this dualism that may actually shed more light on eating disorders, which is the body/soul split. Burns points out that society (including pop culture, psychological professionals, and those who actually have eating disorders) makes negative judgments of only certain elements of eating disorders. This includes the behaviors of bulimia (especially purging) and the skeletal body of someone with anorexia.

She posits that these are different types of judgment: the judgment of bulimia is about actions that don’t fit into the appropriate feminine mold, while the judgment of anorexia is about a body that makes a mockery of the thin ideal.  She looks to how each of these “negatives” deviates from acceptable feminine roles and how that deviation results in judgment. In contrast, the behaviors that make up anorexia (self-denial and self-control) are often viewed positively as movements from feminine (bodily) to masculine (rational).

However there is another way to interpret the negative judgments we cast on those with eating disorders and the ambiguous position of anorexia in society. We can find a clue in the religious language used by starving saints in past centuries and co-opted by some people with anorexia today (including myself). Oftentimes this language circulates around dismissing the body completely and moving into a fully spiritual realm. The prioritizing of the next world over this one still holds sway in Western culture (despite frequent cries about our society falling into horrible materialism).

These criticisms of eating disorders reveal that bodies, particularly bodies that remind us that we are animal, mortal, and fallible, are what receives criticism. Negative judgments of bulimia often center around the corruptness of the body and through the body, the individual. The body is seen as the ruler in this situation, but the focus on the body is often given a moral meaning. People with bulimia binge, however the binging on food is often extended into other realms: they’re posited to be kleptomaniacs, sex addicts, or out of control. Most of these assumptions focus on impurity and the fact that binging and purging “taints” the individual. I’ve often heard them referred to as “failed anorexics”. This means that they have failed at the purity that those with anorexia achieve because they allow their body and its needs to overtake them. The obsession with “how much did you eat” and “how did you throw it up” reveal society’s dark obsession with the animalistic elements of bulimia and how it affects the body, rather than an interest in the inner lives of those with bulimia.

Burns suggests that the negative judgments of bulimia are made in contrast to the self-control (often interpreted as rationality) of anorexia. She says: “Self-starving is also paradoxically privileged as a signifier of those qualities that have historically been associated with ‘masculinity’, such as self-control, persistence, transcendence of the (labile feminine) body, and strength” However I would argue that this type of self-control is often associated with spirituality rather than any kind of rationality, as she suggests. People recognize the irrationality of anorexia in the context of the material world. However starvation, asceticism, and self-denial have a long history in the religious tradition of transcending this whole plane of existence.

Something that I’ve posited for quite some time is that the end goal of anorexia is to become pure spirit, to no longer be held up by worldly, finite things.This is why anorexia is often held above bulimia. However the reality is that people with anorexia do have bodies and their actions do impact their bodies. When their bodies begin to appear abnormal, we’re reminded again that they are human, finite, and mortal and that their bodies are falling apart. We are reminded of death (see: focus on the “skeletal” nature of the anorexic figure). And especially as Western societies move closer to secularism, this reminder of death is viewed as disgusting and disturbing, garnering criticism. The combination of heavenly motivation with dying body creates the mixed reaction of most individuals.

This additionally explains the feminine coding of anorexia. It falls in line with the tradition of women who fade away into martyrdom and make their femininity acceptable by rejecting their bodies unequivocally. It is part of the “pure” woman, the history of women as keepers of the spiritual well-being of their families, of women as more moral and in touch with religion than men. Part of the push/pull response to anorexia is the fact that the very deadliness and extremity of it is considered admirable by some. Not everyone can do it: it refuses to accept human limitations and so in some ways appears almost supernatural. The extreme refusal of finitude almost appears to be a martyrdom, especially for those who are trapped within the eating disorder. There’s even a kind of cultish interest in the fact that many people with anorexia suffer from ammenorrhea. Their bodies no longer even produce blood, one of the most obvious markers of human finitude.

On the flip side, bulimia reminds us of our more animal side. We think of the behaviors not as outstanding or amazing, but as mundane and slightly disgusting. We associate overeating with animals, with bodies, and we view vomit as wholly animal (because bodily fluids are gross ya know?). It’s very easy to view the dichotomy between bulimia and anorexia as a struggle between our lower natures and our higher spiritual calling.

And of course if we are considering female morality and spirituality, sex must be play a role. The connections between food and sexuality have already been identified, particularly in Burns’ article. Abstinence is a largely spiritually driven quest. Few secular people feel the need to be abstinent for moral reasons (of course there are some, but it’s not nearly as common as within religious circles). The drift of the spiritual meaning of sexuality into food also colors our conceptions of eating disorders. Just as the body is dirtied and corrupted by inappropriate or out of context sex, so it is by inappropriate or out of context food: a binge. An important part of this connection is the way that sexuality is used to dehumanize, animalize, and objectify women. When we use phrases like “orgies of eating” to describe a binge, we sexualize not only the food, but also the individual participating, and through that sexualization we objectify. It portrays people with bulimia as less human, as more animal. The objectification of women through hypersexualization plays directly into the ways that anorexia (anti-sexual) is viewed as humanizing, pure, and spiritual while bulimia is viewed as animalistic: those who engage in it are objectified just as others who are hypersexualized are.

While the role of male/female dichotomies plays an important role in eating disorders, we should also consider the dichotomy of worldly/heavenly and how that can explain some of the behaviors and attitudes we have towards eating disorders. The history of eating disorders (particularly the long history of female saints starving themselves to death) is a good place to start in this perspective.

Blog Break

Hello my faithful followers! I regret to inform you all that I will be taking a leave of absence from my blog that should end on November 14. I currently work at GiveMN, a nonprofit that just happens to facilitate the largest online giving day in the world. That day happens to be on November 14, and thanks to the fact that seven people have to prep thousands of organizations to receive about $16 million, I’m a bit busy of late.

I promise I’ll have some exciting content when I get back!

Olivia

My Blog Is a Risk

I’ve recently been applying for jobs, many of them revolving around social media and communications, many of which want to see examples of my previous work. As I’m working to get a job, I’m realizing that the things that I post on this blog absolutely could spell the end of my candidacy at any job to which I apply. Knowing this, I’ve continued to write openly about my mental health, about taboo subjects like self-harm, and about issues that are sensitive and personal. I was asked last night why I keep doing it even though I know that it could harm my job chances in the future.

First and foremost I keep writing about these things because I don’t think I could stop. Whether I did this privately or publicly, I would still be writing and reflecting on all of the issues that I write about here because writing is how I cope, release, and reflect. Writing is just how I express myself. While I”m perfectly capable of having in person discussion and I do enjoy those, my first impulse is always to pick up a pen and paper and let out my thoughts. Writing is what I care about and what I want to do, so I continue to write for my own benefit.

But in addition, there are some reasons that I write publicly about these things. The biggest issue for me is that I don’t want to hide who I am and what I’ve been through. There are a few reasons for this. First, I’ve tried to do that and it feels horrible. It is time consuming, energy draining, unpleasant, and isolating. I don’t like it and I just don’t want to do it. Second, I have found some of the best support and the best discussion from those online. I have found communities that I care about and who care about me. I want to be open with them. Third, I know that there is stigma against mental illness. In my opinion, the only way to reduce this stigma is to make mental illness visible. If people know that their friends, family members, coworkers and the like are mentally ill and coping and successful and relatively normal, they can stop associating mental illness with violence and “otherness”.

Now when I mentioned this to my mom, she asked me why I had to do this. Did I have to fight this battle? Now there is no particular logical reason why I need to fight this battle. However I have known for my whole life that if I can make this world a better place that is something that I want to do, perhaps even something that I need to do. For my own quality of life and for the quality of life of those around me who suffer from similar problems, I can’t help but try to make changes. I don’t want to sit back and let other people dictate the cultural climate around me. I want to be active, and advocate for the things I care about through my own life, and through my activism. While I realize that it’s important to balance my own needs with the needs of the larger community, I know that it is possible to get a job while being open, and I’m willing to deal with the difficulties that posting openly here poses if it means that I can give back in some way.

So visibility is important to me. I am a relatively successful and well-adjusted individual. I want others to see that someone they might view as extremely put together actually has a mental illness. But perhaps most important to me, more than any of these other things, I want to be a voice that other people in similar situations can hear and talk to. If I can help one other individual understand their illness better, be inspired to get help, gain the confidence to talk to me, feel more comforted that they can get better, or find something of help in my posts, then it will be worth it. If I can in any way diminish the suffering of another person, or help someone head off their illness before it gets too serious, then holy shit will I be proud of myself. My potential job prospects are nothing in comparison to what this could do for other people.

From my personal experience, I know that finding others who are struggling, finding others who will be honest and open, and who won’t bullshit about the real reasons they’re trying to get better and why they were struggling in the first place, is the best way to feel stronger and more inspired myself. I don’t pretend that I know I can do this for others, but I can hope. The best way to foster dialogue and to help others feel they can be open and share their experiences is by doing it myself.

So all in all, yes, this blog is a risk. But I feel I can contribute in a very meaningful and intentional way both to my life and to my community by writing openly and frankly about my life. So I’m going to keep doing it.

Ask An Atheist Day

I am sick as balls. So I am going to let you guys do my blog work for me: It is ask an atheist day today. ASK ME THINGS!! Here, on facebook, on twitter, any ol’ where. I’ll try to compile them by this afternoon and get them up in one nice big post. Otherwise it will go up tomorrow. Ask me about why I lost my religion, how I get through my days, what’s my purpose, my social security number (haha, not), who my favorite actor is…ANYTHING. I will try to answer EVERY question you ask.

Why I Advocate Blogging in the First Person

In case you couldn’t tell from the title of this piece (and the use of I in it), I write a lot about my own experiences and about my own opinions. I use “I” a lot. I include some of my own suspicions and conclusions about things. I write about things that I care about, things that are in my life, and things that affect my life. Now in most traditional forms of writing (or at least what I was taught in school) this was bad practice. In most academic writing you’re told to keep yourself out of it: stick to the facts. Don’t weaken your point by making it your opinion. Don’t make it about you. I’ve also seen this attitude around a lot recently: stop making your posts about yourself.

Well I’m here to say that I believe it’s ok for us to include ourselves in our writing (yes ME). I’m bringing myself into my writing and making my writing about me and I think that’s AWESOME. While there are reasons for keeping things as objective as possible in academic writing, there are also many problems with the idea of “objectivity” in our writing. Obviously all of us are coming from our own perspectives with our own experiences and writing about the things we care about for our own reasons. I see no reason to obfuscate those things. In addition, there should be no shame in owning something as your own feeling, your own writing. And particularly when you are blogging and are writing about personal things, when you are writing in an arena that is entirely your own, when you are writing for yourself, you should be allowed to make it clear that you can only speak from your own experience.

It is not being self-absorbed or making things about yourself to attempt to only speak about what you know. And it is good practice to make it known that what you’re talking about IS your own understanding and experience. Particularly in the arenas that I write in (mental health, feminism, atheism), experience is a massive part of my data set. I try to write about things that I’ve heard from others as well as just experienced on my own, but in order to be responsible about how I know what I’m writing about, I have to be open and upfront about the fact that this is what I experience, but may not be others’ experiences.

I myself have been told I’m making it about me, and watched other people be told the same thing. How can we speak if not from our own experiences and our own perspectives? Of course there is a time and a place to insert yourself into a conversation, but when you are offering your own opinion it is the best possible time to make it clear that you are inserting yourself.

Because I want to be clear about where I am getting my information and my experiences from, and because I advocate being clear in the way we communicate, I like the word I in my writing. It allows me to tell you all what I’m thinking and where I’m going with a topic. It allows me to be as bluntly straightforward as possible without sounding awkward. And it forces me not to pretend that what I’m saying is fact, but rather that I’m making an argument or putting forth an opinion. Where there are facts, the facts speak for themselves. Where there is conclusion, I am always there. So yeah. This post is about me. It’s written in the first person. It’s my opinions. I’m here and I am absolutely shameless about declaring that this is what I think.