Don’t Tell Me What To Do With My Body

People do stupid things on the internet. LOTS of stupid things. I recognize that this is a fact, however despite that fact, I think we can do better. I have been on the receiving end of a fair amount of these stupid things lately, and I think it’s important to remind y’all of some basics of internet etiquette, and just general life etiquette. I don’t like to have to tolerate people aiming stupidity my way, and I really do think that if we refuse to tolerate unacceptable things, others are less likely to do unacceptable things. Today, I particularly want to discuss reactions when someone discloses to you things that they might be doing for their mental or physical health.

 

The biggest thing that I want to talk about is unsolicited advice. I understand. You want to feel helpful. You want the other person to feel better. If you think you have an idea, why wouldn’t you share? You could make a difference, right? And what if they’re doing something that you don’t agree with, going to an alt med place? Then it’s your DUTY to tell them they shouldn’t be going there. Right? It can only be good to offer suggestions and advice to someone who’s struggling and who’s told you that they’re doing things to try to improve their health.

 

Wrong.

 

Individuals who deal with physical or mental health problems, in all likelihood, have a far better understanding of their condition and the available treatments than you do. They spend a lot of time immersed in it, thinking about it, researching it. They have not made the decision to go to therapy/go to the chiropractor/take meds/etc. without some thought and without weighing the other options. They most likely have heard the suggestion you’re making before, either from other well intentioned individuals or from their doctor or from their family or from the internet. It’s likely they have a good reason that they are not currently doing what you’re suggesting.

 

It’s incredibly condescending when you swoop in and tell them what they should be doing, as if they had not already consulted with a doctor or therapist or family members and thought about it for themselves. It is incredibly condescending to assume that this means you know more about their body or mind, and how to treat their body and mind than they or their doctors do. It’s also incredibly condescending to assume that they have not thought through the treatment options. PARTICULARLY online, where you likely know little to nothing about this individual except the information they have just provided you, it seems incredibly offensive that you would assume you can diagnose or treat them, when they live with their own symptoms and treatment plan and understand the pros and cons of what they’re doing far more intimately than you ever will.

 

In addition, if you feel the need to criticize what they’re doing already, remember that you don’t know why they are doing it, and you have no idea how effective it is for them. You might not like the idea of meds. That’s wonderful for you and you don’t have to take them. But you have no idea whether or not meds have saved the life of the person you’re talking to. Keep it to yourself, because they are taking the treatment path they are for a reason. Particularly if you’re worried about something that you feel is potentially useless, remember that you’re talking to an intelligent human being who has their own agency and who may know that they’re getting a placebo effect and embrace that shit. Assuming that everyone who engages in a certain therapy or treatment needs to be educated by you is really quite vain, and assumes that everyone who does it hasn’t done their research or is stupid. If you’re really worried about someone’s actions, ask them why they feel they should go and what they get out of it, and if you’re still worried then ask if they’d be willing to hear a suggestion. I tend to find these behaviors particularly hilarious when carried out by self-proclaimed skeptics who also happen to not be doctors. If you are not qualified to give health advice, then stop giving health advice. Being a skeptic does not qualify you to give health advice.

 

Health and healthcare are incredibly personal choices. They belong to an individual and their doctor, and any other close friends or family they choose to share with. And IF someone is kind enough to disclose to you that they have to do xyz for their health, but they DON’T ask you for any sort of feedback on it, then the correct response is to be happy for them that they’re doing something to improve their health, or ask if there’s anything you can do to help, or perhaps ask them how it’s going.

 

Just because someone has spoken about a particular treatment does not mean it’s up for discussion. Particularly for people who struggle with chronic or severe disorders, their medical treatment may be a huge part of their life. It may be something that comes up often in conversation because it’s a huge part of their life. I know it’s difficult for me to go half an hour without mentioning therapy because I spend a large percentage of my life in therapy. It’s part of who I am. And I’m not interested in hiding that element of myself. Particularly because I know of the stigmas against mental illness, I often disclose strictly for increased visibility of the mentally ill. In no way does the fact that you know that I have a mental illness or that you know I go to therapy give you license to comment on whether it’s a good idea for me or not.

 

There are some exceptions to this. If someone actively solicits information or advice, then GO FOR IT. If someone is complaining about how horrible their treatment is and how it’s not working at all, then it might be an appropriate time to jump in with an alternative suggestion. Or if someone is doing something that might actively endanger them or another person, then gently pointing out some of the alternatives or problems with their choices is appropriate.

 

So with all of this said, please try to remember that when someone mentions their health, that is not an open invitation to comment or criticize. Even if they say it in a public forum. It should be fairly clear when they’re discussing their health choices in a way that opens it up to conversation, usually prefaced by something like “can we talk about my health choices?” Just because someone says something where you can hear/read it, doesn’t mean they want your feedback and doesn’t mean you’re not a condescending ass when you act like you know more about their health and life than they do. Particularly when you’re talking about what they should or should not do with their body, you can butt out until asked.

 

For these reasons I’m going to be updating my comment policy as follows: if you offer me unsolicited health advice, PARTICULARLY about my mental health, my meds, or my therapy, I will delete your comment. This is my own space on the internet and I have the right to keep it as safe for myself as possible. You have the right to give people as much advice as you want about health in your own forums, but this is my forum and I don’t have to listen to it.

Orphan Black: Who Owns the Clones?

I have a new TV obsession and I’ve got it BAD. Orphan Black is a new show on BBC America that just finished up its first season, and I’m already ripping my hair out waiting for the next one (which doesn’t come out until next spring. Uncool BBC, uncool). If you aren’t watching it, then a.SPOILER ALERT and b.start watching it. Right now. Go to your TV/computer, find it and watch it. Back? Ok. Good.

 

The most fascinating things to me about Orphan Black are the themes of owning your body, identity, and patent law. Today I’d like to explore some of the themes about ownership of body, and how the show provides some extremely interesting and insightful commentary on women’s bodies and liberation. The whole premise of the show is that there are a handful (possibly more?) of women who find out that their bodies and their lives are not what they think: they are actually clones who are being monitored by a scientific project. All of these clones are female, and over the course of the first season they begin to come together and find ways to fight back against whatever forces are trying to influence their lives or take ownership over them. There are clearly parallels between this clearly sci fi world and some of the forces that women feel in their lives every day. I’d like to explore how women’s experiences of becoming self-aware of oppression and then fighting back against that oppression parallel the experiences of the clones.

 

1.Our lives are not our own: we’re viewed as property even when we don’t know it.

There is a parallel between the existence of the clones, and the everyday existence of women. We are viewed as property and treated as property even when we don’t know it. The clones are watched and used by scientists as test subjects, as objects to understand. Similarly, many women today are watched and used by men or corporations or other sexist and oppressive forces. They are the subject of the male gaze, which reduces them to a sexual object rather than a scientific one. However in both cases, our bodies are being used for something without our consent, and often without our knowledge.

 

2.We often don’t understand how we could be property, and try to act as if we are not.

Very often it seems like a foreign concept to us that someone could own us or have power over our bodies that we don’t. It seems unfathomable that we wouldn’t know everything about who owns our bodies. But we are rarely the ones who hold the power or the knowledge, and are often left trying to make the best decision possible in bad circumstances.

 

In the case of the clones, they had no idea that there could be a patent written into their genes: this seems impossible. And so they made their choices as if the option to walk away and ignore Leaky actually existed. When they finally discover that they don’t have the autonomy they thought they did, they have to try to come to grips with the limited choices they have, and they do their best to create new options that allow them more freedom.

 

In a similar way, I think that few women grow up fully aware of the sexist culture that we live in. Girls may grow up not knowing that their father thinks of them as a possession, or they may have a boyfriend and not realize that the boyfriend is possessive. Many times women and girls simply take it for granted that they’re expected to care for others without much in return. They don’t realize the danger we all live in of having our bodies violated, abused, or possessed in ways we don’t like.

 

When someone becomes aware of these dangers, of the way that women’s bodies are rarely their own, the way that they’re expected to be beautiful for public viewing, conform to certain stereotypes, be available for sex in the appropriate fashion, etc. it can be a jarring and painful experience. Sometimes it comes in the circumstance of rape or other violence. And when this becomes part of one’s awareness, you have to try to build new choices that create autonomy for you, just as the clones did. Discussing ownership of women’s bodies head on often gets dismissed as “overreacting” or the “feminazis”. It’s hard for many people to accept that we don’t have full ownership over our bodies. However Orphan Black takes a more subtle approach and decides to act out a kind of thought experiment on what it might literally be like to not own your body. Through this lens, it can explore the reactions and defense mechanisms of the women involved. Hopefully it will help some people take feelings of disenfranchisement more seriously.

 

3.This show illustrates clearly how a “feminine” impulse towards nurturing or family can be channeled into strength and identity, as well as how it can be used to try to subvert those forces that might push us into societally defined identities.

An interesting element of this show is that while it looks at how women’s bodies are used for purposes that aren’t their own, it seems to pinpoint reproductive freedom as the base of Sarah’s independence (and in some ways as Allison’s motivations for trying to get her life back). Kira is her rock, her reason for living, the thing that was all hers until she found out about the patent. In many ways this seems to be metaphorical for how women’s reproductive systems are co-opted for purposes they don’t want (e.g. lack of access to abortion/being forced to carry baby of rapist), when in reality it should be the thing that we are most in control over. However even while it mirrors that lack of power that women have, it also illustrates how the maternal impulse, and some of the “feminine” traits of the women portrayed can be the most powerful and give the most strength.

 

It shows that when women want to take control of their bodies, that often means taking control of their families as well, and that this means cutting themselves off from toxic people (Vic) and taking independent control of their lives. Interestingly, it also means deciding where they want to build their family: for Sarah this involves trusting Felix, and for Allison this involves trusting Donnie. When you take back some power over your body, you seem to gain the power to decide for yourself who you want in your life, where you want to be, and who you want to be around. You may still make mistakes in trusting the wrong people (like Allison), but at least you are consciously making decisions about what’s best for you. Allison took steps to protect herself and her family, and while they were wrong because more information had been kept from her, her children and her family were her motivation, and her self-awareness made her able to stand up.

 

This show illustrates the power of bringing together a variety of traits and reclaiming things that may traditionally have been “feminine” or weak to fight against things that are harming you, as well as how the bonds of a mother to a child can be powerful. I’m uncertain as to whether this enforces a kind of gender essentialism, but we’ll see how it plays out.

 

4.The best part of this show is how the women whose identities are not their own come together to understand their situation and to take steps to rectify it.

The clones rely on each other, the people who are in the same oppressive situation that they are to build clearer identities and to take control of their situation. The most strength that the clones have is when they come together. Each one has a variety of talents and insights, and they contribute to each other’s well being. Interesting, Helena is the most destructive force in the show yet, illustrating that a break in the solidarity can absolutely destroy a coalition. Because each of these women are going through similar experiences, by talking to each other they begin to understand who they are. They don’t get much help from those who aren’t clones, not even those who supposedly have the “answers”. Those people who have experienced either being clones or giving birth to clones seem to have the best understanding of who each clone is. In the real life of women, it’s often important to talk to someone else with similar experiences to your own. Men can obviously help form solidarity and help you understand your identity, but there is something about being around those coming from a similar place and experiencing the same things that can be extremely beneficial to understanding those experiences. People who are living oppressed lives, banding together that creates more strength than anything else I can imagine. This show in my mind embodies some of the ideal ways of fighting oppression.

 

5.Unfortunately at the end of the day, no matter what they do, the game is rigged.

The big reveal at the end of season 1 shows that their DNA is patented: everything they do, their offspring, all of it belongs to someone else. Metaphorically, this speaks strongly to the state of women today, particularly the idea that a woman’s children don’t belong to her and that her body does not belong to her. Our game is rigged. No matter how talented we are, how intelligent we are, how independent we are, in all likelihood we will have far more difficulties succeeding than men will, and someone will want to put us in our place. There is a high likelihood that we will face sexual assault. There is a high likelihood that our ability to have children will be held against us in the workplace, and that our choice to have a family may be held against us. Again, we may feel that we have choices, but our choices are constrained.

 

6.The surrogate mothers are an interesting element as well and one that I would like to see more of: their bodies were used to perpetrate a kind of violence on others (the lives of the clones and their status as property is a kind of violence in my mind), and their “children” were taken away from them without their consent. They didn’t have the choice to continue or end the pregnancy or of what to do with the children afterwards. In many ways, women in this world have no choice but to bring their children into a world of violence and oppression. Especially with baby girls, when the girl is born she begins to become public property. She doesn’t belong to the mother, or to herself. Society takes ownership of her body. The pain that Amelia felt, and her desperation to protect her children appear to be similar to what many women feel when they bring their children into a world where their bodies may be used or objectified.

 

If you’ve been watching Orphan Black what are your thoughts? How do you see the interplay of gender, identity, and ownership?

Mental Health: Speaking Openly

I’m in the process of applying for jobs (yippee!) and lately I’ve been finding some helpful sounding people asking me if I want to be so open about certain aspects of myself where a future employer could see it. Particularly whether I want to talk about my mental health status on a blog which is easily found through both my facebook and my twitter accounts. And as much as I hate to admit it, they may be right: being open about my depression, anxiety, self-harm, and eating disorder could harm my job prospects. There is stigma against these conditions. They can make doing a job well difficult. However I also know that they have never made me incapable of completing the work I need to do, and that I am qualified for the jobs I’m applying for.

So why do I continue to write openly about my mental health when I know that it could harm my chances of getting the jobs I really want? Well first and foremost, this is my small way of fighting against the stigmas against mental illness. I would really like to be a mental health advocate in the future. I would like to do things with my life that help others understand their mental health and that make it easier for everyone in our country to have easy access to good mental healthcare. Right now I can’t do those things. I’m not qualified, I’m trying to take care of my own mental health, and I just don’t know if I’d even enjoy them. And so I’m doing the one thing I AM capable of, the one thing I DO enjoy, and the one thing that I LIKE doing: writing.

The best way to decrease stigma against mental illness is to illustrate its normality. Most people view me as a fairly regular person. Some people even think I’m intelligent or successful for someone my age. I’m not violent, I’m not out of control, I’m not angry. I’ve got some problems but I’m basically a regular joe. And by telling my friends and family and acquaintances that I struggle with mental illness, I see therapists on a regular basis, and that’s ok, I can let them know that it’s NORMAL and ACCEPTABLE to have a mental illness, and that going to a therapist is no different from going to a doctor: you’re keeping tabs on your health and making sure you’re taking care of yourself. For me at this moment, that is the best form of  activism I can do.

Beyond that, I feel that because I like to write (and am good at it???) I can give people a window into what mental illness is like. I want to provide a voice for myself and others, because we’re often spoken over: rarely do you hear those WITH mental illness speaking about mental health and mental health treatment. We need to be part of the conversation. I hope that by speaking up I can illustrate to others that they can as well.

But perhaps more than anything, I don’t have fear about speaking up about my mental health because I don’t want to work somewhere that would discriminate against me based on my mental health status. Eventually I hope to work somewhere where I can be completely open about my mental illness. As it is, it’s difficult for me to work in my appointments and groups without going to some of them during the day. It would greatly decrease my stress if I could simply tell my bosses openly where I was going, if I had some understanding from my colleagues and supervisors that sometimes I will need to take my PTO for a mental health day, or that sometimes I might ask for minimal human contact during the day. If I want to take care of my mental health in the long run, it would be SO much easier to ask for what I need if I could be OPEN about why I need it. And if I feel that people have a stigma against mental illness or wouldn’t want me around if they knew, I will not be happy and I will not be mentally healthy. I don’t want to work in an environment like that. And I will not be the one losing out. The company will.

I want the freedom to say NO to places that will discriminate against me, and so I am open. If individuals with mental illness are forced to keep their conditions in the closet so that they can get employment and schooling and so on, we will not move forward. I would prefer to limit my choices in work to those places that want me. And so I’m not afraid of openly admitting that I struggle. This may lead to some unpleasant emails and phone calls denying me jobs in the near future. But I’ll find something. And I will be happier there than I would have been in a situation that denied me because of mental illness.

In Defense of the Suicidal

Before I begin this post I want to say that I am all in favor of psych treatment, mental health accommodations and more care and attention given to those who appear to be in a bad place. ABSOLUTELY 100% I ADVOCATE THESE THINGS. I want better access to care, better quality of care, and more quantity of care. ALSO: TRIGGER WARNING TRIGGER WARNING: self harm, suicide

All of that being said, this article in defense of psych treatment for attempted suicide pissed me off. I do support having resources for those who are coming out of a suicide attempt, to help them stabilize and get medication and have mental health care (of course I think all of those things should be available before the person gets to the point of suicide), but the idea that it should be mandatory and the whole tone of the piece rubbed me entirely the wrong way. Now most of this piece is going to using personal and anecdotal evidence, but I think that that was WHY the article pissed me off so much: mental illness and suicide are about very personal and internal experiences, and this article reduced it all to statistics, as if that could explain how someone with mental illness is feeling. That’s upsetting.

Most of the evidence that he uses in the post revolves around the idea that those who are suicidal are not thinking clearly and thus are not in any position to make decisions about whether or not they want life or death. Wow. WOW. Let’s try applying this argument to any situation that does not involve mentally ill individuals. Say for example someone had a heart attack. I’m guessing we would all say they’re not exactly thinking clearly at that point in time or directly afterwards. Doctors would likely stabilize the patient, and then recommend certain changes the individual should make to protect themselves from future problems. Now we may look with confusion at people who don’t implement these changes, but we don’t suggest that we should stick them in a mandatory “healthy eating and exercise” facility for a few weeks afterwards to “stabilize” their mental health and get them to a place where they’re “thinking straight”. That’s because we assume that what these individuals do with their life is up to them and if they want to put their life in jeopardy it’s their own damn business.

To look at it from an opposite perspective, say a mentally ill person was being threatened by another individual. They’re being held at gunpoint. We 100% believe that this mentally ill person has the right to choose whether to be alive or dead in this situation and that another person does not. We would NEVER EVER say “well because you’re mentally ill you’re not thinking straight, maybe you do actually want to be dead you never know”. We have a prejudice towards life. We have no idea whether being dead is better or worse than being alive, but we continually assume that if someone has a choice, they SHOULD choose life. That seems just as unfair to me as telling someone else that they should be dead. It’s nobody’s else’s concern what an individual does with their own life or death (with the exception of family members and close friends and other individuals who will be emotionally impacted, but this article was talking about legal and medical procedures to be enacted by perfect strangers).

At other points in this article, the individual states that the average person suffering from MDD has only about 4 episodes of depression in their lifetime and that these episodes last only 6 months, so the pain is temporary. They also state that with medication most people get better, and that with CBT statistics are even better. Ok, so the first statistic is an AVERAGE. There are many individuals who have situational depression and are diagnosed with depression for a single episode. This brings the average way, way down. For those people suffering from major clinical depression, it’s often an ongoing struggle. Even when you’re not in the midst of a full on episode, it still makes everyday life harder. As someone who has MDD (and who is only 22) I can vouch that I have already been through 5 episodes (probably more, that’s just a basic estimate from the last 5 years), and that each of these has been on the high end of six months. That’s almost half my life for the last 5 years. So telling me that it’s “temporary” and that I’m overreacting to a temporary problem is extremely condescending. It’s telling me that a statistic knows my life better than I do.

He also doesn’t address the fact that co-morbid diagnoses exist and complicate these issues severely. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness, and they are NOT temporary, nor are they easy to solve with medication or therapy. They are often comorbid with depression, and many of those deaths come from suicide. As he mentioned, BPD is also a high cause of suicide, and this also does is not something that is “cured” but is more likely something that is “managed”. He also states that it often goes away by itself in “a few years to a decade”. A DECADE? I have BPD symptoms, and I can promise you that waiting it out for a decade is NOT an option. Making light of how difficult that is for individuals is again, extremely condescending and doesn’t bother to listen to how difficult life can be when you’re in the midst of BPD for years and years on end, in what feels like a state of unrelenting crisis. It makes perfect sense to want to be done with it.

In addition, his comments about medication seem to ignore the fact that many individuals who try to commit suicide are on medication or have been on medication and have been in therapy before or currently are in therapy. Meds don’t work for everyone and therapy doesn’t work for everyone. OBVIOUSLY we should try to give everyone the best options possible by allowing them access to therapy or meds, but if they don’t want it it’s their choice to decide that their life isn’t worth living and that those things aren’t for them. No one should be forced into doing things they don’t want to do simply because we view life as better than death and think that this will change their mind.

As someone who has been pushed into therapy and meds, life doesn’t suddenly magically get better. Your suicidal tendencies don’t suddenly disappear. You don’t suddenly gain a new appreciation for life that makes you clear of mind. And even now when I’ve been on meds for months and in therapy for years, I still don’t want them. Many people feel this way. If someone chooses to be unhappy then that is their business and if that choice leads to them desiring death, then again that is their business. Only in the case of mental illness do we feel it’s ok to tell people that they HAVE to do what we feel would make them happier. It is incredibly condescending that we are treated as children who don’t know what’s best for us because of our mental illness.

I’m not even going to touch the ageism in the first section of the post except to say that teenagers have the right to bodily autonomy too.

The final element that I want to address is the seeming underlying assertion that a 72 hour lockup doesn’t hurt anyone, and we might as well do it in case it can help. Now as someone who has been taken to the ER without my consent for mental health reasons, I can promise you that it IS NOT HARMLESS. I was not admitted, I was simply asked some questions and when I convinced them that I had no intentions of killing myself they let me on my merry way. But I had to sit and explain myself in a cold, sterile room at 2 in the morning for hours to people that I didn’t know who didn’t know my mental health history and who diagnosed me with “adjustment disorder” (which is bullshit since I told them that I have diagnosed depression and an eating disorder which is why I had been self-harming). I was terrified, I was traumatized, and I was angry. I spent a week after that having a difficult time trusting the person who called, and I proceeded to bottle up my emotions even worse than before because I was terrified of having another similar experience. It was absolutely horrible in every way. Let me reiterate: I was not even admitted. It was still humiliating, exhausting, terrifying, and traumatizing.

From the people that I know who have been in residential or in-patient treatments, they treat you like a child: they take away your possessions, they watch you nearly constantly. I have never heard about someone having a positive experience in a psych ward. I have heard about individuals being restrained against their will, not being allowed visitors, feeling bored and lonely. These things do not help an individual suffering from depression. They are extremely harmful, and suggesting that just because a psych ward is not equivalent to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest means it’s a great place is ridiculous. There IS discrimination against mentally ill individuals and it DOES take place in psych wards and mental hospitals across the country. So when we consider mandatory psych treatment for suicidal individuals we sure as hell better weigh the negatives against the positives. We have to weigh that these treatments often are traumatizing or scary or discriminatory.

To close, I am in no way advocating for suicide. I do agree that it’s a fairly permanent solution and that exploring the problem from all angles before taking any action is the most prudent route to go, and that this should involve therapy and meds. However the idea that suicidal individuals don’t do this or that they enact a huge decision based on a spur of the moment feeling is ridiculous and infantilizing. From personal experience I have been struggling with the problem of why to stay alive for four years now. If I were to commit suicide in the future (this is not a suicide note. Nobody call the cops. Please dear God I do not want to have to go to the ER and explain that I’m not suicidal. Again.) I would not want my death to be held up as a moment of weakness or a single bad decision. If I were to commit suicide it would be after years of struggling and writing and considering and deliberating. If you look at the lives of individuals who do commit suicide, I think you’ll find more often than not that they have thought about it long and hard. At least give them that much credit. Do their memories that favor. If we’re going to do anything, we should provide everyone with the tools and knowledge to make informed decisions, and then we should give people the freedom of life or death, without the prejudice of saying that life is always and inherently better than death and if you believe otherwise you’re deranged.

Practically Speaking about Evidence

This is the third post in a series of posts about evidence. Here are parts 1 and 2.

 

In this post, I want to focus not on the philosophical benefits of truth or my personal experience of truth, but rather on the simple facts (that’s what skeptics like, right?).  So I’ve heard some people say things like: “All of my beliefs are based on evidence”. When I hear someone say that my first reaction is “WHOA DAMN WE HAVE A GOD HERE IN OUR MIDST”. Now I can tell just from looking at it that you haven’t taken the time to examine the evidence for that statement, because unless you are a robot and not a human being you have come to beliefs by a different route at least once. So by saying it, you’ve actually just proved yourself wrong. You’ve also essentially asserted that you’re not tripped up by petty things like human psychology.

 

I am willing to bet all the money that I own that there is not a single person on the face of this planet who does not hold a single belief tainted by faith, wishful thinking, prejudice, stereotypes, emotions, assumptions, or other non-evidence based things. I know for an absolute fact that I have TONS of beliefs like this. I know for a fact that most of the people who have said this to me have beliefs like that. Every single person I’ve met has demonstrated non-evidenced based beliefs to me.

 

As human beings we have evolved to have emotions that affect how we act. We have fight or flight instincts. We have paranoias and irrational fears. We have histories that paint how we view things. We are susceptible to societal biases and easy to manipulate based upon quirks of our minds. We may think we can verify the truth or falsity of things with our senses, but our senses are easy to fool too. We’re not made to work only on evidence and it takes a lot to overcome some of our emotional nature that asks us to come to quick conclusions to protect ourselves.

 

And you know what? THAT’S OK. It is entirely 100% acceptable and not shameful in any way to have some beliefs that aren’t perfectly based on evidence. Because it is human and we are not capable of perfection. What I strive for is to do my best, not for perfection. There’s lots of instances where I don’t have the time or the ability to find all the evidence I might need, there’s times when I’m straight up lazy because the thing isn’t important, there’s times when I am physically incapable of finding all the evidence, or there’s times when the evidence is about half and half for two different things and I just kind of have to guess, or assume or hope that I’m right. I might even just have to go on faith a bit by listening to others.

 

I realize that the word faith has a dirty connotation to a lot of atheists, but we go on faith a lot of the time. When someone tells you something and you don’t have the time to check their credentials or check for yourself, and you trust this person and then go on to act in accordance with what they’ve told you….that’s faith. I bet you every single one of you has done that at one point or another. Or at least I hope every one of you has trusted another human being at some point in your life. It’s more practical than feeling an obligation to personally check the facts for every single situation. It’s useful. It’s often necessary.

 

The MAJOR difference between this kind of faith and a religious faith is that this kind of faith is open to new evidence. It’s a temporary accepting of whatever seems most plausible at the moment, or of someone else’s evidence, or of their authority. If your boyfriend tells you he loves you and you don’t have any access to a brain scanner to make absolutely certain, you’ll probably believe him. But if you find out he’s a compulsive liar and has been cheating on you, you’re likely to adjust that belief. But you did take it at least somewhat on faith the first time around. You had some evidence, but not as much as you could have had, not enough to make it as certain as possible. You accepted it without certain. You accepted it through trust. By some people’s accounts that’s a bad thing to do, but in my mind it’s highly practical and quite rational.

 

So if we can all accept that sometimes we have flawed beliefs that aren’t based wholly and strictly on evidence, then can we look again at the people who believe in god with a little more compassion? Because honestly they’re not doing anything morally WRONG by believing in god. Their actions based upon their religion might be harmful, the specific teachings of their religion might be harmful and the actions they take because of it might be harmful, but the belief in god itself is not harmful. It’s an understandable lapse, just like all of us make understandable lapses. To perhaps reach a more compassionate view of theists let’s take a look at another false set of beliefs and see how we approach those (caveat before I continue: I am not trying to call religion a mental illness in any way. It’s a metaphor. METAPHOR).

 

So. I have a pretty firmly engrained set of false beliefs that come not just from evidence (because there is some evidence involved), but also from emotion and assumption. I believe quite firmly that I am a useless lump of fat. I can give you a list of the reasons why I think that, the evidence I believe I have, but in the end this belief and its attached conclusions and attitudes are very emotional.

 

I have never, not once in my life, had someone believe that this makes me an appropriate target for ridicule, condescension or mockery. And if they did it would be the most heinously unfeeling thing anyone has ever done to me. I’ve had these beliefs for a good 4 or 5 years now. At different times I’ve tried to shake them, but a lot of the time I have no desire to shake them because they seem like the single most important set of beliefs I’ve ever held in my life.

 

But just because I have one set of false beliefs does not make me stupid. And just because you don’t hold this particular false set of beliefs doesn’t make you better than I am, smarter than I am, a better person than I am. It means I have more work to do in one area. That’s it. And if you suddenly start to think that I’m unworthy of your compassion because I have been willing to hold on to these beliefs for this long, then I don’t think you’re worthy of my respect anymore. If you feel that the correct way to disabuse me of these notions is by condescending to me, telling me how stupid I am, telling me that my beliefs are crazy and ridiculous, or by acting like you are more intelligent than I am, I can promise you now that I will never change my beliefs and I will never have the happier life that true beliefs could bring. If you feel that the appropriate way to make yourself feel better about your life is to tell me that I’m ignoring all the evidence, that I can’t think straight, that my beliefs are destroying the world because they’re false, or that those beliefs are the worst form of oppression because they are false and I am content to keep them that way, then your life is sad indeed.

 

If instead you take an attitude of compassion and say “yeah, you have some wrong beliefs. And I have some wrong beliefs too. Let’s try to figure out what’s right and what’s wrong together so that we can all be happier” I would be far more inclined to listen.

 

So let’s apply this all to religion. When you come towards religious believers acting as if all of your attitudes and beliefs are based strictly on evidence, they see someone blowing smoke out their ass because that’s a bullshit claim, and they see you acting like you’re a lot better than they are for absolutely no reason. They see us patting ourselves on the back for being so damn enlightened. Well you know what? Atheists have a lot of shitty beliefs too. Some of them have even shittier beliefs than some Christians do. Being an atheist doesn’t make you a perfectly intelligent, fault-free person. Neither does being a skeptic. None of these attitudes rid you of the fact that you’re human and ALL of our decision making is tinged by emotions (when psychologists study people who have had damage to emotional parts of their brain and who act strictly on rationality, these people are often incapable of making decisions). And when a Christian or theist of any kind sees someone blustering up to them acting like God incarnate with no false beliefs, they’re going to shut down mighty fast. Atheists are often accused of seeing themselves as God, and I think we should do our best not to make it easier to stereotype us this way. Saying that we never are flawed in the way we come to conclusions is a really BAD way to make people realize you don’t think you’re God.

 

Look I know how fun it is to feel smarter than someone else. I KNOW how much fun it is to verbally and intellectually rip someone to pieces (I was on the debate team, I practically get high from doing that). But it’s not always the time or the place to do that, and you don’t always have a right to do that simply because another person has a mistaken belief. Imagine if we felt that because we had a right belief and someone had a wrong belief it was not only our right but also our duty to leave them in quivering pieces of destroyed self-esteem. Imagine if we did that to EVERY mistaken belief. That sounds like a damn shitty world to me, and I know that I’d end up a hermit if people did that to all of my mistaken beliefs. I know most of you would feel pretty crappy too (because you do have badly formed beliefs. Seriously, just accept it).

 

Now yes, some irrational beliefs are harmful. My irrational beliefs are harmful. And it’s great to promote the idea that we should strive for more and help each other come to better beliefs. But if we’re trying to promote a better world through truth, then shaming people for not living up to your expectations is just as bad as religions that shame people for not being able to live up to the impossible expectations of god. You end up with just as much guilt and hatred.

 

Having a bit of compassion for the fact that every human on this planet is doing their best to get by in a way that allows them to survive when things are hard and cruel is the best place to start. Adding to that that truth can help us is a good place to move next. And accepting that all of us sometimes sacrifice truth to our emotional well-being or simple practicality is crucial to coming across as human beings and to being relatable and kind individuals, as well as to having a flexible and working value system. I think it’s time that we start remembering that kindness and compassion can be part of the atheist value system as well as truth.

The Moral Value of Truth

This is part 2 of a 3 part series addressing why I get extremely pissed off at certain commenters/tropes in the skeptical community. Part 1 can be found here.

A common trope in the skeptical community is that we have a moral imperative towards truth: there is a value in truth that trumps all other values, and the pursuit of truth is the most important thing we can do. Many of us believe that this is what separates us from religious communities, or what will make us happier, more effective human beings. Others of us might believe that this is the definition of “skeptic”: the ruthless pursuit of truth. I believe that this moral imperative towards truth is harmful and unnecessary.

To explain: truth is an instrumental, not an innate value. Whether something is true or not does not tell us whether it is useful or will make us happy or anything else. Perhaps some people might argue that truth in and of itself is a value, because they pursue it for its own sake (I am often among these people because I value curiosity and learning), but for the most part, we view happiness, contentedness, equality, fairness, and other quality of life things as innate values. These are what we strive for. Why? Because we know that they make our own life better, and in order to be consistent, we must understand that they make other people’s lives better as well. Now we could get into a very nuanced debate here about values, the objectivity of values, and the point of values, but I think that most of us will agree that we should strive to improve the quality of as many human lives as possible. I’m going to be working from that assumption for the rest of this post, and I’m really not interested in a debate about where morals come from.

Truth often can contribute to our happiness. It is hard to be happy if we are basing our happiness on a lie or on delusion, because those things can fall apart and leave us incredibly unhappy. However this does not mean that we need to ruthlessly pursue truth. It means that in the important aspects of our lives, we should try to base our values and actions on truth. Truth can also make us incredibly unhappy, as can the search for truth. I know many people, myself included, who are almost haunted by the need for certainty and truth, and who are truly disturbed by the lack of purpose in our lives. If I look at all the facts, that is the most true conclusion that I find: that there is no purpose in my life. This has led to some serious emotional and mental problems for me. The idea that it’s more important for me to be close to that truth and hold that truth than it is for me to deal with my depression or recover from my eating disorder is ridiculous to me. Whether I have a certain purpose or not doesn’t truly affect how I should act and the efficacy of my actions in the here and now. It is pursuing truth too far, to the point where it becomes removed from my life and simply becomes an intellectual exercise that is causing me misery. So for now, I choose to ignore that truth and focus on different truths.

Truth is certainly a part of morality and a part of happiness. Being true with other people has to do with trust, which is an important part of relationships. Not ignoring or deluding yourself about something that affects your life, or something that could change your behavior is extremely important because it keeps your happiness grounded in the way things actually are: a much more stable happiness than it would be otherwise. But desperately pushing for truth, and acting as though truth is more important than human well-being is harmful. We do not have a moral imperative to seek out every kind of truth, every piece of truth. It’s impossible for any human being to find the whole truth, and we always need to recognize the subjective perspective from which we are pursuing truth. When we forget those things in our pursuit of truth, we end up letting curiosity or a need to know drive us past any recognizable point of usefulness. Yes, knowledge for knowledge’s sake can be useful and beautiful and exciting, but if it stops being those things, we have absolutely no reason to continue pursuing it. We are allowed to be content in not knowing, or in not caring about something. If an individual doesn’t care whether there’s a god or not, and proceeds to live their life in a kind and fulfilled way, why should we care if they are not actively trying to find out? We shouldn’t. There is no reason they should need to. The pursuit of truth serves us. We are not slaves to a quest for truth. We are constrained by the facts of situations, and those are the times when it does become imperative for us to pursue truth. My mental health and emotional well being are more important to me than the objective “truth” of a situation. Does this make me a wishful thinker? Maybe. I don’t really care. Because being right isn’t all important to me.

An Argument for Meat Eating

Ooof. I just got done reading an article about how ‘happy meat’ doesn’t count as actually caring for animal rights, and the only way to care for animal rights is to be completely vegan. I’ve heard this argument before, and I still don’t buy it. First of all, I rarely hear any argument that really sinks in about why killing or eating an animal is inherently wrong.

It seems to me that things that are harmful are: things that cause pain, either to an individual or group, or things that keep another individual from attaining their goals. This is adapted from Peter Singer, a secular philosopher. The reason it’s wrong to kill a human being is because they have an interest and a preference for remaining alive. Animals don’t have that forward thinking (or at least most of them don’t. I don’t advocate killing dolphins or octopuses or chimps or elephants or other highly intelligent animals). So really the major harm in killing animals is potentially in cause emotional or physical pain to other animals, or in the pain that the individual feels as they are dying.

Now most of the animals that we eat are not highly aware or conscious. Obviously they can feel pain, but there is little evidence that cows form personal attachments to each other, or that they worry about death. So the most important thing to worry about with the death of most mammals is whether it is a painful death and whether they are raised in a kind, happy way. That is the whole essence of happy meat: ensuring that these requirements are met. So far as I can tell, there is no residual harm if those pieces are met.

That said, there may be some other considerations such as environmental factors, but those are a whole different ballgame because meat does not inherently mean less environmentally friendly. I’m strictly arguing for the morality of eating meat as such.

At its root, my whole position on meat eating stems from a notion that will probably freak some people out: life in and of itself has no inherent value. The value of life comes from the experiences within it: positive feelings, pleasurable sensations, kindness, compassion and connection with others, or a sense of fulfillment. I do not believe a life without any of these things has value. Of course I also believe that no human life is truly without any of these things, and so I believe that removing the possibility of those future good things from someone who anticipates them and has a vested interest in them is wrong. Animals do not necessarily look forward to those things in the same way, so if we can ensure them while the animal is alive, we have done all we can be expected to do. All of that said, I am highly pacifistic, a vegetarian most of the time (I only eat happy meat), and in favor of huge reforms of the meat and farming industries.

Also stay away from octopuses. Because octopuses are geniuses. Don’t hurt the octopuses. I mean seriously, look at that little cutie up there.