Bad Feelings Are Not Bad

For a long time, I have subscribed to a basically utilitarian ethics, one that is predicated on harm reduction. When I first started thinking about ethics in any sort of real way, my brain was not in a healthy place, and so I came to the conclusion that if I ever caused harm, what I had done was bad. In particular I never wanted to cause bad feelings in anyone else, especially by bothering them, annoying them, taking up too much of their time, being demanding, or unintentionally stepping on their toes in some fashion. I wanted to take up less space so that I would never inadvertently cause someone to feel bad feelings.

In large part, I attribute this to the fact that my own ability to tolerate distress was complete crap. Nearly every bad feeling I had felt overwhelming, and all I could think about was how much I wanted there to be less of those distressing feelings in the world. I had no idea how to have a “negative” feeling without it ruining my day, and so I assumed that every time I influenced or impacted another person, it meant that they would remember and feel that negativity forever. I was convinced that any time I made a mistake I was actively harming the world around me and making life worse for other people. This very quickly led into a perfectionism predicated on the idea that if I wasn’t perfect then I was seriously hurting people and hurting people in any way was completely unacceptable.

Let’s take a metaphor for a minute (it’s fun, I promise). Say you’re in a crowded room and you bump into someone. You step on their toes a little bit because the crowd was shifting or you lost your balance or you just didn’t quite see them. No big deal. You move and apologize, and for most people that’s the end of it. The person that you stepped on really probably hasn’t had their life impacted in any serious way, and part of being around people is the knowledge that sometimes they’ll be in your bubble. Almost no one in the world would suggest that if there’s a possibility you might step on someone’s toe you should not go out at all. Instead, we take reasonable precautions, like not wearing stilettos in situations where everyone else is barefoot, and trying to keep an eye out around us, and apologizing if we mess up. In terms of quality of life, I would much rather go out and get bumped than stay in for fear of getting bumped.

Most of the time, the little mistakes we make like saying something mildly offensive or accidentally insulting someone are a lot like getting your toes stepped on. It’s annoying and might be mildly painful, but as long as the other person stops and apologizes it really doesn’t matter. Sometimes you have to let people know they’re stepping on your toes (especially if you have sensitive spots that are a little out of the ordinary), and sometimes if you have an especially tender point you have to let someone know that it might look like stepping on toes but for you is jumping on a broken foot (I may be taking this metaphor too far). The point is, most people are more than resilient enough to make it through a few social hiccups without it affecting the overall quality of their life. Even more than that, the benefits of socializing far outweigh the small slip ups that do happen.

This is the secret: bad feelings are not bad. They are not immoral. It is not even immoral to cause them. Sometimes they are entirely healthy, good, and important things to feel, even if they are somewhat unpleasant. Emotions like anger, sadness, frustration, or other so called negative emotions really exist to give us information. Most of the time they’re pretty in tune with what’s happening around us, so if someone violates a boundary, if we lose something we care about, if we cannot reach our goals, or if there’s something else that requires our attention or action, we feel an emotion in response. Good. It’s just like pain letting us know that something is not healthy.

Not all kinds of pain are things that we want to have happen, but some kinds of pain are good and important and necessary. They come from change or trying new things or growing in some fashion. Take a child moving away to college. Both the parent and the child will likely feel some sadness as they are to some extent losing each other. No one would suggest that this is a reason for a child to never leave home. We have these emotions to give us information, but sometimes they give us information we already know or can do nothing about or don’t want to do anything about. So the feeling is just there. And that’s ok. It’s not a bad feeling. It doesn’t ruin someone’s life or even day or week. Just like sometimes I get headaches and that’s annoying, sometimes I get sad and that’s annoying. Sometimes other people are the source of both of those events. In neither case do I think that means whoever caused it is a bad person that I don’t want to be around.

I do still like the idea of minimizing harm, but we also have to recognize that it is impossible to do no harm, and that it’s ok. Other people are more resilient than you might expect. And those moments of sadness or anger? They’re really not all that bad a lot of the time. Negative feelings are an entirely acceptable part of human reality.

Disclaimer: this does not mean that intentionally hurting other people is ok. It also does not mean that feelings that cause serious distress or harm are great and awesome. It means that some negative feelings sometimes are acceptable.

#GamerGate, Non Gamers, and Bad Reputations

If you have any connections whatsoever to video games or the gaming world, or even if you have none of those but have been on the internet at all in the last month or so, you’ve probably heard about GamerGate. The underlying sexism in the gaming world has been bubbling up and coming out in the form of a lot of disgruntled menfolks harassing women for being involved in gaming, all under the guise of “journalistic ethics”.

I have very little to say about the particulars of this situation that haven’t already been said, as I am not a gamer and I know almost nothing about the gaming industry. Miri has a great round up post of articles written about the incident, which are more thorough than I could ever be. So why am I writing a blog post about this? Because so far all of the voices I have heard have been from within the gaming community, and as someone on the outside it’s very clear to me that Gamergaters are doing themselves no favors right now. Here’s the truth gaming community: every time I hear about GamerGate I want less and less to do with you. Despite having many gamer friends, an active interest in nerd culture, and the beginnings of an interest in gaming, I am now 100% not interested in being actively involved in the gaming community and it is entirely because of the harassment that women have received.

There are lots and lots of people out there who are getting their first picture of gaming and the type of people who game (beyond the stereotypes of movies  and media) from GamerGate and the incidents surrounding Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu. There are lots and lots of people who don’t do much gaming, don’t follow the media around gaming, and really haven’t given it a whole lot of thought…until now, when they’re reading articles about it, seeing vitriol posted on their social media, and hearing these names pop up again and again. You can bet that many people who wouldn’t have given gaming a second thought before now are going to be forming opinions about gamers due to this controversy.

This might be what you were looking for. Maybe you wanted the attention. Maybe you are still mentally five year olds who are convinced that any attention is good attention. If that’s the case, I want you to know something: Gamergaters are not coming off like the heroes here.

Throughout the articles that I’ve read about GamerGate, one of the common threads has been that gamers feel like victims: no one likes them, they’re stereotyped as lazy, fat, losers who live in their parents basements and eat Doritos all day, and the only place that they can be safe is in the gaming community. They cry out again and again that they just want the safe haven of games to be free from developers who get good reviews by sleeping with reviewers, from journalists who take sides or push “social justice” agendas on them, from women who want to criticize their games into nonexistence. Society has rejected them, and they just want their community to be their own.

Somewhere, buried in the confusion about purpose, GamerGate appears to be about the desire to be respected as a community. Update from the rest of the world: if you want society to treat you better and respect your community as a legitimate space for art, self-expression, and decent relationships, the way to do that is not by making rape and death threats to anyone who criticizes you. That actually makes you look even worse than the previous stereotypes, and will probably end with you feeling even more victimized because you’ve managed to earn the derision of society at large through horrible, abusive behavior. If you do want the respect of the world at large, you might have to act like adults, engage critically with other people, and be willing to talk through differences of opinion. Until you do that, gaming will continue to be stigmatized as childish and silly.

So if Gamergaters think that they’re improving their community or making headway into society by using their current tactics, they are dead wrong. What they’re actually doing is gaining themselves a fairly horrible reputation with everyone who wasn’t already a part of the community.

It’s quite possible that GamerGate had to happen, that this is the growing pains of a space that previously had been the haven for those who were hurt and lonely. It’s quite possible that the gaming community will come out of this much better, and will draw in new voices and perspectives, and gain respect. It’s possible. But from the outside it looks like the temper tantrum of a bunch of overgrown children who don’t want to let other people play in their sandbox, and if this outsider is anything like other outsiders, it is not endearing you to society at large. You thought you had a bad reputation before? You have made it so much worse for yourselves. Sometimes bad reputations are deserved, and right now you are making it clear to the world that yours definitely is. If what you want is respect, then you better start earning it.

Yours truly,

Everyone else

So You Want to Live Forever

In one of my recent posts I touched on the concept of living forever, and why we may or may not want to do so. Because one of my besties is quite enamored of the idea of living forever, I’ve been thinking a lot more about it and whether or not I would want to. But there’s an element to this that I hadn’t fully explored that hit me yesterday in a giant pile of “how did I not think about this?”

Is it ethical to live forever? If it is, how could we ethically enact a system that would allow people to live forever without ingraining oppressions even further? What are the possible repercussions of living forever, not just on an individual’s life, but on society at large? Even if we want to live forever, there may be good reasons to hesitate pursuing the technology that would allow us to do so.

On a larger scale, I suppose we have to question whether giving humanity a better chance of survival as a species is a good thing. There’s no particular reason to think that humans are all bad or all good. We haven’t totally destroyed the world yet (which is cool) and we’ve invented some amazing things and we are conscious and have culture and thoughts and emotions all of which are incredibly interesting and in many ways beautiful (is beauty a value we want to subscribe to?), but at the same time we’ve drastically reduced the amount of variety in the world (variety does seem to be a value to me), we’re short sighted, we may fuck up the planet enough that nothing can live on it anymore (and life, particularly conscious life as the universe’s way of recognizing and admiring itself seems to be an important value to me), and we are self centered and cruel in intentional ways that nearly no other species is…so it’s kind of on the fence for humanity.

Based on the mediocrity of humanity, it doesn’t seem as if there’s any particular ethical push either to live forever or not (unless we assume that we would leave a void that a superior species would fill, and I don’t see any evidence for that). So what about the logistics of living forever?

The first consideration that springs to mind is overcrowding. If people are living forever and still reproducing, where do we put all of these people? What happens if/when we run out of resources? There’s always the possibility that at this point we’ll be terraforming other planets and it wouldn’t be a concern, but without that outlet, it could mean lowering the quality of life for everyone if we continue overpopulating the planet. Another alternative would be to make people stop having babies, but ethically speaking I really can’t condone controlling someone’s reproductive system (see: eugenics and all the things that are wrong with it).

If we can get past overcrowding, another difficulty would be that one of the ways humanity progresses is through new minds that have different starting premises from their parents. This generation almost takes it for granted that marriage equality should and will happen, whereas the previous generation is far more hit or miss on that. People’s brains are far more malleable when they’re young, and it seems quite likely that changing our opinions becomes more and more difficult the older we get (this is not to say it’s impossible). It’s possible we may hit a limit to our ability to remember or even process new information. Before we attempt living forever we would likely need more information about whether or not human brains can continue to develop indefinitely (yes we can grow new brain cells. Slowly. Maybe the forever livers would have to forsake all things that can cause brain damage of any kind).

There are probably two considerations here: the quality of life of the individual who is living forever and whether that is constrained by the human brain (which we could potentially enhance), and whether or not we would be able to continue to improve society with individuals who grew up in worse times hanging around. While consideration 1 is somewhat important, as long as immortality was freely entered with the knowledge of how it would affect one’s brain, I can’t see it as nearly as pertinent as consideration 2.

Say we develop our technology to a point wherein the human brain and body will not decay in our immortality. We download our consciousness into robots and live forever that way. We’re capable of learning and processing new things, growing, changing, and developing indefinitely. How do we decide who gets to live forever? The technology would most likely be expensive and not available to everyone. Should we allow rich, horrible people to live forever? Should there be a mechanism to monitor who takes advantage of the technology so that people who are criminals or a drain on society (whatever the hell that means) or mean or unintelligent or whatever else we deem “not as good” can’t live forever?

Most likely any mechanism like this would feed immediately into systems of privilege that already exist and we’d end up with even older, richer white men. There is no feasible mechanism that would keep society progressing and healthy with some measure of equality in how people are allowed to live forever. Perhaps it would be a lottery system, but it’s hardly an ideal system that potentially could leave us without some of our best minds and humanitarians.

Overall the whole concept of living forever means trying to solve all of today’s ills before we could find a way to equitably distribute eternal life (haha that’s no big deal right?), so if I were given the opportunity, I don’t know that I’d be able to feel ok with myself if I took it.

What other considerations do you see?

Featured image is Arwen for choosing to give up immortal life (like a boss).

 

The Ethics of Unplugging Your Computer

Because CONvergence is largely a fan convention, many of the panels offered involve panelists whose qualifications are “I was really excited about this topic”. Sometimes this means that you end up with a very interesting variety of perspectives, but unfortunately sometimes it makes for panels with unprepared and uninformed panelists. One of these that I attended this weekend was “When Is Turning Off a Computer Murder?”  The concept of this panel (when and how might a computer reach a state of consciousness on par with personhood) was fascinating. The execution less so.

So for that reason, I’m going to explore what makes something eligible for ethical consideration, connect those concepts with sentience and consciousness, and see if we know anything about whether or not machines have reached these stages yet.

Let’s start with the concept of murder, since the title of the panel looks at when we think a being deserves moral consideration. There is a great deal of argument within ethical spheres over what kind of beings deserve moral consideration. Religious ethics often tends to afford human beings a special consideration simply by dint of being part of the species. However most ethical systems have a slightly more objective criterion for ethical consideration. Some ethical systems believe that being alive constitutes enough of a reason to let something keep living, others suggest sentience, others consciousness, others self consciousness. I personally tend towards Peter Singer’s preference utilitarianism, which suggests that we shouldn’t cause any unnecessary pain, and that if something has a preference or interest in remaining alive, we shouldn’t kill it.

Even more complex is the fact that we have different standards about what types of beings we shouldn’t harm and which types of beings we should hold responsible for their actions. So for example, many people feel as if we shouldn’t kill animals but they do not feel that animals should be held morally responsible for killing each other.

I doubt we’re going to reach any conclusions about what types of beings deserve moral consideration and what exactly constitutes murder, especially considering the fact that the animal rights debates are still raging with a fiery intensity, but we can at least potentially place computers and machines somewhere in the schema that we already have for living beings. For more conversation on what personhood might be and who deserves moral consideration, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or Center of Ethics at U of Missouri.

But let’s start at the very beginning of moral consideration: living things.

The current characteristics that we use to classify something as “living” include internal organization, using energy, interaction with environment, and reproduction. All of these things are things that machines have been able to do, so it doesn’t seem off base to consider some machines as “alive”, at least in some way. Some people may assert that because computers can’t reproduce or replicate in an organic way they are not alive, but this seems at odds with the ways we treat human beings who cannot reproduce (hint: they don’t suddenly become non humans). One important element of being alive that we usually take into consideration when thinking of ethics is pain: hurting things is bad. The question of whether or not computers can feel pain is wrapped up in the questions of consciousness that will be discussed later.

The next level of moral consideration is usually sentience. Most people use the words “sentient” and “conscious” fairly interchangeably, and one of the difficulties with the panel was that neither of these terms was defined. Typically, sentient simply means capable of sensing and responding to the world. Under this definition, computers have definitely reached a level of sentience, although their senses differ from human senses (this is not a problem as far as sentience goes. There are certainly sentient animals, such as dolphins or bats, that have senses like echolocation that humans do not).

Here’s where it starts to get complicated: consciousness. Trying to define consciousness is a little bit like making out with a sea slug: it’s slippery and uncomfortable and you’re not entirely sure why you’re doing it. But unlike sea slugs, consciousness is an integral part of our experience of the world and is highly relevant to our moral choices, so we probably should spend some time grappling with it and hoping it doesn’t wriggle out of our fingers (side note: my brother did once kiss a sea slug).

There are lots of things that make consciousness tough to pin down. The first of these is that depending upon what we’re trying to talk about or the context in which we’re speaking, the way we define consciousness changes. The entry on consciousness in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy lists six different ways to define consciousness*:

1. Sentience

2. Wakefulness

3. Self-consciousness

4. What it is like

5. Subject of conscious states

6. Transitive consciousness (being conscious of something)

Some of these are clearly more relevant for moral considerations than others (we don’t generally consider wakefulness relevant in our moral decisions). We’ve already touched on sentience, but let’s take some time to examine the other possible definitions and how we could determine whether or not computers have them.

Self-consciousness is often a test for whether or not something should have moral standing. It’s often used as an argument for why we should afford more consideration to animals like dolphins and chimps. Currently, we use the mirror test to determine whether or not an animal is self conscious. This test is not perfect though, as self consciousness is an inner awareness of one’s own thoughts. It relies on meta cognition, inner narrative, and a sense of identity. This points to one of the serious challenges of understanding consciousness, which is that we cannot understand it simply by using “objective” data: it requires both first and third person data because it is a subjective state.

With those caveats, there is a robot who has passed the mirror test. This is a good indication that it has some sense of self awareness. What it doesn’t give us information about is “what it is like”, which is the next possible definition of consciousness. This suggestion is championed by Thomas Nagel (who is really one of the more fantastic philosophers writing today). The best example of this is Nagel’s classic essay “What Is It Like To Be A Bat” (that title alone is one of the reasons I loved majoring in philosophy), in which Nagel explores the idea of experiencing the world as a bat and posits that the consciousness of a bat is the point of view of being a bat. This may seem tautological, but it gets at the idea that consciousness is a subjective experience that cannot be witnessed or entirely understood from an external perspective. We can have some cross subjective understandings of consciousness and experience between beings that are quite similar, but (as an example) we as humans are simply not equipped to know what it is like to be a bat.

Nagel says of consciousness: “It is not analyzable in terms of any explanatory system of functional states, or intentional states, since these could be ascribed to robots or automata that behaved like people though they experienced nothing. It is not analyzable in terms of the causal role of experiences in relation to typical human behavior—for similar reasons”. We can see the “objective” facts about an experience, but not the point of view of that experience (Nagel goes into much greater detail on this subject in “The View From Nowhere”, an exploration of the fact that an objective point of view will always be missing some information because it will never know what it’s like to be situation subjectively).

While “what it is like” seems to make an intuitive sense in terms of consciousness, it doesn’t have a whole lot of explanatory of power about what it is that we’re actually experiencing when we’re conscious, nor does it point us towards a way to find out whether or not other things have a way that it is like to be.

The next potentially useful definition is “Subject of conscious states”. This doesn’t really give us a whole lot of information without definitions of potential conscious states, but luckily we can glean some of these from the elements that many of the definitions of consciousness have in common. These point towards the quality of conscious states, although are not those states themselves. They include but are not limited to qualitative character, phenomenal structure, subjectivity, self-perspectival organization, intentionality and transparency, and dynamic flow. Briefly, these are as follows:

Qualitative character: This is the point at which the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy started using the word “feels”, which really just made my day in researching this blog post. Another, more pretentious word for “feels” is of course qualia. This is deeply related to Nagel’s “what it is like” and points at that experience, the quality of senses, thoughts, and feelings.

Phenomenal structure: Phenomenal structure is one of the few elements of consciousness that appears to be uniquely human. It is the ability not only to have experiences and recognize experiences, but to situate those experiences in a larger network of understanding. It refers to the frameworks we use to understand things (e.g. not simply using our senses but having associations and intentions and representations that come from our sensory input).

Subjectivity: Closely related to the previous two concepts, subjectivity is the access to the experience of consciousness.

Self perspectival organization: this is a ridiculously long way of saying a unified self identity that is situated in the world, perceives, and experiences. This again exists on a spectrum (not all of us can be fully self-actualized ya know?).

Intentionality and transparency: we aren’t immediately aware of our experience of perceiving/thinking/feeling: rather we experience/think/perceive a THING.

Dynamic flow: This is a great deal like learning or growing, however it is something more: it means that we don’t experience the world as discrete, disconnected moments in time but rather that our consciousness is an ongoing process.

It seems quite possible for a computer to have some of these elements but not all of them. I would not be surprised if at some point computers developed a qualitative character, but having a phenomenal structure seems less likely (at least until they begin to develop some sort of robot culture bent on human destruction). This would give us a spectrum of consciousness, which maps quite well onto our understanding of the moral standing of non human animals. Again, different people would have different moral feelings at different places along the spectrum: some humans have no qualms about killing dolphins which almost certainly have consciousness, while others are disturbed by even killing insects.

The most relevant definitions of consciousness appear to be “self awareness”, “what it is like”, and “subject of conscious states”. It seems to me that the latter two are really  just different ways of expressing each other since most of the conscious states that we can identify are quite similar to “what it is like”. In that case, it seems that in order to be the most relevant for ethical consideration, a being would have to be self aware and also have an experience of living or conscious states.

Unfortunately there is no real way to determine this because that is an experience, a subjective state that we can never access. At some point we may simply have to trust the robots when they tell us they’re feeling things. This may seem unscientific, but we actually do it every day with other human beings: we have no solid proof that other human beings are experiencing emotions and consciousness and feelings in the same way that we do. They behave as if they do, but that behavior does not necessarily require an inner life. It is much easier to make the leap to accepting human consciousness than robot consciousness because the mental lives of other humans seem far more parallel to our own: if my brain can create these experiences, it makes perfect sense that another, similar brain can do the same.

At the point at which computers start expressing desires is when I will start to have qualms over turning off my computer, but as a preference utilitarian, this is the consideration that I try to give all beings.

 

 

*These definitions are what SEP calls “creature consciousness”, or ways that an animal or person might be considered conscious. It also looks at “state consciousness”, which are mental states that could be called “conscious”. These are clearly related, but in this case creature consciousness is more relevant to determining whether we can call a computer “conscious” or worthy of moral consideration.

Selfishness: An Inherent Evil?

When we talk about things that are immoral, evil, or wrong, we often point to selfishness. This is sometimes the root of a bad action, and sometimes is the bad action itself. Particularly in religious contexts, people are called upon to be utterly selfless, to remember that God is the source of the good works that they do, to avoid pride or self-aggrandizing, and to think of others first. Of course it’s a good thing to put the needs of others before your own, right?

Unfortunately, this rhetoric doesn’t always have fact behind it, and I worry that prioritizing selflessness as an inherent good does a lot of damage to many people. Selfishness is focusing on one’s own needs. Generally we also include to the detriment of others, but more and more I see people using it to mean anything that focuses on one’s own needs, whether or not it impacts others at all. Focusing on your own well being is not something that is inherently wrong. I cannot believe that this needs saying, but it’s actually incredibly important to spend some time on yourself, thinking about your own needs and taking care of your own needs. “It sounds nice” or “It would make me feel good” are both perfectly valid reasons to do something.

In fact doing things like this often help us improve our ability to do things for others. No one is helped by burnout, and if you want to make a difference in the lives of others you often have to spend a lot of time ensuring that your own needs are met first. This is the “secure your own oxygen mask first” principle. Sometimes you do have to put your own needs first, particularly when your needs are particularly serious.

I think this is another area in which the harm principle could be used to really clarify what the problem is with selfishness and when selfishness is a bad thing, versus when we simply want it to be a bad thing because we societally have a problem with individuals thinking about themselves and their own needs. There are instances where someone focuses on their own wants and needs to the exclusion of others. They might do so in such a way that they will actively hurt others in order to get their own wants met. This is selfishness in the more traditional sense, in the way that clearly is wrong. However choosing to do things for yourself that mean you’re unavailable to meet the desires of others, or to do things for yourself that have very little impact on others? I think that’s a very healthy selfishness.

If what you’re doing is causing more harm than good, it’s probably the wrong thing to do. It doesn’t matter if the harm is to yourself or to someone else, because your needs deserve equal respect with the other person’s. As an example, there are times that I choose not to spend time with my friends, even though sometimes that makes them unhappy or worried. Generally I do this when I’m feeling emotionally drained and really need some time for my mental health. If I were to prioritize my friends over myself in this case, I’d probably be cranky anyway and not do very much good for them, as well as leave myself feeling even worse than before, potentially susceptible to some bad target behaviors. If I look at the overall picture, it’s better for everyone if I take care of myself, then spend time with friends when I feel up to it.

An additional element to consider is whether or not being selfless is your responsibility. There are many times when I or someone that I know says that they should be there for another person, they should help their friend feel better, or they should always be on call for their significant other. It’s important to remember that while it is kind and wonderful of you to take care of another person, it is never required of you. Another person’s well-being is never your responsibility. Taking on another person’s well-being is a recipe for disaster as it leaves one party feeling overwhelmed and put upon, and the other party feeling beholden and useless. It generally doesn’t improve anyone’s situation. You aren’t doing something wrong by NOT going above and beyond.

Of course it would be a lovely world if each of us could spend all our energy taking care of others and somehow it would all work out that everyone gets taken care of. Unfortunately that isn’t the world we live in. Every human being (yes you) deserves to be taken care of, and that means that each of us needs to put aside some of our energy and time for ourselves to make sure we get our needs met. This is, by definition, somewhat selfish. That does not make it wrong. Sometimes I choose not to spend my time volunteering and I watch Netflix instead. Yeah, that’s selfish. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to do. I deserve my time just as much as anyone else, and if I am not hurting another person, then selfishness is not the worst thing I could be doing.

There is nothing beautiful about diminishing yourself. There is nothing inherently good about it. I would rather respect myself as much as I respect anyone else.

Gratitude: Mental Illness

It’s Thanksgiving this week, and I’m going to be cliche and talk about gratitude. I’ve unintentionally spent some time earlier this week looking at an experience that I was grateful for, but today is going to be a difficult exercise for me: I want to talk about something in myself that I am grateful for. This isn’t easy, but I suggest all of you try it as a way to see those things in yourself that are good.

I spend a lot of time griping about my mental health, but after a lot of thought, I am grateful that I was born this way. My mind is quite often a bitch to me, but I’m glad that it is the way it is. Despite the fact that my mental health is probably my biggest hurdle in life, it has forced me to become a better person, to learn many things that I otherwise could have easily avoided, and to simply be kinder.

I certainly can’t say that if I was given the chance I’d choose my mental illness, and I’m not saying I enjoy my life the way it is, but if I’m being honest with myself, I’m a better, more selfless, and kinder person because of my mental illness and the places it has taken me.

First and foremost, my  mental illness has required that I spend time with myself. I have spend more hours than most people could imagine delving into my deeper fears and insecurities, ripping apart all the myths and lies that I tell myself, and examining why I do the things I do. I have become a far more facts-based individual due to therapy. I have become better at assessing myself and my situations. Because I’ve simply had to really BE with myself, in an entirely present way, I’ve figured out what I don’t like about myself and made improvements, and because I’ve spent so much of this time with a trained professional, I’ve also started to notice when my perception is a little off.

I’ve also had to spend a lot of time with therapists who are unafraid to criticize me and my coping strategies and who want me to improve my relationships. This means a whole lot of real, honest feedback about who I am and how my behaviors affect other people. Because of this, I often get to think about things I screwed up without falling into a guilt trap and with someone there to help me brainstorm immediate techniques to improve the situation.

While I have spent a lot of time thinking about myself, I have also spent a lot of time thinking about how other people influence me and how I influence others: I have learned to shift the perspective away from me, me, me. Your actions aren’t about me, and my actions are small. I have learned that often I should be thinking about someone else instead of about making myself smaller to fit someone else in.

In addition, I’ve found that I understand emotions better, both my own and other people’s. This makes me far more effective at Not Fucking Shit Up. I’m extremely grateful for that.

I can’t imagine that I would be doing the things I’m doing today if it weren’t for mental illness. I would be locked away reading books somewhere instead. I’m so glad that mental illness has forced me to engage with the world, that it’s led me to my VISTA year, and that it’s demanded of me that I do more for others.

But the thing I’m most grateful for is the compassion I feel I’ve gotten for people whose brains don’t process quite the same as mine. After seeing the confusion and frustration in people’s faces when they try to comprehend what I’m thinking and feeling, I don’t want to be the person that dismisses another’s pain or struggle. While those experiences were horrible, I’m grateful that I think I’m a better person for it.

My mental illness itself has not given me much, but it has forced me into situations that have given me tools to help myself and to help others. I am grateful. I would never have thought so deeply, been nearly as effective, or been so perceptive without the drive of mental illness behind me. I’m grateful that I now have a habit of therapy behind me, that going forward I will now how and where to find appropriate tools to improve myself, and that I will continue to reflect on myself in this way. I’m grateful that when I ask others to go to therapy now, I have the weight of my own work behind me. I’m grateful that I am in a better position to help others now.

So thanks mental illness. You’ve made me a better person.

Sex is a Gift: Creepy or Explanatory?

Many times when people who are not of the fundamentalist persuasion hear the phrase “sex is a gift that you give your partner” we shudder. We cringe. It sounds objectifying and just kind of weird. It’s often code for the idea that you owe your partner your body, and that your body must be undamaged, or only for them. There are good reasons to dislike that phrase, especially in contexts that are promoting virginity and purity culture.

I recently used the wording of sex as a gift in a blog post at Skepchick, and some people found that unacceptable or wrong. I’d like to explore here why we should or should not view sex as a gift. What are the implications of that? How is it helpful? What does it clarify?

So first, what is a gift? “A thing given willingly to someone without payment; a present.” By “thing” we often mean non-physical things. You can give someone the gift of time, kindness, an event, an enjoyable experience…there are all kinds of things we gift on each other. Generally when you’re in a relationship with someone, you give them gifts because you like and enjoy them and you want them to be happy. You give them things you think would enhance their life, their pleasure, or their well-being. Sometimes gifts come with strings attached, but hopefully if you have a good relationship with someone or if you’re a kind person, you give your gift out of the desire to make someone else happy.

Now how does that fit into sex? Generally we have sex with someone as an experience of mutual pleasure and an expression of affection and/or love (or at least if we have a positive relationship to consent we do). Generally it’s not a good idea to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex. But if you aren’t that interested in sex, is it moral for you to “gift” sex to your partner: take your time, your energy, your body, and give those things to the other person for a time in order to show affection and make them happier? It seems to me that this falls directly under the definition of a gift as traditionally understood, and that we often do things like this with other experiences that we don’t wholly enjoy. I’ve done things like take my guy to a baseball game even though I despise baseball, or try foods that scare me, because it makes my partner happy. I doubt anyone would say that my partner had done anything wrong by accepting those gifts, and I certainly didn’t think I had. I enjoyed making my partner happy.

What is it about sex that means we cannot or should not gift it in the same way we might a different experience that we don’t enjoy? One element of “sex as a gift” that many people seem to find upsetting is the idea that you can have unenthusiastic sex without it being rapey or creepy. This is understandable. Because sex is so intimate and involves your body so intimately, and because many people feel uncomfortable saying no, sex without enthusiasm can often feel unethical. In addition, when people try to signal their nonconsent through being unenthusiastic, it is often ignored. Enthusiasm is an important signal to consent, however there are other ways to express your consent (like with your words).

However if we go into unenthusiastic sex with our eyes open, it doesn’t have to be unethical. If one partner decides for themselves that they want to have sex with an enthusiastic partner, communicates that to their partner, and they then proceed, I don’t see how that is unethical. And the best word to describe that situation is, to me, gift. One person is choosing to give something without asking for something in return. I will say that this type of situation is incredibly rare, and one must exercise extreme caution not to pressure or coerce one’s partner into consenting to sex despite their lack of enthusiasm. And as the partner consenting without enthusiasm, it’s important to take care of yourself: you have to pay extremely close attention to whether you’re feeling used, unwanted, hurt, or uncomfortable and take that into account when granting your consent. But consenting without enthusiasm, giving a gift of a good time to your partner does not seem to me per se to be unethical.

There is however another element to sex as a gift that is troubling, and that’s the idea that sex as a gift involves giving your body as a gift. This is somewhat objectifying. Your body is more than just a thing for your partner to use. It’s you. Can you really give yourself as a gift for someone else to enjoy? I do see this as a potential problem with viewing sex as a gift rather than an experience shared together. However I will say that we do often use the phrasing “giving the gift of time” or “giving the gift of company”. There are other times and places that we view being present and reciprocating something as a gift, and a wholly acceptable and good one. I think that including your body complicates things, but again, we might imagine someone giving their partner a massage as a gift.

Overall I think this language is complicated. It may work for some people and some situations and it can be incredibly harmful in others. When we do use it, I think it’s important to specify that we’re not giving our bodies to each other, but that we’re giving someone our time and energy and joy because we love them and want them to be happy, and because we don’t see it as harming ourselves. A gift given that harms the giver (and I don’t mean involves some small sacrifice I mean truly harms) is a bad gift. A gift is not the same thing as turning oneself into a martyr or a sacrifice. And particularly if you want your relationship to continue to function in the long run, gifts should not come at the expense of your physical or mental well-being. Just like any other gift you give in a relationship, you can’t break the bank.

So perhaps the language of “gifts” does make sense, particularly in relationships where people have differing sex drives and need to have a conversation about consent that includes meeting everybody’s needs without harming everybody. When it’s surrounding things like virginity and purity? Probably not appropriate.