Thursday, 26 March 2015

Victim Blaming: The Dark Forest Dichotomy. 26.03.15

I've had no end of problems with the 'anti-victim-blaming' crusaders. I'm talking about those people who believe that teaching women how to reduce risks, identify danger signs, or defend themselves is 'victim blaming', because it could be turned around to vilify existing victims. And yes, it could and sometimes it does, by assholes; but it doesn't have to. Abusus non tollit usum: abuse does not take away use. Anything can be misused if people want to misuse it; it doesn't make the thing itself a bad thing. By that kind of logic, we ought to be banning spoons because they can be used to gouge eyes out.

I have seen a lot of people get hurt. I've been hurt myself. It's bloody horrible. So if there are any steps I can take to stop other people getting hurt, I bloody well will. I will always prioritize prevention of new victims over sparing the feelings of existing victims.

I occasionally get attacked in public or private for my views. One of my most persistent attackers, who unfortunately had got to know too much about my private life, came at me with a scenario involving a dark forest and my dog.

"So you know that the forest is dangerous, but your dog is lost in there. Do you still go?"
Err, that'd be a yes, with bells on.
"So then it's your FAULT if you get raped?!?!?"

As logical leaps go, that one kinda lacks the logic. No, of course it's not my fault if someone commits a crime against me. The fault stays with the criminal. Nothing can change that.

The whole thing is a false dichotomy. From her point of view, my choices apparently were limited to these:
  1. Go into the dark forest without knowing the dangers, inevitably get assaulted, and not feel bad about it afterwards because I couldn't have seen it coming.
  2. Go into the dark forest knowing the dangers, inevitably get assaulted, and feel bad about it afterwards.
Glossing over the level of stupidity built into option 1 (I have only ever met one person who could get assaulted and genuinely not care, and I wouldn't wish on anyone the level of abuse she'd gone through to reach that state), the entire dichotomy completely ignores the multitude of other choices.

I look at the same problem and see it completely differently. My choices are:
  1. Go into the dark forest without knowing the dangers, and possibly get assaulted.
  2. Go into the dark forest knowing the dangers, carrying my gigantic maglite that doubles as a whacking tool, a couple of knives*, and most probably my small ax, ideally accompanied by my gorilla-est friend, and either not get assaulted, and/or possibly leave some metalwork in my would-be assaulter's body. (*We're not allowed guns here.)
If I'm aware of the dangers, I can plan ahead of time and do my best to protect myself. If I'm unaware of the dangers, I may be caught without sufficient resources. Lack of awareness makes me more likely to become a victim. To me, it's freakin' obvious. How the hell could she fail to see this? Then it dawned on me: this particular woman, like many other anti-victim-blamers, is also anti-gun, anti-knives, and generally anti-violence. She not only doesn't approve of the resources I would resort to in order to protect myself, but, if she could have her way, she would see me deprived of them.

The real issue here isn't victims getting blamed. The real issue is that victims have the genuine right to blame her and all those like her for wanting to strip them of all right and ability to ensure their safety. If you do your damned best to strip me of all equalisers, and indeed, of the permission to defend myself (zero tolerance schools, anyone?) and I come to harm, I've got a goddamn right to blame YOU.

In order to dodge responsibility these people need to try to convince themselves and the world at large that violence is unpredictable and impossible to defend against. Of course they resent anyone who points out that there are ways we can assess and reduce our risk. They are ethically opposed to the best methods for risk reduction. You can't very well tell me what dangers I might encounter AND tell me I don't have the right to take the best steps to defend myself; not without me turning around and telling you where you can shove your ideology, anyway.

I don't think this is a conscious process, by the way. I don't believe there is a large conspiracy designed to further weaken the weak. What I believe is that once you start lying to yourself about how reality works, then you're going to have to keep making bigger and more absurd lies to protect the first one. If you demonise the tools (guns, knives, use of force) for risk reduction, then internal logic will dictate that you'll have to demonise risk assessments down the line.

Violence-phobia is the bug in the code. All ideas and ideals stemming from that are designed to work around the bug. If we ever managed to eradicate violence from society, that may not be a problem. Until then, however, any theories based on ignoring the truths about violence won't help any of us.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Strength? 24.0315

Follow-up to the previous post (which originated partly from a recent post on Chiron, and partly from me trying to make sense of some important people in my life).

What is Weakness? What is Strength? Are they relative, absolute, on-off states, or on a continuum? 

I don't think Strength is about how much you can do. However much you can take on, there's something out there that can break you. Everyone can break. Everyone has limits. There are so many components to strength, in fact, that I don't even know how you could measure or compare different people's strengths. I'm under five feet tall, with a spinal injury. The average 12-year-old is physically stronger than me. I'm also very, very hard to bully or repress. I have a defiant streak a mile wide. You can beat the shit out of me, but unless you kill me, I will get back up. I have a martial-arts instructor buddy with more black belts than I have trousers who can swing kettlebells that weigh more than me. However, despite all his mad skillz, he gets treated like a heel by absolutely everyone in his life. Who is stronger? He could turn me into a smear on the wall without breaking a sweat, but I could make his ego implode by telling him a few hard truths. We're both strong and we're both weak. It's comparing apples and oranges.

I think Strength is partly about realising where your talents lie and making the most of them. Knowing what you're good at can make you more efficient, hence better able to overcome obstacles. Most of it, though, is probably about realising where your weaknesses lie and determining to do something about them. It's very unpopular these days not to believe that you are 'perfect as you are'; we're supposed to accept and honour ourselves blah blah blah. Well, I'm not perfect as I am, and I want to be better. I've got inabilities that not only limit me, but prevent me from being as useful as I could be to the people I care about. I want to address that. I don't see it as a problem.

This doesn't mean that I'm going to berate myself for what I can't yet do. Our culture seems to believe that there are only two options on how to treat yourself: indulgent or castigatory. That is plainly bullshit. There is a whole continuum between thinking you're the bees knees and thinking you're a piece of shit. Anyone who has ever taught anything to anyone in a half-decent fashion is operating somewhere along that continuum. They accept that the person (dog, squirrel, you name it) has something they could do with learning, but they also accept that the person is not utterly worthless or inherently flawed because of it. 

I think Strength has more to do with that than with anything else: being able to look at the holes in yourself and trying to fill them, ideally without being an asshole in the process. And I think Weakness is the opposite: either refusing to acknowledge the holes, or - worse - making them sacrosanct, something demanding of respect or consideration, something that entitles you to special treatment.

It's interesting that our cultural obsession with perfection and self-protection of the ego is making that aspect of Strength abominable. Our culture increasingly embraces Holy Weakness. This could be a problem.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Oh my Weakness. 23.03.15

Weak people terrify me. This may sound counterintuitive, but if you think about it weak people are incredibly dangerous to have around. They can't watch your back, because they are too weak to protect you from others or from bad events. They can't be relied upon in any sort of emergency, because they will crumble. Worse, possibly, they can't be relied upon to keep their word. If things ever get difficult, they will give up on whatever commitment they have made with you. Their word, however earnestly given, just isn't worth the spit it carries.

On top of it all, they also totally justify their own actions or omissions, and expect you to do the same. "They just couldn't..." "They just had to..." And because the circumstances forced them, it's perfectly ok for them to have let you down, and it's perfectly heinous for you not to forgive them immediately. In fact, you ought to be supporting them, because being forced to let you down has upset their poor little squishy feelings. Don't you have a heart?

Am I being mean? Possibly. And? I want the people I trust to be trustworthy. I don't consider that an unreasonable standard. Anything that makes people untrustworthy is a problem, regardless of whether it's caused by wilful malevolence or an internal malfunction. When it comes to the crunch, I have to deal with people's actions, not their reasons. Yes, everyone has a breaking point, but when your breaking point comes as soon as you meet the least amount of resistance—sorry, but you won't be on my list of people to count on. Because of that, I'll also be a tad reluctant to be put on your list of people to call upon. Thank you, but I already have a job.

I know I have a bee in my bonnet about weakness, and how it causes weak people to let people down. This turns to an entire swarm of bees when the people who are being let down are those the weak people 'ought' to be protecting: for instance, their children. In my head, carers are supposed to defend their charges; no ifs, ands, or buts. It's a rock-solid mass in the middle of my brain that I can't explain rationally. I just end up going around in circles. You fight for your dependents because they are dependent upon you. The fact that they are dependent upon you binds you to fight for them. I know it doesn't make sense. I know there are exceptions and extraordinary circumstances and so on and so forth. None of it makes any difference whatsoever to me, which is why I class the whole thing as one of the very few beliefs I have.

Because I wear these blinders, there is a family dynamic I've never been able to get my head around. I know a lot of children who grew up in a family with a "bad" parent and a "good" parent. The bad parent might have been physically, psychologically, and/or emotionally abusive towards the children, and sometimes towards the good parent, too. The good parent not only did nothing to defend the children, but often also encouraged them to accept the abuse.

To me, that is a contradiction of such enormous proportions that I can't wrap my head around it. How can someone be a 'good parent,' yet allow their children to be abused? How the hell does that work out? Yes, I understand that there are situations where abuse can be inescapable. For instance, if you've married an abuser and are living in a culture where women are stoned to death for leaving their husbands, you're kinda fucked, and your kids too (sorry about the gender bias, but I don't know of any culture where it works the other way round). However, none of the situations I've seen were inescapable, not by a long shot. The "good parents" I'm talking about could have taken steps to curb or modify their partner's behaviour. They could also have bailed out altogether, and taken their children with them. They had the means to at least try to protect their charges, but they didn't. But that's ok, because it's not their fault, because they were just too weak.

Because of my belief about dependents, I find that hard to fit in my head. If you want to give up on yourself, that's your prerogative, but you just don't give up on your kids and justify it all away. What I find even harder to accept is how their children seem to end up idolising the weak parents, and idolising weakness as a consequence. I suppose it's inevitable, though; it's the necessary triumph of rationalisation over reason. If the good parent's weakness wasn't a sufficient excuse for their inaction, they would have to be considered accomplices in the abuse. That would make them 'bad'. So, weakness has to be a valid justification. 

Weakness and goodness become intertwined. At the opposite end, badness and strength become intertwined, too; after all, if the bad parent wasn't stronger than the good parent, none of this would be happening. What you end up with is kids growing up to think that strength is bad, and weakness is not only good, but renders you sacrosanct. Weakness is their only strategy for navigating life. They tolerate people kicking them in the teeth as if that was a badge of honour. They shaft mercilessly those foolish enough to rely on them, and then expect their emotional support. They are victims and traitors and parasites, and they think it makes them righteous.

It makes sense, I guess. It still makes me want to throw up.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Wrestling with pigs. 21.03.15

I have the bestest friends.

Today I found myself over-reacting to what someone had said. I get quite easily wound up by what I class as 'rudeness' or 'discourtesy', which is rather odd for someone who can approach a 50:50 ratio of swears to words and still manage to form coherent sentences. I seem to have a peculiar sense of what is appropriate and what is rude, and rudeness annoys me.

Bad words aimed at the ether don't bother me at all. Bad words aimed at people DO. But even stuff like someone going 'whatever' makes my Discourtesy Antenna pop up. Today's gem was "Yer just avoiding answering the question in pretense that it's sophisticated thought and introspection," which hardly seemed cause for bloodshed but, in the context it was in, caused me to get all twitchy.  (And no, I did answer the question, you just didn't like my answer, thankyouverymuch.)

In my head this sort of stuff gets immediately labelled - uncivil, fighting words, rude, etc.. It gets my monkey all riled up. In fact, it gets more of a reaction than an equivalent statement thrown out in swears. "You're a fucking retard" and "You are clearly affected by severely limited cognitive abilities" are kinda same-o same-o in my world. The only difference is that the first statement would immediately cause me to ignore the person saying it, filing them under "asshole", while the second one gets me all wound up.

I posed this puzzle to my FB friends, whose responses were:
  • They ARE the same. One is more pretentious than the other, is all.
  • The second one is self-righteousness on top of being a royal prick. It's adding insult to injury. (Well, really, insult on top of insult, but hey.)
  • The second statement is disingenuous. The person who says, "You appear to be suffering from a severe lack of cognitive function" is hoping it will pass as "not rude".
  • Such an effort insinuates that you're too stupid to pick up on the insult buried within the essence, that they're getting away with something at your expense. 
  • Worse, by the standards of polite society they ARE getting away with it, and you seeing their motives matters not. It's a case of "I see what you did there, but a lot of people won't, therefore I'm not allowed to call you on it without getting in trouble." 
And of course, they are totally right. The reason I feel insulted is because I'm being insulted. The reason I feel frustrated is that I find myself unable to respond to the insult as I would like. The reason I feel mad is that the whole thing is maddening. And the reason I bought into this kind of nonsense is that this is how I was brought up. My family members pulled this on each other all the time, and calling them on it was considered unreasonable and rude. My emotional reactions weren't out of kilter; my appraisal of the situation was.

This brought to mind a conversation I've been having with another friend about people's views of what's 'normal', 'appropriate' and 'rude'. We both know people who classify things very differently from us - you're only rude if you swear, you're not being verbally aggressive if you don't raise your voice, you're not being a bully or a perv if you're 'only joking', etc.. You can end up in seriously bizarre situations: "I get a pass on whatever truly venomous, twisted, hateful shit I say as long as it's at low volume. Because it's not loud, see." "I only said those nasty things because I was angry, so you must pretend they weren't said."

When these tactics are used willfully, in order to be vile without risking repercussion, they are not far removed from gaslighting (a form of mental abuse in which information is twisted/spun, selectively omitted to favor the abuser, or false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception and sanity). That's not something anyone should try to live with. It is a vile practice that doesn't deserve tolerance - but, of course, the person throwing it at you will accuse you of 'over-reacting'...

Even when unconventional standards are unintentional, it can be hard to find a way to get along. For instance, mid-divorce, my ex husband came at me with the glorious "I was so happy when we started arguing, because that's how real married people talk to each other." And yes, he absolutely, totally meant  it. He grew up with a mother and father constantly at each other's throats, so he genuinely thought that marital bliss required regular screaming fights. Alas, I didn't share his views. I see that kind of argument as a failure in communication, not as a bonding moment. Unfortunately he didn't accept that my views on the matter needed to be taken into consideration until he was presented with consequences.

It's interesting what we don't notice, or force ourselves to accept, because it's 'normal' i.e. usual.

This still leaves me with the small issue of having to learn to deal with that sort of crap. I would expect that will require a great deal of trial and error, and may ruffle a few feathers. However, at least now I know that I have a right to try. That changes the game entirely.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Shades of grey.18.03.15

How do you tell a story of evil between people, not archetypes?

People tell me their stories, and I'm honoured. The problem is that then they want me to make sense of them, and as often as not I can't. What they want is a summary version that encapsulates what has happened, straightens it out into black-and-white details, and neatly apportions blame where it belongs. They want something they can file away. I can't give them that.

It's not a bad thing, in a way. It shows that the tales people bring to my door are less about naked, sheer evil and more about people being people; doing the best they can with faulty programming, non-infinite cognitive abilities, and sometimes a frightening level of obliviousness (yes, it's a word, I checked). It also shows that people are more resourceful, more flexible, less easily broken than we often give them credit for. I'm hardly ever faced with Red Riding Hood vs. Big Bad Wolf stories. I find that reassuring.

Where this doesn't help me is in telling those stories. It's almost impossible to summarise them without losing so much of the nuances as to make the story untruthful. 
"X was in an abusive relationship" is a story.
"X's partner tried to be psychologically abusive towards her, but thanks to her personal resources none of the abuse hit her" is another story.
"X's partner tried to be psychologically abusive towards her, but because she had grown up in an abusive environment, she was immune to anything he could throw at her" is another story yet.
"X's partner, who had grown up in an abusive environment, tried to replicate the relationship his parents had with X. But because X had grown up in an abusive environment too, she was immune to anything he could throw at her."

Where do you stop? Which is the 'true' story? I meet so many people that just want the first version: simple and black-and-white. X is the victim/survivor and her partner is the abuser. The fact that this doesn't reflect the reality of the situation for its participants seems almost inconsequential. The fact that the truth is in the details, because the event happened to people, not cardboard characters, is utterly rejected. At best I'm 'muddying the waters'; at worst, I'm 'justifying abuse'. 

Meanwhile, more often than not I find myself having to sum up stories as "fucked-up people doing fucked-up things", which leaves everyone terribly dissatisfied.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Asshole Wrangling - Volume 1. 13.03.15

A friend asked me how I deal with difficult people. I thought it was highly peculiar that anyone would ask ME about anything to do with people skills, as I'm about as socialised as a turnip. As she pointed out, though, this had to do with "asshole wrangling," which circumstances force me to do on a regular basis. It also takes one to know - and wrangle - one... So yeah, I can give this a go. Here is my immediate response.

There are a lot of cliches around managing difficult people. A lot of them are based on the assumption that you can either avoid them or enforce consequences upon them. That's beautiful when it's possible, but that's not always the case. In fact, many people are difficult because they know they can safely act out from their position. People who can be shunned, or whose behaviour can be punished by third parties, often learn to self-regulate. Or die alone in their parents' basement. Either way, they are not really a problem.

The real problems are with those difficult people you can't just remove from your life or punish for misbehaving, and know it. Unless you're willing to give up your existing situation to avoid them, all you can do is surreptitiously manage their behaviour whilst ensuring you are not too tempted to smash them in the face with a brick manifest your displeasure in an uncontrolled fashion.

Say I've got a problem with somebody I can't just remove from my life. What I try to do is look at them like ants, basically, and try to work out the mechanics of what is going on:
  • Are there patterns in the behaviour? Does it occur around a set of circumstances? Are those consistent?
  • If I can identify patterns, I try to use them to work out causal relationships. Does circumstance A consistently result in behaviour B? 
  • If I have enough background on the person involved, I can try to work out the underlying reasons for those relationships, but this is not critical. 
The main thing is that I can try to work out methods for trying to avoid the difficult behaviours in the future.

Real-life example. Someone in my wider social circle tends to start uncalled-for, heated arguments and then refuses to de-escalate. By looking at the circumstances of those arguments, I realise that they occur when he is 'challenged' by women or younger men. The causal relationship seems pretty straight-forward: anything seen as a challenge by those groups results in an outburst. I know he comes from a culture where the elderly are respected, and women are subservient. I can then work out that the only way to avoid the arguments is to not offer anything that he can interpret as a challenge.

This doesn't mean that I have to be meek. I don't have to agree with him when I don't. But I know that, however misinformed he might be, I cannot teach him anything. He is just not able or willing to absorb any information from someone who is both younger and female. Hence, there is no point in me trying. 

Working out the roots of the problem also shows me that there is no point in me trying to de-escalate the eruptions. I am neither willing nor able to give the man what he wants - submission, unearned respect, a return to a world where he is the Big Cheese. All I can do is leave him to vent.

This analytical process also helps me realise that the eruptions are the manifestation of an internal process he's going through. They are not about the people he is erupting at. They are not about me, however personal they may feel when I am at the receiving end of one of them. This allows me to stop myself getting triggered and returning fire in kind, which would only escalate things.

This may in fact be the main benefit of this entire process: while I'm busy working out the mechanism behind the behaviour, I'm not reacting to it. That's a bloody good thing, given that my monkey's just been given just cause to get vexed. Instead of handing the monkey they keys to the bus, I effectively thank it for providing me with useful feedback and ask it to wait for further information. This keeps my triune brain working in harmony, and avoids kerfuffles.

Some folk believe this is too passive. Should I not be doing something to curb this behaviour? Well, do I have either the right or the duty to do so? Is it in fact any of my freakin' business? All the man is actually doing is making a prat of himself in public; he's not endangering people or fluffy animals. I am not the Jackass Whisperer.

Some folk believe this is too judgemental. They can go and boil their heads. "The man is an asshole" is a judgement. "The man starts needless arguments under these circumstances" is a faithful portrayal of a behaviour. Anyone who can't tell the difference has some serious problems, the first one of which may be hypocrisy: they're being judgemental of judgementalism. 

Funnily enough, I've never met anyone at all reluctant to apply this sort of analysis to good behaviours. Everyone is happy as pie to work out the root causes of nice stuff, so they can get more of it. How the same method applied in the same way can be iniquitous in one case and perfectly kosher in the other is somewhat beyond me. But hey, I'm an asshole.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Things I've learnt about people. 14.03.15

One of the advantages of being self-employed is that you have the privilege of dealing with your customers directly. One of the disadvantages is that you are not allowed to kill any of them, regardless of how tempted you might be.

Here's a list of things I've learnt about people as I was going about my business:

There is no upside to going the extra mile for those people who ask you to do so for nothing. You are not earning their gratitude, because they are parasitic, egocentric entities incapable of entertaining that kind of feeling. By giving them a little something, all you've done is ensured that next time they'll expect to get that and ask for a bigger something on top. 'Normal' customers, with a basic sense of consideration and fairness, will quite simply not ask you to do extraordinary things unless the circumstances are exceptional. If they are forced into it, they will immediately offer some kind of reward or remuneration for it.

People who apologise for an unacceptable behaviour as they are doing it are not at all sorry. They are just operating under the assumption that an apology will be enough to force you to tolerate the behaviour. They are exploiting your politeness.

People who justify their bad behaviour with a label (e.g. "anger management issues") don't have a problem; they have an excuse. They are using that label so they don't have to change their behaviour. People who really have a problem and are trying to deal with it will be sincerely apologetic, not self-righteous. They will be asking for your forgiveness, not demanding your forbearance. 

The vast majority of people who shout or threaten are utterly shocked if anyone ever shouts or threatens back. Not only they apparently believe that they have the monopoly on it, but they also recognise it as an entirely inappropriate behaviour when anyone else is doing it.

The more in the wrong someone is, and the less of a justification they have for their shortcomings, the more they will try to blame it all on you - and they will absolutely believe that they are in the right, and it's you who has let them down. This has nothing to do with you, although it's happening at you. It is the internal mechanism they use to tolerate living with their own inadequacies: everything is always someone else's fault.

People who demand that you to tolerate them letting you down because their life got in the way will be completely unsympathetic if and when your life does the same. They don't have a personal relationship with you, based on mutual understanding of life's difficulties. They are using a facsimile of personal connection with you because it suits their purposes. In reality, they just believe that their own issues are of paramount importance. 

People with a problem they are not trying to resolve will give you half truths about it. They give you the stories they tell themselves to justify allowing the problem to persist. These half truths are so common that, after a while, you will learn to recognise and translate them. For instance, "my dog is shy with strangers" is likely to mean "it will try to eat your face off".

When people ask for something so extraordinarily absurd that you are flabbergasted by the sheer audacity of it, it pays to repeat it back to them in plain terms. Real life examples:

"So, you want me to start work early so you can pay me for a day less?"
"So, you want me to train you up for free so you can set up a competing business less than ten miles away?"
"So, you are saying the roads are too bad for you to drive from your house to here, but they are not too bad for me to drive from here to your house?"
If their answer is "I didn't mean it like that", ask them how they meant it. I've yet to meet one of them who could come up with an alternative explanation.

People who are rude, inconsiderate, demanding, pushy, or just a total pain in the ass before they are even your customers will be infinitely worse once you take their business. They already have a habit of behaving badly; you do not want to allow them to feel entitled to that behaviour.

People who go out of their way to badmouth your competitors to you, will badmouth you to everyone else. Gossips are neither selective nor fair: they are not exchanging useful information, they are merely enjoying a  hobby.  Engage in gossip with gossips at your peril.

People who choose to believe in 'facts' that are obviously incorrect will not thank you for pointing out the truth. Their egos and/or their belief system are wrapped up in whatever claptrap they choose to believe. All you can do is work around the nonsense. (Last month's winners were, in a strange parallel, 'children only lie if they feel threatened' and 'dogs only bite if they feel threatened'.)

The 'I can't afford that' people want you to provide goods or services for nothing, because they need or want them but can't afford them. They are incapable of gratitude, because, for ineffable reasons, they believe that their poverty makes the world at large responsible for their needs, even when those needs are self-generated.

The 'but I could do that myself for free' people believe that their amateur status entitles them to pay professionals a lower fee, or nothing. Note: they do not respond well to "well, there you go, then" as an answer.

There are customers you just don't want, because whatever income you may derive from them will not be worth the hassle of dealing with them. Once you learn to recognise them, lie to them and get them out of your way. Do not be tempted to tell them the actual reasons for your aversion to their business. Formulate a good, non-controversial, standard excuse to give out that is all about you (e.g. we can't handle a job that size, we are booked up until next year, we are washing our hair, whatever) and stick to it.  Just keep them out of your life. 

Friday, 13 March 2015

"I do this all the time”. 09.03.15

The closest I’ve ever come to a sudden, violent death was at work. We were supposed to fell a line of trees growing along the edge of a thicket. Everything was perfect: the weather was fine; the ground was clear; we had the right gear; the trees were a manageable size.

I put a beak in the first tree (that’s a little wedge-shaped cut at the front to direct the fall). I started to make the back cut, the cut that actually fells the tree. Next thing I know, there is a WOOSH right by my face and the tree is horizontal.

It’s not supposed to go like that.

The beak and back cut method creates a wooden hinge that guides and controls the fall. Trees are supposed to (relatively) slowly though inexorably lie themselves down. What this tree had done was snap vertically right through the middle for about 3’, then crack sideways and fall down, using the 3’ high stump as a fulcrum. It had done it so quickly that not only I had not had the time to get out of the way, but I hadn’t even seen it happen. I had felt it, though. The “woosh” was the bottom of the tree whizzing maybe an inch away from my face, propelled by the entire weight of the tree. 

Now, I love chainsaws, but I respect them too. I’ve often been mocked for being a stickler for health and safety, but I can’t help the feeling that if I’m handling a ball of rotating death I ought to be sensible about it. When I decked that tree, I was working precisely in the position the manuals tell you (see diagram). Had I been working an inch to the left, I would have caught a tree under the jaw. I might not have died. I might have simply have had my neck broken or my jaw ripped off.

Thing is, the tree looked perfectly normal. There was nothing visible that suggested that it was going to act like that. It looked like an easy tree to fell. It could have driven me to cut corners, to prioritise speed over safety. Instead, I was doing things the right way because it was the right way to do them; the manual told me so. I was blindly following instructions. I had never had the chance before to see what happens if you break the rules and things go wrong; instructors don’t generally engineer horrible chainsaw accidents to demonstrate the importance of safe systems of work. Most of the time, you can cut corners a bit and get away with it. That day following protocol saved me.

Without that little mishap, I might have never had proof that the protocol was there for a reason. It makes me think about all the time we discount rules because we have never seen the cost of breaking them – our parents’ or grandparent’s wisdom, all the dos and don’ts you grow up with and half the time don’t know the reasons for. Sure, there are plenty of rules and traditions that don’t seem to have any connection to practical considerations; they are little more than superstitions or habits. Throwing spilt salt over your shoulder does not in fact blind the Devil. There are also lots of rules that once used to have practical reasons, but have long since lost them. A lot of religious food restrictions fall into this category. We can break this kind of rules and never come to any harm.

But what about the rest of them? What about the rules that are there to protect us from something that hardly ever happens, but when it does can severely harm us? We can eat undercooked pork (or have unprotected sex, or text while driving, or take a shortcut down the alleyway with the bad reputation…) on a regular basis without anything bad ever happening to us. If we never suffer any consequences, we may believe that these rules are pointless. If we do learn by experience, that knowledge may cost us too dearly.

“Don’t worry, it’s ok, I do this all the time…”

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Occam's razor 01.03.15

I was talking to a new friend about an old friend. Of all the people I've loved, she was the maddest and baddest, and definitely the most dangerous to know. She did stuff you oughtn't... We did stuff we oughtn't... We didn't do anything that major, really, but at 16 it felt glorious. We had the future all worked out, the two of us. We were going to get an abandoned warehouse and split it in half. She was going to run a whorehouse, which was a perfectly practical plan. I was going to do something undefined involving either drugs or theft (but never both: stealing drugs is bad for your health, kids).

I fled that environment when it dawned on me that whenever I went away for a while, catching up with friends tended to consist of a list of arrests and obituaries. I didn't have any great aspirations to make 20, but I did value my freedom, and anyway, it was getting silly.

I fled, and I let her go.  The fact that it was probably the wisest move of my life doesn't make it feel any less of a betrayal and a loss. We were tight when things were dicey. I will forever miss her.

Since the advent of the interwebs, I've tried to look her up a few times and found nothing. She's got a pretty unusual name, and there is just nothing out there with her name on it. That's pretty rare.  I'm hardly famous, there is only another person going by the same name, and together we score over 10k hits on Google. For my old friend, there is just a big flat nothing.

As I was explaining this to my new friend, it occurred to me that she's quite possibly dead. Yes, she could have changed name (unlikely back home) or have gone native somewhere where the internet doesn't reach (unlikely in general). Occam's razor has her dead.

The thing that hit me is that the realisation didn't hit me. It hit me that I'd not considered the possibility before - how stupid can I be? But the potential death per se is just one of those things. It's not that I don't care, but she'd be, I don't know, just another one of the fallen. And no, that's not epic or hardcore or badass. That's just kind of fucked up.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Evil, rationalised. 10.03.15

I ought to have seen it coming. If you write about unicorns, you’ll draw the attention of those people who feel strongly about them. They don’t have to love unicorns; they may hate them deeply, in fact. The fact that they are interested in the issue, that they care, will draw them to you. The same applies to absolutely any subject. I often write about violence against women and rape… So yeah, every now and then I get some interesting mail.

The bulk of what I get is from people screeching that I’m 'justifying rape'. Drawing attention to the fact that we’re being fed alarmist and incorrect statistics is 'justifying rape'. Questioning why women recovery strategies include methodologies that we know to be harmful is 'justifying rape'. Anything anyone says that doesn’t follow the current party line 100% is 'justifying rape'. It’s nothing but a shock tactic: these people know that most normal humans are utterly sickened by rape and rapists. The mere suggestion that they may be associated with something so dreadful is enough to make most people shut up. It nearly worked with me. It took me a while to build an immunity to it, but It can be done. I know I’m not a rape justifier, and anyone who tries to state the opposite can go boil his or her head.

What I’m still not quite used to is the other type of 'fan mail'; the type where people thank me for my writings and try to explain to me the way they see the world, so I can better understand it and present it to the public. They can’t put it into words people can process, but maybe I can. The thing is, I do understand their point of view, but I really wish I didn’t.

It goes beyond stomach-churning. Can souls throw up? It’s not just the urges – I know there are people out there who are wired very, very differently from most of us, for whatever reason. Sometimes I feel sorry for them; they didn’t choose this (I hope they didn’t, at least). Sometimes I wish them all dead, for everyone’s safety. Either way, they exist; I can nearly live with that. The thing I can’t accept is the amount of rationalisation and justification some of them wrap around those urges. 

I don’t mind finding monsters. I mind finding monsters who have justified themselves to themselves so completely that they truly believe that the world is being iniquitous, that society is oppressing them, that anyone who doesn’t see the world as they see it is looking at it the wrong way. Monsters who firmly believe they ought to have a right to do monstrous things and be understood, not condemned.

I don’t want them to exist. I want everyone who does or wants to do a terrible thing to feel bad about it, to have an internal moral compass that can tell them right from wrong. I want people who are wired wrong to be struggling against their dreadful urges and, if they succumb, to do so because they finally cracked, not because they rationalised themselves into it. I want evil to be aware of its malignancy. 

(Meanwhile, there are people out there still trying to convince us all that there is no evil in the world, that people just make mistakes and can be rehabilitated and everything would be nice if everyone was nice. Yeah. Sure.)

Monday, 9 March 2015

Gut reactions to a rape story. 09.03.15

What gut reaction do you get from this story: 
"A and B met for the first time at place X. They spent the evening together, then went to B's house, where they had intercourse. The following morning, A reported B to the police for rape."

How much did you add to the story when you pictured it in your head? Gender? Age? Anything else?

What about:

"A and B met for the first time at known crackhouse X. They spent the evening together consuming illegal drugs, then went to B's house, where they had intercourse. The following morning, A reported B to the police for rape."
"A and B met for the first time at bar X. They spent the evening together drinking tequila shots, then went to B's house, where they had sex. The following morning, A reported B to the police for rape."
Do they feel different? 
What if the alcohol was illegally purchased? 
What if the drugs were legally purchased and consumed, e.g. medical opiates?

How about this:

"A + B + tequila. Their alcohol blood levels tested at 0.2 and 0.1 respectively" (the accused was less drunk than the accuser.)
"A + B + tequila. Their alcohol blood levels tested at 0.1 and 0.2 respectively" (so the accuser was less drunk than the accused.)

Does it matter which way round it was? 

Have you ever seen a news report that listed that piece of information?

"A + B + tequila. A tested positive for traces of Rohypnol."
(To me, that is a huge game-changer; it makes me reach for sharp knives.)
"A + B + tequila. A tested positive for traces of Rohypnol. The Rohypnol was administered by a third party unconnected with B."
(Whoops. Anyone got any bandages handy?)

Let's play with locations:
"A and B met for the first time at the library. They spent the evening together while B helped A with research work, then went to B's house, where they had sex. The following morning, A reported B to the police for rape."

And that, for me, is where it gets really messy, because age suddenly matters a lot. If A is the younger student and B the older teacher, that feels like abuse of power. If A is the older student and B a young helper, then I am not so sure.

Shall we add gender to it?

A is Melody, 19. B is Jack, 38.

A is John, 19. B is Rachel, 38.

...and then remember that there are more permutations: Jack and John, Melody and Rachel, etc. When you swap ages and genders, does it feel the same? What has the greatest weight? Are we saying that a young person can't prey on an older person? Or that women don't prey on men?

For a bit of extra spice:

"....then went to B's house, where they had intercourse. B has a sex dungeon...."
"....then went to B's house, where they had intercourse. B has a sex dungeon. A asked to play in it...."
Do they feel the same?

I could go on forever. How many factors affect gut reactions to a story?
  • History of prostitution. (Do you think prostitutes cannot be raped? Or that they are more likely to lie for gain?)
  • History of assault.
  • History of similar convictions.
  • History of similar allegations that could not be proven (if this happens to you every Friday, I'm going to be a tad suspicious - and yes, this applies both to the accused and the accuser.)
  • Physical disability.
  • Mental incapacity - no, not just on the part of the accuser. What if it's the accused who is mentally incapacitated? What if they both are?
  • The accused is a famous sport personality.
  • The sport is chess.

What I find is that I am not unbiased, not by a long shot. An older man accused by a young woman is clearly a predator... until I find out that the young woman has a history of extortion. Or that the older man has a learning difficulty.

I realised that I make an immediate gut decision on where the guilt lies depending on the available information, even though it's often not sufficient. My "conclusion" is based much more on my biases and guesses on details than on an impartial assessment of the truth. I'm coming up with statements from "it's definitely a rape" to "it's definitely a stitch-up" to "it's a clusterfuck with bells on" with far too little information. A little bit of extra detail, and my original assessment seems completely unwarranted.

That is pretty shoddy on my part. I am, however, willing to change my mind as more information becomes available. My biases are not congealed in ideology, so I find it relatively easy to admit that I'm wrong. 

What about you? Do you actively seek to find enough information? If the information sinks your initial theory, are you willing to change your mind?

Saturday, 7 March 2015

India’s daughter. 07.03.15

I haven’t watched the documentary. I don’t want to watch the documentary. It’s not just because I’m a huge pussy. Partly it’s because I grew up in a place that, though nowhere near that extreme, displayed attitudes that weren’t all that dissimilar. (Hell, I took to hitchhiking full time as a teen because it was demonstrably safer than public transport at the times and in the places I was frequenting.) I’ve had people say that sort of crap in my face. I don’t feel the need to hear it again on video.

Partly it’s the fact that I can’t take up a knife and punch those people in the face until my arm is too sore. I’d end up punching the wall instead. That doesn’t do any good to anybody.

Mostly, the whole thing enrages me. Not just the event, though that enrages me enough. I live in hope that even if they make it through prison intact, the moment the bastards are released they will get what’s due to them, popular justice-style. And I hope it’s slow and messy. It would still not be enough, but it would be something. I can wait.

The thing that drives me positively up the wall is that this is news. That sort of attitude has been all around for everyone to see for as long as I know. It’s not bloody hard to spot. How DARE they not have seen it? How DARE they wait until an event that horrific to admit that the problem exists? How many women have suffered less extreme but similar fates, for precisely the same reasons, unnoticed and unmentioned, without anyone batting a fucking eyelid? How did everyone manage to look away and close their ears for this long? What the fuck did they think rapists thought about their victims? Why didn’t they listen to them before? HOW DARE THEY NOT HAVE KNOWN? 

I knew. My friends knew. It’s out there and it has been preying on us since we were old enough to have holes someone could fuck (and that doesn't mean double digits for some of us. Think about that.). And now they put it in a documentary and throw it back at me as if it was a newly-discovered monster, and I should suddenly be shocked and aghast?

Friday, 6 March 2015

Power in Unity. 06.03.15

I’ve been tripping out for a while about power dynamics in groups/herds/packs. I’ve been tripping out about power dynamics in feminism for over twenty years. Last week, the two collided into an interesting quasi-theory.

I often seem to have a problem with what I regard as Modern Western Feminism. I find a need to specify this since feminism is such a broad term, encompassing all sorts of behaviours and beliefs, that it is becoming almost too broad to be useful. It’s about as explanatory as saying you’re “religious”: well, are you a Westborough Baptist or a Zen monk? However, I shall be writing just Feminism from now on because it’s easier, but I definitely solely mean “the feminism I bump into here and now”.

My problem with Feminism is, really, Feminism’s problem with me. I decided when I was thirteen that the gender role thing wasn’t at all tickety-boo, and that I was going to quite simply ignore it. Don’t get me wrong - I’m all hip with biological differences and everything they give rise to, including differences in aptitudes, emotional states, and behaviours. I’m also hip with historical contexts; I could never shake the feeling that my grandma staying at home with the kids might have had a little something to do with the lack of formula milk, and my grandpa’s obstinate refusal to grow useful breasts. However, telling me that “only boys can play with chainsaws because penis” just didn’t work. So instead of doing what nice girls were expected to do, I did largely what I wanted. As a result, I studied and worked in the fields that interested me the most, which happened to be mostly-male environments (male-dominated makes it sound like the guys kept the upper hand… and that wasn’t generally the case, thankyouverymuch). 

Needless to say, this attitude didn’t always endear me to everyone. Most of the guys were cool, as it happens, though some struggled with the transition from “ooh, we’ve got us a mascot” to “oh shit, the tiny chick is outperforming us.” Most of the time, though, it turned out that we had different talents and skills. By allocating work according to natural predispositions, everyone was better at something. Instead of competing, we all played to our strengths. 

The worst backlash usually came from women, which I found extremely weird. Some women seem to find the sight of a woman doing “men’s work” highly offensive, and they’re not shy about venting their feelings. Alas, I found myself unable to give a flying fuck about them. The bottom line is that whenever and wherever I found stupid sexism, I did my best to slay it. Verily.

Rather naively, I thought my deeds were going to gain me some Feminist brownie points. I didn’t expect parades, but rosettes or cookies might have been nice. I was wrong. Most of the self-declared feminists I meet seem to hate me. I am particularly objectionable to those I privately refer to as “coffee-shop feminists”: those radical thinkers who, having identified the patriarchal oppression intrinsic to our society, decided they’d combat it by congregating with other radical thinkers in designated areas and bitching with all their might. 

I wondered for a long time what the hell was going on. I truly thought what I was doing was Feminist outreach. I was showing people what women could do. I was kicking gender roles in the teeth on a daily basis, for god’s sake. How on earth could that make me a feminist’s anathema? Were they disappointed because instead of shattering the glass ceiling, I’d drilled a hole in the glass floor? Was it that they were afraid they might have to get off their ass and do the work, too? Was it that by demonstrating that much of the sexism in our culture can be overcome by someone like me (if I can do something, so can anyone else) I was undermining their theories? Did they just not like the smell of chainsaw oil on my clothes?

I wonder now if the problem isn’t deeper, and possibly more sinister. I wonder if it doesn’t have to do with the reason behind various types of groups, the urge that pushes people to flock together in the first place. I wonder if it’s all about the difference between herds and packs.

When people coalesce into groups, they seem to do it with two different goals. Some band together because there is strength in numbers. Two weak people together have a better chance against a strong person. Enough people together can overpower those stronger than them by sheer volume. Individually, they are not any stronger than they were before; their increased strength rests solely in the cohesion of the group.

Other people get together because they want to become stronger individuals. People with different talents and experiences can help each other grow either by formally exchanging skills or just by a kind of osmosis. Being with better people tends to make you a better person (“it is critical to spend time with the highest quality people who will tolerate your presence” – Rory Miller[i]). Individuals who want to grow and develop seek the company of those they respect, and groupings form as a consequence. The result isn’t necessarily a cohesive group, but each individual has both the opportunity and the responsibility to become as strong as possible. 

I tend to refer to the first kind of group as a “herd” and the second as a “pack”, but that’s entirely idiosyncratic as well as reflecting my personal biases. I don’t much care for herbivores and really like wolves, so I can get stupid about this kind of thing. It sort of works, though, if you’re not too picky about ethology. More importantly, it provides me with a short-hand terminology.

In a herd, an individual’s personal development isn’t a priority. The important thing, the reason behind the herd’s existence and the source of its strength, is the herd’s cohesion. The most important trait in a member is allegiance to the herd. When personal development looks as if it can threaten the herd’s cohesion, it may be punished. 

In a pack, personal development is key; that’s why the pack was created in the first place. Individuals who don’t pull their weight tend not to be tolerated. It’s not good enough to just be there: there has to be a purpose to your presence. Not everyone is capable of doing the same things, but everyone is expected to do their level best. There is often fierce loyalty between group members, but the strength of the pack is seen as laying in each of its members.

So here I go, with yet another poorly-constructed metaphor of mighty predators vs sheepish herbivores to bolster my ego and prove a point… But sounding like a wannabe carnivore worries me less than the fact that there may be some truth in it. I think it goes beyond the difference between Goal-Oriented and Longevity-Oriented groups (read your Miller!), and even beyond the crab bucket effect[ii]. In this culture, “power” seems to be increasingly regarded as a dirty word-- yet we still need it, maybe even secretly crave it.

It makes sense that if people band together for the sole purpose of gaining strength by accretion, they’ll fight against anything that disrupts the group’s cohesion, even if by doing so they are undermining other group members. It makes sense that people like me, who see individual strength as a value to uphold at almost any cost, would not fit well in that sort of setting. If, by our sheer existence, we demonstrate that the group’s usefulness is starting to wane, or that the group’s focus might need to change, that would definitely put us in the crosshairs.

So, what the hell has any of this to do with Feminism? Well, my grandmother’s Feminism had teeth. It had to. Feminism in places like India still has teeth. It has to. In many places, though, Feminism has now largely won; it is the acceptable way to be and think. Yes, I realise that there’s still plenty of work to be done, but the vast majority of people in the Western world quite simply do not think that women are inferior beings, intellectually substandard, or to be treated like chattel. There are still plenty of throwbacks who like to hold on to their misconceptions, but they are no longer in the majority, and hopefully they will soon go extinct. I wonder if, over time, it is natural for unchallenged packs to morph into herds, and change their expectations of their members.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Git 'R Done! 04.03.15

I developed my work ethic working on farms. I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t see it as a shaping experience. I was completely wrong. It has shaped how I prioritise, how I measure achievement, how I view work allocation, and not only how but why I engage in co-operative efforts. My view isn’t unique to farming; many industries requiring hard physical labour share the same perspective.

Most people haven’t worked on a farm these days, so I shall use the example of a circus tent instead. I’ve worked on them too, and most people have seen one, so hopefully it will make more sense.

  • The work has to be done. If the tent doesn’t go up, the circus cannot function. It’s not an optional extra. If the work is hard, you work harder. If it’s too hard, you find workarounds. But it’s got to be done.
  • The work has to be done to certain standards. The standards are fixed and based on practical considerations. If the tent isn’t put up right, it can fall down.
  • The consequences of mistakes can be severe. If the tent falls down, not only could  it break and shut the circus down, but people could die.
  • The work is hard and dangerous. Even the most mechanised and well-organised project still involves a high risk of personal injury. The risk cannot be either eliminated or farmed out. You have to accept the risk. You also have to operate at all times in a way that minimises the risk to yourself and others. Mavericks get people killed.
  • Innovation can be difficult because it is potentially dangerous. The system works and has been proven to work. Any change, however well-meaning, could have severe unexpected consequences. New processes are only taken on board if they are going to genuinely improve things. Innovation for its own sake is generally rejected. Wanna-be innovators who want to “improve” the system without having taken possible consequences into consideration are not appreciated.
  • Workers are necessary. Breaking workers is bad. Work allocation is therefore carried out based on ability, not passion. This often results in gender being a factor for the simple reason that women are statistically smaller and weaker than men. The problem isn't just not being able to do the work right now, but of the impact of doing work to which you are physically ill-suited over time. (For instance, I weigh 50kg. I can lift and carry 25kg easily. But the stress that puts on my body is infinitely greater than that experienced by a 100kg person – they quite simply have more bone and muscles than me. I am more likely to break. Over time, I will break out of sheer wear and tear. Hell, so will the stronger people, but their work life will hopefully be longer.)
  • However, because the most important thing is still getting the job done, personal ability is ultimately the key factor. Outliers are treated individually.
  • All the tasks involved in the project are essential. As long as everyone pulls their weight, regardless of their specific role they are all equally respected.
  • People who do not pull their weight are putting an extra load on everyone else. They are despised.
  • Achievement is measured by what is actually done. The tent is either up or not up. It’s either up properly or unsafe and unusable. There are no prizes for trying and failing, regardless of how hard you tried.

The list goes on. To me all of the above factors are so obvious that they are a non-issue. What I hadn’t realised until it was pointed out to me is that this way of doing stuff is hardly universal. These days most people in the Western world don’t get to work in environments that demand hard physical graft to produce tangible physical results. In fact, we’re culturally rather contemptuous of that kind of work, as if it were beneath us rather than essential to our survival.

For people who work in environments that don’t involve hard manual labour, my priorities and concerns often make no sense. The way I manage and evaluate each project or task is inexplicable and even iniquitous. 

For instance, to me job division is all about personal ability, because that minimises individual risks and maximises overall productivity. To them it should be about fairness and equality. To me it’s bloody obvious that if I’m working with a guy twice my size, he’ll be doing most of the heavy lifting and I’ll be doing things requiring agility and a small size, and probably writing reports and making tea: playing to your strengths gets the job done as efficiently as possible and hopefully leaves you unharmed to work again tomorrow. To my co-worker in manual labor, this arrangement makes obvious sense. To office workers, it looks as if I’m volunteering to do “inferior” tasks; I’m either being subservient or lazy.

Another major stumbling block in communication is about “achievement”. The way I see it, if whatever you’ve done doesn’t work, then you’ve not achieved. It’s a shame, but regardless of how you tried and how much you cared, you just haven’t achieved. My success isn’t measured by effort or by the intensity of feelings on the subject, but by results.This affects how I evaluate absolutely everything: work, parenting, relationships, self-defence, etc.. I think I’m being pragmatic. People used to achievements that only exist on paper tend to treat me as if I'm ruthless.  (Writing this just now, I realised how the people I like the best in the world of self-defence, those who are happy to go “this just dun’t work” and see this as the overarching factor, the only nail that particular coffin needs, also have physical labour backgrounds… Hmm.)

Even in the same industry, there is often a stark contrast between the perspective of the people who sweat and potentially bleed for the job and those who just evaluate their performance from behind a desk. To a worker who’s seen and heard a co-worker mangled by machinery, that accident is not a statistic. A 1% reduction in risk is not just a figure to balance against a budget; it is a person screaming in pain, a life that may be changed forever or cut short. A 5% increase in workload may be the difference between becoming a physical wreck in your youth and reaching a healthy, ripe old age. To those who feel their physical impact, these kinds of numbers are not theoretical entities.

This doesn’t apply just to people who are willing to cut corners for profit. Even those with good intentions can do untold damage, either to the overall system or to the individuals they are seeking to help. For instance, I have been unable to apply to certain jobs because I didn’t meet the physical requirements. I was quite simply too small and/or too weak. From the comfort of an office, that could look as a blatant case of discrimination. However, had I tried to do the work, not only I would have performed very badly but I would have undoubtedly caused serious damage to myself, and maybe to others. The restrictions are put into place for utterly pragmatic reasons, reasons that someone sitting in the comfort and safety of an office, can't – or perhaps refuses – to see.

Now that I’m aware of the differences, a lot of my problems make sense. I have been assuming that everyone was looking at the world the same way. Like most assumptions, it was plain silly. This may explain why, while I’ve been very good at desk jobs, I’ve been very bad at getting along with other people who did them. I still need to work out a way to explain my point of view to those who don’t share it, but at least now I know that I need to try.