Useful Tigress Blog

A better world is possible, and we can make it real.

Gloveboxes, Consent Practices, and Problematic Kinks 

Our consent, negotiation, and safety practices are gloveboxes that let us handle dangerous material.

The world of kink is generally made up of things that would not be okay to do outside the context of kink. We build structures around these things to answer the question, “how do you know when it is okay to do that?” The things we do vary in not-okayness, but having an answer to that question is always good. The glovebox metaphor is part of my answer to that question. The very same things that make our kinks interesting — taboo, danger, improbability — are the same things that make them not okay in other circumstances. Like mercury, uranium, or arsenic, we can build powerful and useful things out of them. But also like those elements, we need safety gear or else we will harm ourselves and others.

Also like the elements, our kinks are present around us whether we want that or not. We would not need the glovebox if we could just decide to not have some particular kink. But we don’t choose our kinks. I argue that our lack of choice means we are not morally responsible for having kink desires. What we are morally responsible for, and must diligently hold each other accountable for, are the ways we engage with our desires. We have full agency over our engagement, and therefore are fully responsible for it. We may behave with great responsibility, dismaying irresponsibility, or with a general muddling-through figuring-it-out-as-we go sort of thing — it’s not a binary. So we build a metaphorical glovebox out of consent, negotiation, and safety practices. It doesn’t mean we’re 100% safe or can’t do harm — but it does mean we have some very reliable ways to increase safety and reduce harm.

Right now I’m not here to talk about the implementation of these practices, but rather, to talk about why we need them and what they accomplish. Chattel slavery is outright evil, but there are plenty of people who kink to re-enacting part or all of it. That’s an example of a kink with a high bar for “are you engaging with this responsibly?” Especially for white Americans, the potential to for us to do shitty things while enacting that kink is very, very high. We’re living in a nation with a long and unresolved history of doing massively awful things around slavery and its legacy. To re-enact things of slavery in your kink life without also engaging with the history of slavery in America and the open wounds it has left us with, is to engage with that kink irresponsibly. If you turn to bimbo/ditz kink, there’s a similar issue. Human culture has a virulent, centuries-long misogyny problem. To re-enact the tropes of feminine stupidity, shallowness, vapidity, promiscuity, and vanity in your kink life without also engaging with the history of these ideas being used as weapons to enforce a misogynist, heteronormative culture, is to engage with that kink irresponsibly.

Another facet of the “engage responsibly” framing is that we can acknowledge that we have different responsibilities in different circumstances. When we are in private with our longtime partners, we hopefully can rely on a long track record of negotiation and mutual knowledge and not have to justify everything from first principles all the time. But if we’re in public, we have to have a different set of standards in mind, to be aware of how our engagement affects others. At a dungeon party, yet another type of engagement. We already know there are different social rules for different circumstances, we just need to extend that knowledge. Engaging responsibly is a skill we can practice, can improve at, can learn from our failures at.

Part of engaging responsibly is looking directly at your own engagement. What are you doing to attain, ensure, and enact consent? What in your negotiation, does get you from proposal to resolution? What about your practices makes the thing you’re doing safer? For some kinks, the answers to these are quite easy, but for all kinks, being able to ask these questions and search for answers is a good and useful thing.

I should emphasize here that although I think the bar for engaging with things responsibly is higher for some kinks than for others, I think it’s very reachable. Doing your research, exercising empathy, and minimizing your impact on non-participants' lives, plus 101-level consent, negotiation, and safety tactics, will get you most of the way there, and they are things you absolutely should be doing anyhow just because those are what decent people that others want to get kinky with, do. A particular physical act or circumstance isn’t enough by itself to satisfy a kink. We get our thrill from emotional experiences — we use the acts and circumstances to produce the experiences that satisfy us. Once you identify the emotional experience you want, you can identify more ways to produce it. This too is something that’s good anyhow, because if you identify your own needs more clearly, you’ll be able to more easily guide partners to doing stuff that meets your needs (and little is more delicious than identifying your partner’s needs so well that you can deliver the experience they want via unexpected means).

A major reason I push people to think in terms of “are you engaging responsibly?” is that thinking in those terms gets us away from making moral judgments about people’s kinks based on gross-out reactions. Whether you get a gross-out/squick/revulsion reaction from something is absolutely not a reliable guide to whether that thing is okay. It’s a reliable guide to whether you personally should participate in that thing, but no more than that. Being able to explain whether some form of engaging with kink is responsible or not, is something we can actually have a productive discussion about. We can point to actions, to visible, tangible external things, and talk about what makes those okay or not okay. It is impossible for “that thing grosses me out, therefore it’s wrong” to lead to a productive discussion on this topic; it immediately demands that uninterrogated, unfalsifiable internal factors be the entirety of the discussion.

Here’s my go-to example of using the responsible-engagement model to think about a kink that is a gross-out thing for many people. Zoophilia is a kink some people have. Putting aside the gross-out reaction — how can you tell if someone is engaging with this kink responsibly? Let’s look to first principles. Consensual sexual interactions are okay; sexual interactions are not okay without consent. Consent requires that you communicate with your partner and that they freely give their consent. Even pointing out those two factors of consent, suggests that fucking animals is not going to be a responsible way of engaging. There’s some wiggle room with the first factor. Animals can absolutely express some forms of consent and refusal. A horse that has two or three times your mass, will not be subtle if it doesn’t want to fuck you. But there are unavoidable limits to communicating with animals that mean you can’t reach the sort of sustained, high-level communications that a dedication to consent demands of us. What really demolishes the proposal, though, is the second factor. Animals are not your peers, therefore they cannot freely consent to sexual interactions with you. It’s not about you or them, it’s about the system you live in. No matter how much tenderness you personally feel towards them, you live in industrial human society where you are a person and a citizen, while they are a thing and an article of property. It’s like the magnified version of why bosses shouldn’t fuck subordinates or why Thomas Jefferson’s sex with Sally Hemings couldn’t have been consensual: regardless of the interpersonal relationship, the system in which it happened, eliminated one party’s freedom to refuse. Even if you could perfectly communicate with them, animals would not be able to freely give their consent. So fucking animals cannot be a responsible way to engage — not because of any gross-out factor, but because we live in a system which eliminates the possibility of consent.

There are plenty of kinks like that, where there is no responsible way to directly and naïvely enact them. Fortunately for everyone, “directly” and “naïvely” aren’t the only ways to engage with those kinks. Technologies of simulation have gotten pretty good, and willing partners with clever props go a very long way. So those are good paths towards responsible engagement with such kinks. Engaging with them responsibly still takes effort, but at least those paths offer the possibility of responsible engagement.

One of the bright sides to all this is that when we move towards responsibly engaging with our kinks, we necessarily move towards more clearly understanding both our own desires and others' needs/boundaries. These understandings are inherently good and will make your kink more enjoyable, for you and your partners. Kinks often come with guilt and shame, as well — we Americans, for example, live in a culture that is generally hostile to sexual pleasure, and is particularly hostile to women’s sexual pleasure and to non-heteronormative sexual pleasure. This can leave us pretty messed up about our kinks. Going through the exercise of figuring out responsible engagement, can help us relieve that guilt and shame by shifting the burden to “are we engaging responsibly or not?” Guilt and shame are part of the danger we try to reduce when we use our glovebox techniques. When we use these techniques well and engage responsibly with our kinks, we are building towards a world where kink is accessible and enjoyable to everyone who wants it.

Cousinhood in Neurodivergent Communities 

The concept of “cousins” in the context of neurodivergence recently crossed my scope a while back, and I gotta say I’m really fond of it. It’s a very good concept in general; it coaxes us away from absolutism into a sort of friendly flexibility. This is a considerable virtue when it comes to neurodivergence — it reminds us that in a domain with so much uncertainty, we will often do better by seeking to be compassionate to each other than by seeking to discover the immutable eternal rules of things. Very seldom in life do such rules exist anyhow.

Here’s an excerpt of that piece that I want to talk about:

We used to have a term in the autistic community, we called it ‘cousins’. It started when Xenia Grant was talking to a guy who had hydrocephalus and had a lot in common with autistic people, but was not autistic. She took a look at him and happily exclaimed, “Cousin!” (I like to keep track of who coined terms. It can be meaningful. Xenia is the friendliest person I’ve ever met, autistic or nonautistic. That’s the spirit that ‘cousin’ started in.) Back when NT meant a nonautistic person, another abbreviation cropped, up, AC. AC meant “Autistics and Cousins” and covered autistic people and… cousins. So you’d talk about “ACs and NTs”. But who were cousins? Cousins were people with a neurological condition other than autism, but it gave them important things in common with autistic people. Especially sensory processing, cognitive, and social traits in common with us. Cousinhood wasn’t something that was based on a condition. It was based on how that condition worked for a particular person. So while sometimes we’d talk about ‘cousin conditions’, there was no condition where everyone with it was a cousin. But some common cousin conditions included: Tourette’s, hydrocephalus, OCD, schizophrenia, and AD(H)D. Just as some examples. Not everyone with those conditions was a cousin, but lots of cousins had those conditions or related ones. The cool thing about cousin was that it dealt with the ambiguity of life. It made it so that it wasn’t just ‘us and them’. There was a broad hazy area around autism where people could be considered in many important ways ‘like us’ without being autistic. […] I kind of wish that most identities had this ‘cousin’ thing going, because it would resolve a lot of boundaries that people want to be strict and are not. It deals with people who are a lot like a certain type of person, without exactly being that type of person. And it does so in a really friendly and welcoming way.

For several years, I had an itch in my brainstem about my brain and autism. A wordless suspicion. I didn’t talk about it, because it was just an intuition, and it didn’t fit all the evidence. But I had to guerrilla-teach myself a lot of conventional social skills, I have sensory processing issues, and I have compulsions, lurking tics, stimming. Two or three times I brought it up to people whose judgment I trusted and who were themselves autistic. They laughed at me. It hurt, a lot. Why? Eventually I found out more about the symptom-constellation of ADHD and, coincidentally, read about the “cousins” idea at about the same time. Those two ideas clicked together very helpfully. My friends were right to tell me, “Krinn, it is really really deeply unlikely that autism is what’s going on in your brain.” But my lived experiences were getting dismissed, which is always a shitty experience. So that’s why it hurt. It was interesting to look back and see that condense into a dualform experience of being right and wrong at the same time.

The idea of “cousins” is helping me by giving me a way to conceptualize me over here dealing with my ADHD neurodivergence as part of a loose network of neurodivergences with buzzing probability-clusters of common experience. I am not aware of whatever community of folks with ADHD is out there, and my social graph skews pretty heavily towards autism-spectrum issues. I’d be surprised if there was no community out there, though. One of the interesting things about neurodivergence is this sense that it’s possible to have community around these ways of experiencing the world. These are ways that are basically peers to the neurotypical experience, ways of existing that are just as capable of leading to a happy, healthy, self-actualizing life as neurotypicality. So there are communities of people out there articulating this experience, to themselves and each other and to people who don’t share the experience. This is great!

This is also a contrast to depression, which is also something going on in my brain. I don’t think of my depression as neurodivergence. It’s not another valid way of experiencing the world. It just sucks. A central point of neurodivergence activism is “hey, don’t try to cure us: we’re having a valid experience of the world here, we don’t need or want curing.” That’s a statement I couldn’t make about depression, ever. If I could just tear out the part of my brain responsible for depression and throw it in the river, I’d do it in a hot second. It is just random awfulness shoved into my brain.1 I suspect my experience of depression is average in this regard.

The opening sentence of Anna Karenina is one of the ways I think about depression. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” It’s not so much that depression convinces you that happy people are all alike, but rather, it convinces you that you are uniquely unhappy. You are uniquely terrible, it tells you. You are alone. You deserve it. The commonplace that depression is a liar, is true, but a little misleading. Depression doesn’t so often tell you big lurid whoppers — that’s more the domain of panic and anxiety disorders. Depression is good at lying. It also has the advantage of playing both sides: you start to want to believe these horrible things about yourself. You can construct an ironclad case against your own happiness. It feels so reasonable. Everyone is, in fact, special and unique and amazing. It’s just that in your case, depression tells you, you are special and unique and amazing in how horrible and unworthy of love you are.

Depression is more like autoimmune diseases than it is to, for example, a flu. You don’t just “get better.” What depression and autoimmune diseases have in common is that their presence, their main symptoms, prevent you from doing the things you’d need to do to get better. If you don’t know that depression/autoimmune disease is what’s going on with you, it looks like things are just petulantly & persistently failing to work, falling apart. It looks like you’re just broken in some mysterious way that you can’t fix. But these things are actually failing because of a disorder one meta-layer away. Being able to see that that’s what’s going on doesn’t fix things. It does, however, make it possible to cope with things. “Cope with things” is what’s on offer. There is no way to just fix the things going wrong — there’s no panacea, just a bag of coping tactics. It’s a big bag, which is good, because for any given person only maybe half of the tactics work and you don’t know which ones until you try them.

My experience of depression is that it has non-consensually taught me the skill of looking other people in the eye while I have a sucking chest wound in my emotional/internal/personal life and saying —

“Nah, I’m fine. I’ll walk it off. Not nearly as bad as it looks.”

“Krinn… you’re coughing up blood while you’re speaking and it’s dripping from your chin.”

“I’m fine.”

“Krinn, I can see past your goddamn ribs.

“I. Am. Fine.”

“Krinn. Are you sure you don’t want help?”

“It is okay to not help me.”

On bad days you think of suicide not so much because you want to die as because you feel dead already. The world passes you by. You do not matter. You are forgotten. There is no malice in it — you don’t have enough entitativity to hate. People are simply going on with their lives – nice, clean, livable, tolerable lives. There is no particular reason for these lives to include you.

It’s a lot easier, in some ways, to think about my experience of ADHD. It has many unpleasant parts, but it’s in that class of things that are “just” an alternate way of experiencing the world. There’s also the luxury of having a small cluster of effective life-easing drugs with hit rates in the 90+% region. Drugs for depression never get better than “cautiously optimistic” odds. You can tell if Adderall helps in maybe a week, two tops. If you want to figure out if some SSRI works for you, you’re looking at more like two months to ramp up, figure out if it’s working, and to taper off safely if it’s not, which you will have to do before you can try something else. There’s plenty of room to talk about the complicated results of medicalizing brain shapes, of declaring some brains to be “disordered” in their unmedicated state. The DSM is first and foremost a political document, after all. But the advantage of having psychiatric drugs, ones that mediate your experience of the world in a sustainable way, is that you can figure out for yourself whether your life is more livable with or without them.

Which brings me back to cousins. Life is generally more livable when you’re around people who get you, who share some significant commonalities with you, who affirm your way of experiencing the world. The concept of “cousins” permits us to bring more such people into our lives. As such, I think it’s definitely a Good Thing. I think it’s also useful in the case of depression and related shitty things that can happen to brains. If I acknowlege, say, people with chronic pain/fatigue syndromes as “cousins” in this sense, I at least have more people I can talk to about the shitty experiences I’m having, and who are living through their own similar ones. We are more trying to survive our things for as long as we can deal with, rather than affirm them, but having company still improves things.

Live, as Vonnegut says, by the illusions that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy.

  1. One of the grim jokes I make is that if my depression has a purpose in life, it’s to make me much more fond of my ADHD-ness and my trans-ness. They’re so much more tractable!

NaNoWriMo 2016 #2: About Owners 

Here I am, taking on a November writing project again. If you haven’t seen me do this before, here’s what I do. I don’t have a novel in me right now, so for NaNoWriMo I just do as many short stories as I can. I use the social momentum and recognition of NaNoWriMo to push myself to spend a lot of time writing and to explain to others what I’m doing. As with the novels people produce during NaNo, I try to be very forgiving towards myself and my work; it is okay to just drop an idea when I get stuck and move on to the next story.

This is another installment of this year’s project. It’s centered around a hyena boy with a big ol' kink for sissy-play getting commandingly fucked. Content note: slurs.

NaNoWriMo 2016, #1: The Village It Takes 

Here I am, taking on a November writing project again. If you haven’t seen me do this before, here’s what I do. I don’t have a novel in me right now, so for NaNoWriMo I just do as many short stories as I can. I use the social momentum and recognition of NaNoWriMo to push myself to spend a lot of time writing and to explain to others what I’m doing. As with the novels people produce during NaNo, I try to be very forgiving towards myself and my work; it is okay to just drop an idea when I get stuck and move on to the next story. It’s been working out very well so far: here’s the first one for this year.

Monsters, Marginalization, and Identity: Surviving the Demand to Consider Ourselves Unworthy 

Men who regard their egos as more important than women’s autonomy are common as dirt, but it’s rare for such a man to so thoroughly make an ass of himself in public as the author of “How to Talk to a Woman Who is Wearing Headphones” did. He got thoroughly heckled and mocked, as he entirely deserved. One response, though, stood out for me: Alexandra Petri’s “So, You Must Talk to the Woman Who Is Wearing Headphones.”1 It took a very literary approach to its critique, using a conceit of women as dangerous, wild, and fierce, to reflect and expose the How To Talk author’s unspoken conception of women as a monstrous Other. It’s a conception much older than him, and Petri’s response deftly invoked older examples of feminine monsters, re-appropriating them to celebrate the idea of women’s danger, wildness, and ferocity. In addition to Petri’s work, Lucian Clark of Gender Terror recently published “Monsters Of Our Own: Monster Symbolism in the Trans Community,” which examines the intersection of monster narratives and trans narratives by way of several volunteers' personal accounts of monstrosity.2 I believe there’s a tremendous power in re-appropriating those monstrous images and narratives.3 We can use them to build selves better equipped to survive and resist marginalization. I’m going to explain my personal connection to monsters and to spend some time talking about how they connect to experiences of marginalization, in hopes of showing you that you have the ability to conceptualize yourself as a strong, beautiful monster. Like the women in Petri’s poem, you can be dangerous, wild, and fierce.4

I have monsters in me. As a woman, my navigating the world requires me to be aware of how heteronormative femininity is a very specific narrative that very many people are willing and able to violently enforce, even though those people generally regard women who depart from heteronormative femininity as unnatural, bizarre, or fearful: as monstrous. As a trans woman, my surviving in the world requires me to be aware of how many people regard my selfhood as unnatural and my body as something to be punished: again, as monstrous. I’m confronted with people, media, and structures in the world (lots of them!) that either treat my personhood as debatable and optional or outright take for granted that I am some kind of lesser being. Sometimes I have the energy and desire to demand to be treated as a peer, as a full person, as a normal person instead of as the Other. It’s impossible for me (or anyone else in marginalized communities) to sustain that desire and energy all the time, though.

Even when we do have the desire and the energy, sometimes the mechanisms that enforce marginalization coerce us into compliance — yet coercion, however violent, cannot force us to regard ourselves in our hearts as fundamentally unworthy, as not being full people, as deserving only the scraps of dignity and justice that they choose to allow us. Brief digression: structures of marginalization often inflict trauma and mental health problems on us that can make us hate ourselves like that, but despite bearing scars and pain, we have good days and flashes of strength in which we can once again perceive clearly that we are just as fundamentally worthy of health, happiness, safety, and kindness as everyone else in the world. I send my solidarity and love to everyone bearing those scars. You have that strength, you are worthy, and the system is what’s broken, not you.

When we’re in those situations, though, whether we’re coerced or weary or simply don’t give a fuck today, we’re presented with another question: “who am I, then?” We can’t just assert “I really am a person!” directly because it’d require the energy, desire, or freedom that we don’t have in those situations. At the same time, we do know in our hearts that the situation that denies our personhood, is doing us an injustice. How, then, do we express to ourselves a resolution between the external situation that demands suppression of our selfhood and our internal knowledge of its reality and importance? There are many tactics for resistance that focus on cultivating the energy and desire to assert ourselves more often, or on helping us muster resistance against coercion. Such tactics are good and important, but there are limits to the help they can give us. Beyond those limits dwell monsters who can lend us their strength.

We can answer the question “who am I?” with “I am a monster,” with a self-image that neither requires us to externally demand acknowledgement nor to internally regard ourselves as unworthy and abject. The way we are treated as Other can become an affirmation of monster-ness, rather than a sign of unworthiness. Even when we can’t escape mistreatment, a monstrous narrative of self lets us resist the demand that we think of ourself as deserving mistreatment. Building our own monstrous narrative of self lets us choose alternate explanations, instead of being forced into the explanation offered by those who mistreat us.5

The explanation that Monsters Of Our Own offers, about monsters and trans-ness, is a good place to start:

For some trans people, monsters represent the way society sees them. It is a reclamation of a title given to their existence, forced on them for being who they are. For others, they represent the factors of their bodies and the conflict they experience. They may also represent the escape, the strength, needed to deal with a society that views you as other, grotesque, terrifying, horrific. Monsters represent how society sees trans people [and reflect trans people’s] own experiences of violence, rejection, and exclusion, [creating] an empathetic tie to monsters.

As a furry, I’ve spent a lot of time using nonhuman images of self as a way to ask “who am I?” and “who do I want and need to be?” as well as using those images as tools with which to build answers. The furry subculture not only cultivates conversations about nonhuman images of self, but also creates spaces where participants can adopt those selves as primary and expect to be treated accordingly even if a participant’s embodied-world presence diverges widely from the self they adopt. After years of participating in the conversations and the spaces, the selves that I now use for almost everything are the anthropomorphic tigress who is my avatar-self, together with werewolf, space alien, and gorgon layers on top of that core self (visual reference: here we are together). I’m going to talk about how these identities6 are important tools for me, about the monster archetypes they embody, and about how they co-habit with the rest of my selfhood. My personal usage of these tools is only a fraction of what’s possible, but I hope that its example can point you towards ways of using the tools that will be most productive for you.

The werewolf version of me is a combination of tiger and wolf, outrageous and Dionysian (visual reference: in this photoset, right-hand column, light green swimsuit). I draw my idiom of werewolves less from Universal horror movies and more from the sexualized werewolves that Internet-mediated fandom communities have made prominent: there’s a specific experience that the latter are helpful for taking on. Part of the experience of living in a marginalized community, is the experience of the dominant community’s willingness to coercively regulate your sexuality. For women, especially trans women, this coercion is a central feature of our experience.7 The dominant culture regards mass-media broadcasts, individual conversations, and everything in between as appropriate venues to speculate about our appearances, our sexual tastes, and our fuckability. Taking on this monstrous aspect lets me reverse heteronormativity’s demand that women be sexually submissive, meek, and undemanding of our own pleasure: when I’m in tigerwolf mode, I am sexually dominant, I assert my autonomy, I gleefully enjoy sexual pleasure. Because I am a trans woman, the dominant culture considers my genitals dangerous and unnatural despite that the idea of penetrating someone with them makes me flinch with discomfort and revulsion. When I’m in tigerwolf mode, I proudly have and take pleasure from monstrous, non-cisnormative genitals, unconcerned with disguising them or with passing as a cis person. My tigerwolf self has the privilege of universal acceptance when I assert that my body is feminine and enjoys the luxury of only having conversations about my appearance, my sexual tastes, and my fuckability when they’re conducted on my terms.

The tigerwolf also incorporates some elements from the Maenads. Werewolf narrative skews towards being male-coded, but it also overlaps with accounts of the Maenads, who are somewhat more obscure. For all that the Maenads are definitely human women, they are still portrayed as monstrous: like werewolves, they’re stereotypically bloodthirsty, irrational, and dangerous. However, when we notice that our knowledge of this group of women is entirely mediated through writing by men (not very much of it, either), we have to question the accuracy of our “knowledge”. What would they have to say for themselves? Given that there are many feminine monsters (especially ones from the ancient Mediterranean like the Maenads) where our knowledge of them comes only from accounts by men, this is a question that we should ask often. It’s certainly not good that other accounts didn’t survive (or never existed), but at the same time it’s an opportunity.

The Maenads' voicelessness is an overwhelmingly common experience of marginalized communities. We are required to understand the dominant group in order to survive, but dominance lets them shirk the emotional labor of understanding us on our own terms; further, others know us not by what we’d like to say about ourselves, but by what’s said about us by the dominant group.8 Because of this shared experience, members of marginalized communities in the present are well-qualified to reconstruct alternate accounts of such monsters9 by asking “what did the dominant group say about us when we were kept from speaking in our own voices?” In answering this question, we triangulate from the known accounts and approach the missing ones: once in their neighborhood, we reconstruct what the monsters might tell us about themselves if given the chance to speak with their own voices. Even though it’s impossible to forensically or archaeologically verify the accounts that we reconstruct, we can verify immediately whether or not they resonate with our experience of being made voiceless, whether they have the same relationship to the dominant group’s descriptions as our accounts of ourselves do. Accounts that resonate, are ones we can use when we become monsters. Personally, I’m guided by the way that both werewolves and Maenads are beings of the wild, outside of and feared by the “civilized” world (presumed to be ruled by men). When I inhabit my tigerwolf self, I am enlisting these monsters' help in resisting the way that today’s “civilized” world treats me.

The space alien version of me is a xenokitty, a mix of familiar and unfamiliar (visual reference: this picture, (exposed breasts, login required)). Like E.T., Ford Prefect, and similar aliens in media, she’s a friendly, curious outsider.10 Where the tigerwolf embodies a pointed rejection of the “civilized” world by someone from a neighboring area who’s capable of complying with its demands despite rejecting them, the xenokitty is from far, far outside that world. She explores, confidently and actively seeking new experiences even in distant and unfamiliar surroundings. She takes it for granted that she is dramatically different from the people around her, and is thoroughly comfortable with that status. It leads her to value her differences with others as things to be learned from, as opportunities to explore, and as entertainment.

Sometimes, people enacting marginalization aren’t so much aggressive as they are uncomprehending. Members of the dominant group may be unaware of even extremely basic parameters of our lives. When this lack of understanding surfaces, we sometimes can take the opportunity to teach, to explain our experience in our own voices to someone who may be open to hearing something other than the dominant group’s account of us. Teaching takes significant effort and the expectation that we will exert ourselves happily is also part of marginalization, but the opportunity is real. When these opportunities come along, it’s a good time for me to be a space alien. When I’m in xenokitty mode, I’m eager to explore difference and novelty. I am okay with others not understanding my experience: it’s not theirs, and they don’t need to understand it for it to be healthy, good, and valid. This reduces the pressure that comes with the teaching: it’s stressful to be a de facto representative of your entire community, especially on short notice. Being a space alien gives me the confidence to fluently explain myself and to teach people about my experience without apologizing for it. It also helps me defer the anger that comes from how explaining one’s experience of marginalization inevitably calls to mind the injustice of that experience: the anger is a valid and relevant response, but it’s very difficult to use it helpfully for the work of teaching. Finally, being in xenokitty mode is helpful specifically in trans and queer contexts: I delight in finding siblings and other explorers. Some of them need reassurance that their homeworlds are okay places to which it is possible to return, that there exist places that are safe for them, and that there are other voyagers out there who know what it’s like to be far from home.

The gorgon version of me is both feline and ophidian, a creature of earth and stone (visual reference: this picture). Gnomic and obscure, she’s focused on her creative and investigative work, avoiding the dominant culture because interacting with it would be a time-consuming tedium unworthy of her attention. Unlike the xenokitty, she is uninterested in explaining herself. Instead of an explorer, she is a hermit — like the gorgons or their siblings the Graeae, not a particularly safe one to seek out. She can be found, but the kind of person capable of finding her is already halfway outside of the orthodox world. Finding her may result in the seeker’s transformation.

The triangulation mentioned earlier with the Maenads is particularly fruitful with the Gorgons of Greek myth. As with the Maenads, the various accounts we have come to us through men, but unlike them, one account is distinctly strongest and foremost: the Perseus myth. In it, Perseus feuds with King Polydectes, who sends him to dispatch Medusa in the expectation that the Gorgons' petrifying abilities will result in Perseus' death: instead, with help from Athena, Perseus shields himself from petrification, beheads Medusa, and uses her severed head to petrify several other men in various tales. What would Medusa and her sisters have to say for themselves?

To me, the Perseus story has some very familiar elements. I can read the Gorgons as women whose appearances stunned the men of their world, leaving them unable to process what they beheld, paralyzed by something about these women that they were deeply afraid of: a metaphorical petrification. These men reacted with violence. Perseus' story includes not only his aid from Athena, but his coercing aid from the Graeae and the Hesperides. He seeks out the Gorgons, inflicts deadly violence on them, and uses the result of this violence to raise his status among other men. Even in death, Medusa is denied her own account: Perseus' account goes unchallenged and gives him much glory. It is a very small extrapolation to say that Perseus exploits the Gorgons: instead of having their own voices, Perseus' voice is substituted for theirs in a way that gains Perseus great worldly profit (on top of the harm he inflicted in his encounter with them).

When we look at the story this way, trans people, women, and queer people can’t help but recognize our own collective experiences. Many are the men who have reacted to our appearance with violence, and then sought to justify the violence by claiming that we are a danger to them. Many are the men who have sought us out and then interposed themselves between us and others, silencing us by claiming to speak for us and collecting profits for their speech. Many are the men who have done us harm without even acknowledging us, like Perseus and the Graeae/Hesperides, on their way to work some harm on our siblings. Many, too, are the men who regard their desires as more important than our autonomy: even though the author of How To Talk does a smaller harm than the deadly violence Perseus used, they are on the same continuum.

In gorgon mode, I turn my face from the world that calls me dangerous and worthy of deadly aggression. I am a calm recluse, focused on my creative work: I am unconcerned with being understood by the “civilized” world. I expect that my body, my desires, and my self will be incomprehensible to them, and I proudly become an enigma. When people receptive to my work find me, I welcome them, but I make no effort to be easy to understand or find (rather, the opposite). Keeping in solidarity with Medusa, a tragically slain sibling, I stay mindful of the violence that may be enacted against me based on my appearance, and do what work I can to shield myself against it.

Like anyone else in a marginalized community, I sometimes resist the mechanisms of marginalization in ways the external world can see, but I don’t always have the energy, desire, or freedom to do so. Together, these three alternate selves are extremely helpful to my internal resistance. They give me strength to reject the demand that I internally submit to marginalization by regarding myself as deserving to be treated as less than a person. Importantly, the archetypes that work for me aren’t the only ones. I’m acquainted with genies (tapping into the juxtaposition of power and powerlessness as a way to grapple with heteronormativity’s paradoxical accounts of women’s sexuality), with fae (alien creatures, beautiful and dangerous), and with robots (extending the idea of our bodies as artificial to explore the possibilities of truly being able to choose an embodiment). There are many, many monsters to choose from. Go, and become monstrous.

  1. Ursula Vernon’s “This Vote Is Legally Binding” is also wonderful, but does not contain monsters.

  2. They generously invited me to contribute, but “meet a deadline” is by a pretty wide margin my worst skill as a writer. Sorry, Lucian!

  3. My favorite example of these narratives' strength comes from a post by Fred Clark: “Ask most people, ‘Do you believe in vampires?’ and they will answer No. But ask those same people if vampires can be killed with a wooden stake and they’ll tell you Yes.” Even when we deny the literal truth of stories, they have important effects on us.

  4. I am a trans woman and I’m writing this piece primarily for women (for every kind of woman). If your life experience is something else, I unfortunately can’t promise that this piece will be helpful, but I send my well-wishing and solidarity for any monster-narrative-reappropriating work of yours and also encourage you to notice and support others when they’re using the tools I’m writing about.

  5. I’m not an academic and I don’t know of any scholarly/Theoryville work about marginalization and monster identity — but I’d be completely shocked if none exists. If you know of work like that, please do tell me about it.

  6. These three identities are ways of being that I actively put on and take off. They’re part of me, but they’re much closer to being the kind of self-extension that an actor who plays the same part many times develops than to being part of a multiple system. For more information about what multiple systems are and aren’t, I recommend listening to what they have to say for themselves.

  7. To reinforce, though, it’s a universal aspect of marginalization. For example, black men are portrayed as sexual predators, physically disabled people as sexless, and poor people as sexually irresponsible.

  8. Here I’m leaning on the discussion of “interpretive labor” in David Graeber’s Dead Zones of the Imagination.

  9. Consider Creature From The Black Lagoon and its portrayal of a monstrous Other with no voice, present in body but narrativized only by statements from the emissaries of the orthodox world.

  10. Jon Carroll’s “Near Life Experiences” also has an excellent story about a space alien: “She has considered the matter carefully; she has talked it over with a few trusted friends. And her conclusion: I am not crazy. I am only a space alien.” It is a compassionate story.

Promises I Make When I Talk to You 

I say this a lot in casual conversation, so I may as well write it down. Here are some promises I’m making when I’m talking to people. These hold for everyone I talk to; I also think they’re good rules in general.

  1. I promise that you are the first and only judge of whether or not you care about something, whether or not it’s important to you.
  2. I promise that you are not boring when you talk about the stuff you care about.
  3. I promise that it’s okay to talk about what’s important to you without apology or shame.
  4. I promise that stuff that’s important to you, is important enough to talk about: your life should matter to you! That the rest of the world exists, doesn’t obviate that the events of your life are important to you.
  5. I promise it is okay to talk about the things you want and need to talk about.
  6. I promise that it is okay to not talk about the things you don’t want to talk about.
  7. I promise it is okay to talk about things that you’re unsure about. Thinking about something by talking about it is a valuable tool. Some thoughts are much easier to think with that tool than with wordless solo introspection.
  8. I promise you are qualified to talk about your own experience and your own opinion.

Basically, I like to think that when I talk to people I’m fond of (I try to also do this with people I dislike, but I do not always succeed), I default to taking you seriously, listening as a peer, and assuming that you matter. You deserve safety, health, and happiness. We all deserve that.

My ideas here are heavily informed by Alice Miller’s notion of a “helping witness,” but going into detail about that is another post (and a rather grim one, at that).

Nobody Gives a Shit About Freedom Zero 🐯

So I went back in time a little today and noted Mark “410 Gone” Pilgrim’s 2008 post, “Of Canaries And Coal Mines.”

So after 18 months, I think we can safely say that no, Cory [Doctorow] and I were not “canaries in the coal mine.” There are not hordes of fed-up consumers rejecting Apple’s vision of cryptographic lock-in. There are not mass graves where people ceremoniously dump their crippled, non-general-purpose computing devices. Outside of Planet Debian and my own personal echo chamber, nobody gives a shit about Freedom 0.

Since then, things have only gone further in the direction that Pilgrim and Doctorow despaired about. Apple has sold a preposterously large number of iPhones and iPads, large enough that it’s actually a bit difficult to get a grasp on how much the game has changed. I’m just gonna quote Marco Arment, since he absolutely called it:

Smartphones were an established consumer-electronics market with devices that people thought were pretty cool, but often frustrating and with serious shortcomings and design flaws. … Other manufacturers had neglected touchscreens for years, but Apple figured out how to do a touchscreen well, and did. Fans of the former types of smartphones and much of the tech press declared this smartphone useless or not capable enough because of its lack of a keyboard, its non-removable battery, its lack of expansion slots or ports, and other hardware features in which Apple chose differently from what most other manufacturers were doing. That ended up not mattering. Now, most high-end smartphones look like [the iPhone]. … [Criticism of the iPad] ended up not mattering. And now, other manufacturers are scrambling to build tablet products as quickly as possible. How do you think the subcompact, inexpensive computer category will look in three years?

Now, I’m willing to take some cheap shots at this: it’s what I do, I snicker a little cruelly when I imagine Cory Doctorow in the role of Iron Eyes Cody, a single tear rolling down his cheek as he realizes that there are untold billions of people who don’t care about “Freedom Zero.” His tear is the tear of the modernist project, the realization that whoops, Western European affluent-white-dude values are not in fact universal, and there may have to be some difficult negotiation in the future to figure out (a) what values people advocate (b) what values they actually live by and © whether people can get along within the self-imposed constraints of (a) and (b).

I can’t get genuinely angry at Doctorow, though. I’m pretty bummed out when I think that billions of people don’t share my values, because I’m as egotistical as anyone else and still have a nice little candle in my heart of “If I was running the show you’d see some changes around here pretty darn quick!” At worst I think he’s kinda naïve. It’s borderline tautological to say that people outside the engineer/hacker culture and professions do not share its ideological concerns. If you walked up to an attorney cold and asked her what “Freedom Zero” was, you would probably get an answer that has nothing to do with “screws, not glue.” The phrase might register as a complete non-sequitur to a scuba dive instructor, a barista, a social worker, an undergraduate working the register at a gas station, a costumed worker at Disneyland.

I acknowledge the counterargument of “if people were more informed about the issue, they’d care,” but you have to note that that’s an argument you can make about anything and it’s perilously close to the fallacy of “if people were better informed they’d agree with me!” So I think that it’s to be avoided. What I think is that people care about themselves first—thinking as our rational-logical selves, paying rigorous attention to our professed ideals and to how our actions fit them or fail to, is difficult and we’re usually half-assing it. Yes, all of us, because we’re all fallible people prone to thinking more about what we want than whether getting it is worthwhile or having it will actually make us as happy as we think.

One of my favorite jabs at this human tendency comes from the San Francisco stand-up comic Will Durst, who had a great riff on it in the early Bush years:

Don’t get me wrong, man. That 300 bucks last August—that rebate check came in handy. I live here in town, I paid off two parking tickets with it. But we had this windfall, we could have done anything with it. We could have paid for every hot lunch program in America through the year 2054. We could have put in a down payment on prescription drugs, which they talked about last November and now we haven’t heard Word One of. We could have done a lot.

“Oh no, no, you can’t do that. Uh-uh. No.” “Why?” “Well, the American People want tax cuts.”

Well duh! The American People also want drive-through nickel beer night! The American People want to lose weight by eating ice cream. The American People would chew off their own foot if Oprah told them there was liquid gold in their ankle veins! The American People love the Home Shopping Network because it’s commercial-free.

Humanity has a long and illustrious track record of wanting things that aren’t particularly good for us. I’m not saying that Freedom Zero is one of those things. I’m actually with Doctorow in that I think that more people tinkering, exploring, and creating, is inherently a Good Thing. I just think that Freedom Zero is a bit too narrowly defined, and thus Doctorow tends to undervalue good things produced by people who don’t care as much about freedom-to-tinker as he does. At this point I think it’s very safe to say that the “iPads are for consumption” canard is dead, but it’s not just that. The deal with iPhones and the Apple ecosystem in general, is that they’re a trade-off. It’s fine for Doctorow to reject that trade-off for himself, but I think that he’s in error with his rationale for encouraging others to reject it; I think he’s projecting his values onto them. That’s an error. If you go and look at what people are doing with their devices, you’ll find that they’re doing things that are valuable to them, which is unrelated to what’s valuable to Cory Doctorow.

If you want to persuade others, to talk them into changing their behavior, you need to figure out what’s important to them and avoid assuming that what matters to you matters to them. That’s part of what makes persuasion hard—that and the massive disconnect between what we profess to want and what we are actually happier to have. That’s my vote for what people should care about: being clear on our own desires.

Before Time Travel Was Easy-Peasy 

I want to have this here because apparently the lyrics-crap sites (and boy there’s a genre of website that makes you glad you got ad blocking and NoScript) haven’t picked up on Deltron Event II yet. As long as I’m listening to this song a bunch I may as well transcribe it and have a reference for the lyrics.

Old-Timer 1: Oh the city! Chillin' on the stoop in the future.

Old-Timer 2: You said it, space friend!

Old-Timer 1: Boy, I tell you things these days move too fast! Makes me wanna crack wise about how it was back in the day. Yo, homeless robot! Drop a stupid-ass beatbox.

Homeless Robot: Shit is not going well for homeless robot 235

{old-timer 1 raps}

Before a best seller meant your record went interstellar
Before the impeccable smeller
Before they banned Old Yeller
In the wake of the Presidential dogfucking scandal

When astronauts rocked sports sandals and didn’t have expandable mandibles
And granules of Jack Daniels didn’t heal the wounds of animals
When botanicals still weren’t a biological weapon
In the war with the tarantulas

Back in the day before time travel was easy-peasy
But now I go back, re-rap to make it sound repeaty
Back in the day before time travel was easy-peasy
Back in the day before time travel was easy-peasy
Now we change history like the feat is measly

Stars these days don’t know how good they have it
We used to have plutonium in our jet pack and
We had to take the supertube before it had hyperdrive
Makes me wanna holler! Unh! But we’re still alive!

{miscellaneous robot-abusing chatter}

It’s an interesting bit of world-building, especially since it encourages us to mistrust the narrators a bit - “back in my day” is already a tall-tale genre, and what might people who think it’s acceptable to abuse synthpersons be ignoring about the past?

Sprinkle Some PFAF on Your Morning 🐯

“The aim was to explore the relationship between geometry and audio in unique ways.” A delightful compilation of micro-length animations, little glimpses of fantastic. Nice little brain-tickler.

On Ultimatums 

Don’t issue ultimatums. Why not? Because you’ll see yourself like this:

And they’ll see you like this:

Ultimatums are almost never the right tool. Use them as infrequently as possible, or a little less.

The Conspiracy Is Void 

While there are many things I like about Tumblr, I have a bottomless appetite for cheap shots at it (e.g. Folsom Prison Feels) and a few serious beefs. The one that I’m here to talk about today is not about Tumblr as a company or platform but Tumblr as a culture, and particularly about the crop of young social-justice advocates coming up through it. Of course I make allowance here for the way that any generation of activists will spend a fair bit of time carping about the next: good lord, just thinking of what particularly vocal second-wave feminists have to say about my cohort makes the roots of my hair tingle.

I want to talk about this problem, though, partially because it’s a failure of thought-rigor that we’re all prone to. I just see it more often in the Tumblr crowd—I have ideas about why that is, but certainly they’re not the only people capable of this fallacy. The fallacy goes like this: given that The Patriarchy and other toxic power systems exist, as unavoidably widespread and oppressive forces, and given that they are a member of a class that those systems do harm to, too many people behave as though the partiarchy (or power system du jour) is a conspiracy that is out to get them particularly.

This is fallacious in both its halves: part of why the toxic power systems are so hard to deal with is that they are not conspiracies, and that they are not after you in particular: it is enough that you are there and you are a member of some disfavored class. Ignoring your individuality is a feature of the system.

I am of course indebted to an older exploration of the matter:

So, there is no one Patriarch, leastaways not outside of Constantinople. There’s no single dude in a nifty hat at the top of the power structure, surrounded by scantily clad women whom he feeds to tigers for his kicks and giggles. If it were only that simple, we could off the old wanker, free the women and give them some trousers, find loving homes for the tigers, and have a great party around the bonfire of his palace (after salvaging all the good art, books, and chocolate). Alas, because the patriarchy is instead a very very old system that has warped everyone’s thinking right down to the sub-rational, axiomatic, non-verbal ideological level, it’s much more difficult to overthrow. (We’ve seen how well wars against ideas work.)

[…] The Gentleman complained that calling the androcentric system of how things are, or male privilege “the patriarchy” personifies it, and makes it seem like a conspiracy theory in which all men are agents of this big conspiracy to keep women down. He said that saying that “the system serves to perpetuate itself,” further personifies something that is, after all, merely a structure put in place by people, and something that not all men support.

The patriarchy is not a system in the way that the Library of Congress system of cataloguing is a system. It’s not spelled out anywhere, no single person or group of people sat down and dreamed it up, and people don’t usually debate its merits over those of any other system that does the same thing. I don’t think even Men’s Rights Activists get up in the morning and think “Dude! I’m so glad I live in a patriarchy! I’m gonna go subjugate me some women today!” Instead we all live in a system that exists on patriarchal premises.

Let’s talk about conspiracies. Conspiracy theories are a mode of thought that we’re all prone to, in varying degrees. This is because as humans, we are pattern-finders. Apophenia is our life. Further, we’re all self-centered—necessarily, for your life should be about you, it can’t healthily be about someone else. This has the side effect, though, that we’re prone to believing that events in the world around us are also about us. Very little that is happening around you in your life is about you, though.

Conspiracy theories, then, are a natural outgrowth of this: they propose that something important is being hidden by malicious actors working in concert. The combination of pattern-finding, self-centeredness, and the simple fact that not all events in the world are comprehensible and few are controllable, can lead any of us to explanations for those events that range into the conspiratorial. A recent incident illustrated the tendency in what I find a grimly humorous way: the 2010 paper “NASA faked the moon landing–therefore (climate) science is a hoax: an anatomy of the motivated rejection of science” tentatively identified that people who think climate science is a giant hoax or a conspiracy, also tend to have other conspiratorial-type beliefs. Unsurprisingly, the rejecters of climate-change science had many criticisms of the paper—which led to the same authors' 2013 paper “Recursive fury: conspiracist ideation in the blogosphere in response to research on conspiracist ideation,” whose subtitle basically sums it up (cheap shot interlude: “Recursive Fury” is my punk-covers-of-Douglas-Hofstatder band).

A 2012 paper from the University of Kent uses a different way of illustrating the point:

Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In Study 1, the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2, the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up. The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.

Recursive Fury, meanwhile, uses a six-point set of criteria for conspiratorial thinking:

  1. Nefarious Intent: Assuming that the presumed conspirators have nefarious intentions. For example, if person X assumes that blogger Y colluded with the New York Times to publish a paper damaging to X, then X presumes nefarious intent on the part of Y.

  2. Persecuted Victim: Self-identifying as the victim of an organised persecution.

  3. Nihilistic Skepticism: Refusing to believe anything that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory. Note that “conspiracy theory” here is a fairly broad term and need not involve a global conspiracy (e.g., that NASA faked the moon landing) but can refer to small-scale events and hypotheses.

  4. Nothing Occurs By Accident: Weaving any small random event into the conspiracy narrative.

  5. Something Must Be Wrong: Switching liberally between different, even contradictory conspiracy theories that have in common only the presumption that there is something wrong in the official account by the alleged conspirators. Thus, people may simultaneously believe that Princess Diana faked her own death and that she was assassinated by MI5.

  6. Self-Sealing Reasoning: Interpreting any evidence against the conspiracy as evidence for the conspiracy. For example, when climate scientists are exonerated of any wrong-doing 9 times over by different investigations, this is reinterpreted to imply that the climate-change conspiracy involves not just the world’s climate scientists but also the investigating bodies and associated governments.

I think it’s crucially important here to avoid saying “oh man those conspiracy buffs, they’ll believe anything.” Conspiracy theories are a pattern of thought that we are all vulnerable to. In varying degrees, true, but all of us are vulnerable, and a feeling of certainty is no defense. This is part of why we feminists, we activists, we strivers for a better world, need to especially beware of conspiracy-theory thinking. The patriarchy is not a conspiracy.

We encounter the patriarchy and related toxic power systems most often in a context where they are likely to do us personal harm: of course we take it personally! But you will go grievously wrong assuming that the system (as opposed to individual actors) dislikes you personally. You are a wonderful person but conspiracies, as Mr. Assange tirelessly reminds us, are needy beasts and you are not worth the effort of keeping a conspiracy running. Instead, the patriarchy is a system of interlocking systems, which long ago passed the point where the beneficiaries and those hoping for their table-scraps needed only act in furtherance of their self-interest, without conspiring with anyone else, for the system to be perpetuated. When we are harmed, when we are in pain, it is difficult to believe that it is not about us, but it really isn’t.

Another face of this system is the United States' mainstream media—or to call it more accurately, the propaganda system by which Official Facts are distributed (I am drawing heavily from Chomsky here). This system is harmful to many of us, and has the effect of maintaining elite power at the expense of the common good. It too is not a conspiracy and it does not care about you, the news-consumer, personally. It is just the same: the system is rigged such that actors pursue their own self-interest independently and perpetuate the system in that way. That is precisely why the propaganda system, and the patriarchal power structures in general, are so difficult to push back against: they are in a sense decentralized.

No matter how much power he may personally wield, it is vanishingly rare that a beneficiary thinks of himself as blessed with the power of a system backing him. Indeed he generally has had to expend considerable effort disposing of rivals for that benefit, and takes this effort for evidence of merit. He who reaches the VP suite or the Senate or the upper echelons of an important bureaucracy, has had to do a great deal of work and apply a great deal of ingenuity. What he generally resists seeing, is that someone who did as much work and applied as much ingenuity, but who did not have the benefit of a system of power behind them, would not be rewarded in the same way (they may in fact be punished: there’s a strong argument that lynchings were more an economic crime than a hate crime).

Of course there are still further complications. The baneful power systems that we’re trying to disrupt operate as interlocking systems and at the most abstract level, they are systems of interactions between classes of person (not just class in the economic sense, but in just about any way you can divide people into Us and Them). But the operation of these large systems is to spawn smaller systems, which may repeat the process, until actual work and reification-of-hierarchy gets done at the margins. I am not a class of person unto myself, nor is a police officer, but together we operate the system whereby the state asserts a monopoly on the use and definition of violence.

The reason that it’s important to note this fractal nature of systems is that if you follow it down far enough, you will find conspiracies. Small, petty, cruel conspiracies that ruin lives, bodies, and minds, they are nasty operations—but they are not the system that they are embedded in, rather they are a product of it. However, they are rarer than you might think, because the secrecy criteria is important. Remember that we’re not counting the Family Research Council as a conspiracy: they are actors colluding to do harm to queers, women, and pretty much everyone, but they’re not doing so in secret: they are quite clear about their goals, membership, tactics, etc. They issue press releases. There are plenty of subsystems like them, including some that do target individuals, but we need to resist letting those lure us into conspiratorial thinking.

The six-point scale from Recursive Fury can be useful for pushing against this tendency: it’s not a panacea, but it is a useful reminder that we’re talking about big sloppy human systems, not against powerful, malicious schemers. Thinking in terms of systems is an important part of the activist toolkit, because individual actions don’t happen in a vacuum. They have antecedents and causes. Even on the interpersonal level, a person is not any of their actions: they are at the very least actions and discourses over time, which is very different. For groups, likewise. Conspiracies are rare enough that you should assume that events in the world around you are not the result of a conspiracy, even if they cause you pain and are difficult to understand. Perhaps especially then.

Now, I know a bunch of people who spend a lot of time in the security mindset who’re going to want some caveats to be attached to this. So: there certainly are situations where you’ll want to worry about conspiracies, and some of those conspiracies will have an agenda that amounts to “kill you if you get too inconvenient to entrenched power systems.” The best example is how police departments and the FBI routinely employ agents provocateur against anyone with a remotely anti-hierarchical agenda (to the point of being assholes to Food Not Bombs, wielders of one of the most innocuous activism tactics imaginable). However, these situations are both rare and illustrative that conspiracies are expensive and difficult. The big-picture system being resisted and disrupted, is not a conspiracy.

I started out by talking about Tumblr, but this is a problem that’s specific to human cognition, not specific to Tumblr. Tumblr just happens to be full of young folks, who are normal young folks and thus charmingly overconfident and full of anger, not yet scarred in the specific way that produces a certain pragmatism, a parsimony of causes, and a cynical optimism about others' actions. Age is no guarantee that a person will come around to a productive approach—which is to say, eschewing dramatic first resorts, patient in proportion to how they hope for their own (inevitable) follies to be treated with patience, and always curious as to whether there is some item of mutual agreement that could be worked towards rather than having yet another argument.

That’s the real sin of conspiratorial thinking, if you ask me: by presenting tempting-but-wrong explanations for the world, it will very effectively keep you from getting things done. As you make your way through the world you cannot avoid encountering the painful, the inexplicable, and the unjust. Working against them is difficult—and conspiratorial thinking will sabotage your work. Perhaps we could consider inverting the checklist from Recursive Fury:

  1. Selfish Intent: Assume that other people primarily care about themselves. They’re not stupid, they have a whole life to live, but that life is about them and not about you.

  2. Bemused Observer: Be deeply conservative in assumptions about whether or not people are out to get you, especially in an organized manner. People generally organize for themselves, not for you (see 1).

  3. Judicious Acceptance: Systems made up of humans are messy, not neat, and almost never elegant. Dramatized stories about them almost always leave out the screw-ups, friction, and dawdling. If a conspiracy looks excellently efficient, slick, and deft, it might not exist.

  4. Acknowledgement Of Accidents: Plenty of things happen by accident or without planning. Account for impulse and coincidence when you account for people’s actions.

  5. If There’s No Plan, It Can’t Be Going Wrong: Acknowledging that much of the world is not just beyond your control, but beyond anyone’s control, undermines the idea that a conspiracy is bending events towards their ends. Of course the world is not quite as you would like it—but you are just like everyone else in percieving that the world is imperfect.

  6. Open-Ended Reasoning: Avoid at all costs becoming locked into non-falsifiable patterns of thought: if you have a belief that can neither be proven nor disproven, you have a belief that needs to be harshly examined. This is especially true of deciding that people you interact with are malicious or untrustworthy: once you commit to that belief, you commit to a pattern of actions that will make it extraordinarily hard for them to behave benevolently towards you or extend trust to you, and your confirmation bias will carry the day.

Of course this is just a sketch towards the general plan of resisting conspiratorial thinking, but it’s a starting-place and that’s important to have. The point of a starting-place is that you don’t remain there, that you make a concerted effort of getting to somewhere else. The metaphor of travel also gives us this: look at the whole journey from time to time, not just the next step. Cultivate a flexibility of perspective. After all, one way of looking at patriarchy is to call it the conspiracy theory that women are all out to get you.

Well, There Goes *That* Plan 🐯

Found in the iTunes End User License Agreement:

You also agree that you will not use these products for any purposes prohibited by United States law, including, without limitation, the development, design, manufacture or production of nuclear, missiles, or chemical or biological weapons.

Total spoilsports. How am I supposed to work on my mad-science supervillainess world domination plans without my Genius mix?