Happy 2018, Everyone – Positivity is a Trap

A lot of people decide to be more positive as a New Year’s resolution. They typically get started by buying planners full of inspirational sayings, starting gratitude journals, and reading fluffy articles about the magic of forgiveness and letting go of grudges, and it may all be a serious mistake. Positive choices and positive actions and positive thinking are all absolutely awesome when used correctly, and they’re great things to encourage in your life and support in other people’s lives*. Positivity culture, though, is the big fancy-lookin’ blanket that too many folks try to toss over their messy boundaries and messed-up values.

Resolving to be more positive in 2018 sounds great and enlightened, but it’s really important to think about what that means before committing to it, because setting unrealistic standards for your emotional state is a very good way to have a breakdown or eleven before February comes around and then to wind up feeling like a failure. Feelings cannot always be positive. Brains don’t work that way and people don’t work that way. It’d be kind of a nightmare if we did, because being positive about everything and denying “negative” emotions is dangerous and counterproductive.

One of the major ideas that gets tossed around as positive thinking is that no one can make you angry or hateful or hurt without your permission, but A: It isn’t even a little bit true and B: It completely misses the point.

Those uncomfortable emotions and reactions serve a purpose, and refusing to feel them is not good. Similar to the way that physical pain warns us that we’re injured or under attack, the uncomfortable feelings warn us that something is wrong. Emotions are amazing, and we need all of them to live balanced lives. Even the most zealous of positivity preachers will generally admit this, but in reality you’ll find very little support for a full range of emotions in the general positivity culture and a whole lot of victim blaming. Oh, so much victim blaming. There are few things that gas-lighting friends and relatives love more than the gospel of positivity and self-determination. Unfortunately, the victim blaming logic is built right in, and people use it like the weapon that it is. “Don’t let them make you bitter.” “Don’t let them make you hate.” “Don’t let your trash-can of an uncle make you have a disruptive panic attack at the thanksgiving dinner table, dear.”

People learn to police themselves the same way. We’re encouraged to believe that if we hate anyone we’re just poisoning ourselves and hoping that they’ll die, but even hate serves a purpose. Hate isn’t a big bad wolf living in your soul – It’s your emotional guard dog, and you might be busy starving it to death instead of letting it fight for you. The fact that some people take their overgrown and rabid hate into other people’s homes and attack them with it does not mean that all hate is evil.

Reluctantly allowing that negative emotions must happen sometimes, and that “humans aren’t perfect,” isn’t enough, and it sure doesn’t stop folks from throwing their positivity in the faces of those they want to silence, or using it to blame themselves for not walking unscathed through someone else’s trash fire. Nobody can make your skin blister and weep under the flames if your heart is in the right place, right?

Did you know that your brain – a physical organ in your body – is where every one of your emotions dwell, and it can be wounded by things that happen to you just like your skin can? It is necessary for our evolutionary survival for the brain to change its function based on what we experience. Emotional trauma is an injury in one of the most delicate, complex, and vital parts of our bodies. It’s where anything that could reasonably be called a soul lives. Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words can break your brain. Some of those wounds can be healed, and some cannot, but walking it off usually isn’t a long-term solution.

The really cool part about our brains changing based on our experiences and habits is that we can develop parts of it like a muscle, and sometimes heal it in a way that is similar to doing physical therapy. Consistently redirecting our thoughts in ways that make us feel good can strengthen pathways that can make us happier or more inspired or peaceful more of the time. It is not magic. It has limits, and not everyone’s brain or body can do the same stuff, but it is really amazing. The bad thing about the cult of positivity is that it does not harness this awesome power for your benefit. It does the very opposite, in fact, and it has everything to do with the values that tend to hide underneath it.

For example, which of these choices is probably better for you?:

A. Putting up with your mother berating you, violating your boundaries, and generally putting you down because she’s your mother, and you’re being the bigger person, and only you can choose to let her make you bitter, or…

B. Holding her, and the family members and friends who enable her inapropriate behavior, responsible for their actions and booting them the hell out of your life until they choose to behave better.

I’ll give you a hint. It’s not the one your badly behaved mother and all those relatives probably raised you from infancy to think is moral, because that’d be majorly inconvenient for them. It’s the one they’ll have taught you is selfish and dramatic and super unreasonable, because that is very convenient for them. Unfortunately, positivity culture is deeply tied in with this blatantly unethical state of affairs, and the same pattern is repeated everywhere in society. Positivity culture doesn’t really care about who’s right and wrong, just about keeping the peace, usually at the least disruptive person’s expense. It’s self-fulfilling defeatism masked as practicality, and it is a major reason that the worst people have so much unchecked power. We let them. I shouldn’t have to say it, but if your positivity makes life easier for people who hurt others and demands more emotional work from those who cause the least harm, it’s not a force for good in the world and it isn’t actually positive at all.

So, by all means be positive, but don’t join the ranks of people who use it to prop up shitty values and behavior. Be positive as fuck and piss off the right people. Hold your friends and family accountable even when it’s inconvenient. Be positive enough to defend yourself and others, draw lines in the sand and then burn bridges when they’re crossed, and not to blame yourself for hurting when someone hurts you. Comfort yourself when you’re sad instead of willing it away, and be your own advocate. Be positive enough to trust your judgement about how other people can treat you and not to make sacrifices for people who refuse to respect your boundaries. If they want your time and energy, they can act better. If they don’t, that’s their choice.

In extreme cases, let your emotional guard dog do its job and protect you, because you may need to hate some people. You may not always benefit from forgiving, and that’s totally okay. If you find that you can’t stop dwelling on your anger and pain, consider that maybe someone or something in your life is sitting there in your heart like shrapnel and needs to be removed, or maybe you’re feeling the scars from something in the past and need support in therapy or from medication. Seeking care when you need it is positive as hell. If your pain never fully heals, try not to blame yourself. Some things hurt forever, but it’s the fault of whoever caused the damage, not the person who lives with it.

If you want to really make sure your positivity comes from a good place, base it on a solid understanding of consent, because that’s how you can figure out where your rights and boundaries end and another person’s begin. Consent and healthy boundaries go way beyond romantic relationships, and most people aren’t taught to truly respect or understand either. Learn to recognize victim blaming and gas-lighting, because they can easily sneak into your positivity under the guise of common sense, practicality, or tough love.

If you really want to just think more happy thoughts and feel better, which is totally a fine goal, then set about learning how to take good care of your brain and encourage the patterns you like in your thinking, just remember that all brains and bodies have different needs and limitations. You’ll probably need to experiment to find your preferences and limits, and you’ll definitely need to do your best to be kind and understanding with yourself through all of your emotional states.

IMG_20180102_214309_284.jpg
Batpup says that it’s important not to demonize uncomfortable emotions and appropriate expression of those emotions. She never denies her desire to chew on her brother’s throat when he takes her toys, because she’s very wise.

*Encourage positive stuff in other people’s lives only with their permission. Seriously, respect their boundaries even if you’re really certain that they’d feel better if they listened. You could even be right, and pushing their boundaries would still be the wrong thing to do.

Writing days this past week: 3

Somnolence Update and what I’m Grateful for

Rainy morning vibes. Weather is nicer when I’m safely inside with my sweetie and a delicious breakfast.

Book update: Obviously, my goal to have Somnolence published this year was impractical, but I’m glad that I gave it my best try. It will be published in 2018, and is going back to the editor in January. It was supposed to have been line edited by now, but I choked and couldn’t get it together.

I’m really looking forward to getting cover art made, and my plan is to use Damonza for that. They were recommended by Kristen Martin, and I loved her covers. So, hopefully, I’ll have some pretty and professional art to share soon.

Personal update: I’m writing this on my way home from a yummy dinner at my mother in law’s while listening to the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend soundtrack, which is endlessly brilliant. I’m now, after almost two years in Seattle, starting to feel kinda almost normal about driving home to this city. Still, I’m super excited about the fact that I’m going to see my family in California for christmas.

I have recently achieved new levels of sleep deprivation, even for me, but I’ve also been hitting my writing goals much more consistently, which is exciting. It’s pretty self-defeating to try to improve all the different areas of life that need work at once, so I’m resigning myself to the fact that really improving my writing and discipline means neglecting other things. Priorities are a pain.

What I’m thankful for: My awesome partners, my family and friends, puppies in general, and the fact that abusive men in various creative fields are being sort-of held accountable by the public, at least enough to shame them for their appalling behavior instead of ignoring the issue completely. Hooray! That’s a clear improvement, so I’ll take it. Maybe someday, instead of terrible men, we’ll have artists and actors of all genders and races who actually deserve their success and didn’t earn it by destroying those with more talent and less leverage. I’d say that’s the american dream, but the american dream was more about taking land, enslaving people, enforcing freedom of exactly one religion, and claiming that god said you could do all that ’cause you’re his favorite. We should probably just let that phrase die. It’s a mess.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Insert vaguely festive sentiment here

Status Quo Warriors

There’s this disconnect I’ve seen and felt in specific types of conversations online. (And in person, but this is where I generally observe it in the wild because I don’t often go outside and talk to the flesh people.) I hang out in writing groups a lot for obvious reasons, so lately, the argument has looked kind of like this:

The OP: “Maybe don’t portray autistic people as rude, awkward geniuses incapable of human connection in your books and shows – it’s inaccurate and harmful.”

The inevitable flood of responses: “You can’t police creativity!” and “I do what I want!” and “It’s my book!”

I think about this a lot, because I see and experience it pretty frequently, and I’m not gonna say anything particularly revolutionary, but some of this is new to me. I think this disconnect starts all the way back with the way we raise kids.

In order to get and maintain power over a group of people for more than a generation, you’ve gotta train all the kids to see the world in a way that supports that power structure. To make little boys grow up to be properly misogynist men, for example, we first stunt their empathy and emotional intelligence. We tell them that all their feelings but anger are bad and weak and worst of all – feminine. We teach them that tears will earn them derision, not compassion. Did you know that people are statistically less likely to comfort a crying male* infant? That’s how early it starts. If we could find a way to get at fetuses and start indoctrinating them into gender roles before birth, we’d do it. Hell, we almost do. We throw gender reveal parties to celebrate which of these two narrow categories we’ll be training the future child for.

People do this stuff with varying levels of awareness. It was done to them. It’s the way things are done. This indoctrination was used on them, so it’s right to do it to their kids. Otherwise, they’d have to face some pretty unpleasant things about their own childhoods. They might see some elements of their own upbringing as old-fashioned or ignorant, but they might still tell a little boy with a scraped knee to man up and stop crying. They might still casually slut-shame their daughter on her way out the door to meet friends. Why not pass on these values? It never hurt them. Except it did hurt them.

My point is, we don’t just do this to make boys into neanderthals who are badly in need of a hug, or to keep girls barefoot and pregnant in the sandwich factory. We do this for every form of oppression that our societal structure is invested in. To make a society as mean-spirited as this one, we break kids and then we convince them that they were born wrong and required this indoctrination in order to be good. Goodness is a rigid thing that they earn by following the right authority and only exercising their own power over those who are beneath them in the hierarchy.

There are millions of loving parents who are ready to die valiantly on the “spanking totally isn’t the same as hitting” hill. Is there any parenting mantra more thoroughly engrained into American consciousness than “Because I said so?” If goodness and rightness are, from birth, associated only with the power to enforce them, and if explanation and negotiation is seen as weakness, is it any wonder that we get this weird interaction on the subject of social justice? The basis of social justice is opposing the beliefs and behavior that supports oppression. The original poster is, at least to some extent, not coming from that place anymore. They have no power behind their appeal, and they shouldn’t need any. They’re not exactly giving an order; they’re trying to share important information.

As far as they’re concerned, they’re just waving a shovel and asking for help with the mess that they can plainly see right there in front of everyone. The mess is toxic. It clearly needs to be removed. It would benefit everyone in the long run to remove it. Why wouldn’t you want to help remove some of the mess? In fact, for a start, couldn’t you just stop throwing more garbage onto it? Just a little less? Just one type of garbage? Why are you so invested in protecting this stupid pile? It’s maddening.

And, of course, the response they get for their troubles sounds an awful lot like a little kid shouting “You’re not my dad!” Social justice warriors are accused of seeing everything as a battle, but if they didn’t care about people so much that it hurts, they would not be doing this work. They spend huge amounts of time and energy trying to make change in the world, which requires a deep well of optimism and caring. Whereas, the folks that I will henceforth refer to as status quo warriors, cannot seem to view their efforts as anything but an attack. The replies are almost incredulous in their fury. “Who are you to tell me what to do? You can’t make me. Worse, you’re telling me I’m responsible to a group of people that I was taught is beneath me in the hierarchy. I’m allowed to hurt them. I have the power.”

I know this is kind of a ramble, but given how often I’m told to try to see the other side’s point of view, maybe it’s worth saying. I won’t entertain a world-view that says it doesn’t matter if some people are suffering as long as they’re the right people, but I can try to see why someone would be stuck in that place. If we all start there, and I think we all do to some extent, there must be a way through it. If nothing else, it makes me feel a little less angry to see it this way.

IMG_20171019_115205_614.jpg
Puppy break.

Epilogue: Yeah, sure, good and bad are subjective, but they’re also kinda not. What if we stopped complicating it? You can go as deep down the ethics rabbit hole as you want if you really enjoy wrestling with the gnarly questions, but functionally, it’s not actually that hard. I really do think we can do so much better for each other and I think it’s always worth the effort to try.

*Assigned male infants, of course. There’s no room in this system for kids who don’t conform to the gender they’ve been assigned.

A Rant, a Personal Update, and a Writing Thingy

The rant: I’m re-watching Doctor Who from the beginning, because it’s fantastic! It’ll be a while before I hit the Clara train-wreck seasons. I really love the beginning even though Ten will always be my doctor. Even cranky old Nine still chose to see potential in the human species. That was the whole appeal to the show for me; it was hopeful. Plus, he respected Rose and everyone else he interacted with who did the right thing. Twelve, on the other hand, not so much. His vaguely misogynistic refusal to recognize Clara from other humans isn’t funny, and I super didn’t need another show in my life with a rude, misanthropic white man in the lead who everyone tolerates because he’s “brilliant.” Like, really. No one needs that. Ever. Remove the brilliance and that’s just everyday life.

It went from a show about adventure, and encountering and embracing difference, and the potential for good in every person and situation… to a show about a white dude who is awesome all the time, wearing the old show like a creepy flesh suit.

I stuck in there for quite a while after the spark had faded for me, but that season finale with Missy and “the cloud” just… ick. I’m viscerally angry that they got me to sit through it all the way to that appalling end.

I’m probably going to start watching again to see the female doctor, because that’s a big deal and because Moffat is gone. (Thank god.)

Personal update: I made a real human friend, which is very cool. I actually met people in person and did socializing correctly – it’s amazing! Also, I was able to help someone new to Seattle settle in and find cool stuff, so I must be a proper local now. Maybe eventually it’ll feel like that.

My love of caffeine has prompted me to pick up a new houseplant. I now have two little coffee plants in my living room. I must hoard cheerful green things indoors because winter is coming and I’ve got all the seasonal depression.IMG_20170914_212406_800

Writing Thingy: I’ve been using Skillshare for a while now to learn more about writing and marketing. It’s really handy. It’s like a streamlined version of what I use Youtube for, without all the distracting fish unboxing and college humor videos. You sign up for a subscription and then you get access to a ton of videos and classes on different subjects. I like that there’s a lot of info on marketing and business practices for artist-types, because that information can be pretty difficult to come by and sift through.

One tip: I’d recommend watching a lot of the videos on Skillshare sped up slightly. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but many of them are sort of slow going, possibly because the people who make them aren’t all experienced vloggers. They make it easy to speed them up, though, and I find that I get more out of them that way.

Wonder Woman and Revisions

I saw Wonder Woman, because of course I did. I’m not gonna go into detail, so there are no spoilers to follow, but I’m not as excited about it as I kinda wish I could be. The thing is, it’s only revolutionary compared to the bulk of really fantastically sexist crap up to now. It’s still good to see, and it’s a step in the right direction, but they could have gone a lot farther. I enjoyed the fight scenes as much as the next person, but there were a lot of points where I wished for a little (or a lot) more boldness and awareness. I feel oddly uncomfortable with the amount of praise it’s getting, even though I understand why it is, because treating a female superhero like a male one shouldn’t be anything other than normal. They still played into the born sexy yesterday trope, so they didn’t even quite treat her like a male superhero, but even if they had. That’s what we should expect every single time, from every single movie. That’s not something we should have to celebrate, and we shouldn’t have to ignore any problematic elements to encourage them to make more. I’m glad I saw it, but I’m sad that basic non-shitty storytelling isn’t common enough that we can just shrug and call it a decent superhero movie with some issues.

I’ll say this again and again. Sexism, racism, ableism, etc are all elements of bad storytelling. We shouldn’t be saying “well, it was a great movie except their female characters were all basically cardboard cutouts with boobs, and the only people of color were evil, as fucking usual.” We should call that a bad movie, because it is both incredibly lazy and harmful to rely on the same offensive stereotypes and narratives. Normalizing equality is important, and while it’s totally understandable that we treat anything that gets even a little bit close as exceptional, it’s still a serious sign of how messed up things are that Wonder Woman is such a huge goddamn deal.

On that uplifting note, I’m still in the midst of revisions, and I’m hoping to be done with them by the end of June so I can stay on track and get Somnolence off to be line edited. We’ll see how realistic that is, but I’m pretty sure that if I give myself more time I’ll get complacent and slack off.

I’m also preparing to buy some ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers.) That’s a whole thing. You need a different ISBN for every version of the book to be published, and the pricing scheme is kind of bizarre. At the moment, one number costs $125 and a batch of 1000 numbers costs… $1500. Bowker is the only source for these numbers in the US, so I guess they can basically do whatever they want. There are also some midrange options, which I’ll be taking advantage of, but the scale is still a bit startling.

Don’t Blame the Muse

 

It seems extremely odd to me that handy little lists off of Tumblr, such as this one below, inspire as much ire as they do from members of the writing community. 18557056_1394586123913674_8439391497564996321_n.jpg

Few things seem to piss off some writers more than telling them, even indirectly, that, while they’ve diligently studied the art of creating a solid story arc and researched medieval warfare extensively, their lesbian character might need some serious work to be anything other than a walking cliche. For some reason, every other aspect of writing is craft, and we generally accept that we should work hard on it to improve, but when it comes to characters and world-building, suddenly it’s all down to the ineffable and unquestionable work of the muse.

It’s interesting to note that the aspects of writing which are most rigid and subject to strict judgement are the parts that make it more difficult to succeed if you’ve not had access to an extensive education, you don’t have the funds to hire an editor, or your habitual speech patterns aren’t considered “proper english.” It’s also interesting to note that the areas where creativity and the muse are allowed to reign supreme are the parts that make it easy for those with social privilege to ignore the real experiences of people unlike themselves, while still using their identities as spice for their fiction. This indulgence allows writers to freely rely on lazy stereotypes and racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist narratives because art.

The thing is, the characters who pop into your head are not coming from some magical artistic inspiration. It’s your brain that cooks ’em up, and when they pop into your conscious mind already formed, it was your unconscious expectations and cultural programming that made them what they are. That means that, in spite of all the little details you may change to make them interesting, they’re just different pieces of you and your experience. If your only experience of asexuals is seeing them portrayed as damaged or confused, you’re going to be inclined to default to that tired, harmful trope. This does a disservice to everyone. Stereotypes are boring, they hurt vulnerable people, and they drag down the quality of their creator’s otherwise hard work.

In response to these helpful but oddly controversial lists of suggestions and warnings, the advice I often see is to ignore all that SJW crap and to just write the person first and then basically slap the label you want on top of the personality you’ve created. I think the basic intention here might be good. You don’t want to fall into the trap of making your character’s entire personality revolve around one aspect of their identity. The opposite pitfall, though, lies in the myth of the “real” person hiding underneath all the things that make people unique. Every aspect of every person affects their view of the world, including whiteness, maleness, heterosexuality, being able bodied, and all the other default character settings that too often go unchallenged. Yes, we all share a great deal in common and we can draw from that, but there’s an important difference between trying to imagine someone else’s experience so you can empathize with them, and imagining that they’re really just like you underneath all the things that make them who they are. Doing the latter results in characters that have maybe stretched a little, but can’t be much more than reflections of the way you already see the world. Doing the former involves listening to the lived experiences of others and respecting what they say, and it opens up a whole realm of possibilities you literally couldn’t have come up with on your own. That’s where the magic can really happen.

 

Social Justice Warriors in Literature and History

Americans love a hero. Whether we’re talking about an underdog who refuses to back down in a fight against the establishment, or a powerful being who uses their strength to defend the helpless, we’re all about heroism. This seems to be a universal human thing, but I think Americans are especially fond of those tropes, and they’re very much a part of our cultural identity. Many Americans imagine our country as being (or at least having been at one point) a powerful force for good in the world that stands up against evil, especially nazis. We hate those damn nazis.

The funny thing is, though, that we as a culture absolutely loathe real people who embody the exact traits that we admire in literary and historical figures. We love that guy who stands up to a corrupt government, unless that guy is real and that government is our government. Then, we hate that guy. We especially hate that guy if he happens to be a woman on the internet. We even have a lovely term for that person: the social justice warrior. This label is often spat at people who try their hardest every day to push back against a culture that has completely normalized cruelty against those who historically had little or no power to protect themselves.

This rosy-but-limited view of heroism also applies to the past. Civil rights? Absolutely important. Everyone who marched was a hero. Suffragettes? Damn right women deserved the vote. Stonewall? Yeah, they probably had a point. World war 2? Let’s beat the shit out of those fucking nazis.* The people who fought against progress back then are increasingly viewed as backwards, ignorant, or outright evil. Especially the nazis. Screw nazis, right?

Wrong.

Well, I mean, nazis have a right to express their opinions, don’t they? It’s a free country, after-all. It’s just intolerant not to tolerate the view that some humans deserve to die or be raped or be socially ostracized for harmless inborn traits and personal choices, isn’t it? It’s literally just MEAN to call someone a bigot for saying and doing racist or homophobic things. It’s BULLYING to argue with people who make fun of those with disabilities that require accommodation. It’s a sign of the sad, close-minded, liberal mind-set that people aren’t willing to remain close with friends and family who “disagree” with their fundamental humanity being socially recognized, and who make dehumanizing jokes about them. While we’re on the subject of humor, rape jokes should totally be protected by freedom of speech, and people who object to them are literally destroying the soul of comedy. Trans women are one of the most at-risk demographics in the country, especially trans women of color, but it is an intolerable cruelty to cis women and children everywhere if they’re allowed to pee in safety. Oh, and of course, it’s just judgmental and rude to tell parents not to hit their property, I mean children.

But of course, that’s all just common sense stuff. Obviously the rights that people have already fought and died for, and the social awareness we have now which was raised inch by painful inch by activists who were shamed and ostracized for their efforts, that’s all a logical baseline for a just society. That was right, and justified. Anything more than that, though… Anything that challenges *current* norms, or demands the redress of *current* injustice, or challenges your personal *current* views of right and wrong, well. That’s just taking things way too far. The thing is, though, that’s exactly what people have always said. Word. for. word.

Every freedom we take for granted as just being common sense was someone’s totally absurd liberal agenda at one point. It was over the line. It was millennials with their made-up genders, and it was black lives matter with their violent demands to not be shot by police, and it was trans women wanting to pee where they’re less likely to get beaten to death by strange men. It was a threat to social stability. It was abusing the majority for the sake of a minority who were just getting above themselves.

Literature has always been used as a mirror held up to society so that we can see injustice that has become invisible due to desensitization. That’s a pretty well known fact, ask any english teacher. How is it, then, that people who would never miss an Avengers movie, and who eat up novels about gritty underdogs tackling evil corporations that profit from human suffering, and who truly believe that they personally stand for truth, justice, and the American way; will absolutely lose their goddamn shit when they hear: “Hey, man. That thing you just said without thinking is actually a slur against a group of people, thousands of whom were gassed to death in living memory, could you change a single word in your vocabulary so that you’re not perpetuating stigma against them?”

16299495_1853917321510829_8599118941487709297_n.jpg

*Yes, there are still tons of people who are straight up against all of this, clearly, but it’s no longer considered generally acceptable. You can’t be FOR slavery, that’s just wrong. Prison labor, though, that’s just what they deserve for being black. I mean, criminals.*

* Because there are plenty of people who DO proudly express that view, I feel the need to clarify that that last part was sarcasm. Fuck the racist as hell prison industrial complex.