Metaphors and Derailing

Some people specifically like to relate similar experiences as a way of understanding things that are unknown to them. These may differ in type or in scale from the experience being discussed, but they provide a necessary bridge in a person’s understanding from things they have experienced to things they have not.

Many online forums are particularly hostile to this. I’ve seen it most often when there’s an issue of specific interest/import to a group of people (women, black people, gay people, etc) and someone who isn’t in that group attempts to relate their experiences to the situation under discussion.

If you’re lucky, you get scolded for “derailing”, and perhaps a few pointed “we don’t do 101” comments. If you’re unlucky, you’ll just get run off the site via comments personally attacking everything that keeps you out of the group in question, followed by generalizations of why all non-subgroup people are horrible derailers constantly trying to silence the subgroup.

On a site that is obviously presented as catering to that subgroup and makes no attempts at inclusion, this is really to be expected: They don’t care if you’re a troll or genuinely interested, they just want you gone, and they’d simply block all non-subgroup people from the site if that was feasible. But this issue is particularly problematic on community sites with no particular mandate towards that subgroup, where there’s no reason to expect everyone to be a member or expert.

Which instead gives the impression that feminists barge in and expect men to get the fuck out, because there’s no place for men anywhere that feminism is. Ditto for white people and any kind of anti-racism; non-parents and parenting; cisgender straight people in QUILTBAG discussions, etc. Want to learn about it and maybe be an ally? Fuck you, Mighty Whitey! If you shut up and lurk we might drop some buzzwords you can Google. Maybe.

While I’m sure they’re driving off a few trolls this way, I think perhaps it is not the best way to effect long-term, overarching societal change in attitudes.

Learned Behaviors

Some people are naturally socially adept. Some people have poor social skills their entire lives. And somewhere in the middle are people like me, for whom social skills are learned behaviors.

As a child, I needed to be forced to socialize with my peers, particularly male peers. Without a common interest (typically sports, which I hated) I found it very hard to connect to people, and I found many social rituals confounding.

(Before you ask, I’ve never been diagnosed as Autistic or Asberger’s. It runs in my family, but I test on the high side of neurotypical.)

My social skills were carefully developed during the hell that was elementary school in a fairly scientific manner. I’d try things out, observe reactions, generalize from data, and form strategies. I eventually got good enough at using those strategies that they became second nature.

The thing is, social skills are more like muscles and less like riding a bike. It’s not just a matter of learning the right way to use and practice them. They atrophy if you don’t use them. You can fall back into a specific routine with a specific group of people, but that’s not quite the same.

After eight years of working in a cubicle deliberately screening out people around me and not forming any particular connections with my coworkers, I realized that things that I thought I was good at–that had been second nature in high school and college–now once again take work.

This probably means what people have been telling me for nearly eight years: I need a better job.

Best Maids and Men of Honor

Nothing is loaded down with gender-based cultural baggage like a wedding.

Granted, weddings generally bring out the crazy in everyone. The only fight I’ve ever had with my mother-in-law was over the invitations for my wedding. Everyone is stressed, everyone has different expectations, and society says the stakes are impossibly high because it’s “the most important day of your life.”

But what I’m thinking about right at this moment is the issue of attendants: Bridesmaids and groomsmen. By cultural fiat, they must always be the same gender as the person they’re supporting. I’ve been to a dozen weddings of people my age, and only one has ever dared to break this particular taboo (the bride had no close female friends, so she had a “man of honor” on her side). I have seen a lot of hurt feelings based around it, and some just odd choices.

At a wedding I attended recently, a friend of the groom’s was very upset she couldn’t attend the bachelor party and couldn’t be a groomsman. I cheated by having my best female friend do a reading; she had me as an usher. My sister-in-law stocked her bridal party with women she’d barely seen in years, because she’s in a male-dominated field now and all of her close friends were on the other side of the aisle as groomsmen. And my wife keeps getting invited to the bridal showers and bachelorette parties for women who are much closer friends with me, which is awkward for her and disappointing in general.

I wonder if the greater acceptance of marriage equality (Go NY!) will have an impact on this? I suppose I’ll find out if I get invited to a bachelor party for my lesbian friends.

(If you need any advice on picking attendants: Always pick people who will calm you down, who can deal with problems, and who cause minimal drama. If that means snubbing a drama queen and dealing with whining for years after, so be it. Weddings are hella stressful; get your support from people who can actually be supportive.)

There are no safe spaces

There are “safer” spaces, and there are places that can be safe to a specific group of people at a specific time, but there’s no such thing as a universal safe space, because the precautions that make a safe space for someone invariably make it unsafe for someone else.

A while ago, I was talking to a vegetarian who was (understandably) upset that she would be invited to parties where everything contained meat. Her proposed solution was that everyone should always cook vegetarian for parties, because that way “everyone” (vegetarians and omnivores) has something to eat.

The problem with that is that it’s a “catch-all” solution that doesn’t actually catch all problems. Even if you expect the mostly-carnivores who don’t like vegetables to “tough it out”, you’re still left with nut allergies, soy allergies, milk allergies, celiacs–hell, I know someone with a sensitivity to raw vegetables. There’s no way to accommodate everyone 100%. The best you can do is be aware of everyone’s issues (by asking and remembering) and label things appropriately.

“Safe spaces” online can be pretty much the same way. Making a space perfectly safe for people with body-image issues can make it hostile to rape survivors; making it safe for rape survivors can make it unsafe for recovering alcoholics. If you want to cater to everyone, the best you can do is provide awareness and “ingredient labelling”. Attempts to police for everything “unsafe” will pretty much leave the board at the mercy of the mod’s biases (like that vegetarian I mentioned above) where they might strictly stamp out all sexist, ablest and racist behaviors…but simply don’t see (for example) anti-religion attitudes.

The perfect is, as they say, the enemy of the good.

The Ultimatum Rule

A common feature in relationships is the giving of ultimatums: “Do this thing or I’ll break up with you,” and the like. This appears to be a bargaining tactic, the offering of two things and the choice between them. In reality, both parties tend to know that it isn’t really a choice, it’s a demand combined with a threat. They’re saying, “Do this thing [that I want and we’ve been arguing about] or I’ll punish you.”

This sometimes works. Some people just roll over rather than deal with the confrontation. Some realize that the threat is an idle one, and ignore the ultimatum entirely. Sometimes the ultimatum-giver is forced to make good on the threat, which they don’t actually want to do. Rarely does everyone come out of such a situation happy.

Most advice columnists will tell you to never make ultimatums, because of this. I present an alternate rule:

Never give an ultimatum unless you would be happy with both outcomes.

Which means that you can make ultimatums for relationship-ending offenses. If you know that if your girlfriend doesn’t stop smoking you’re going to break up with her, but you’d be happy staying with her if she did, then go ahead and put the choice in her hands. Just make sure you’re prepared to break up with her if she picks the cigarettes, and that you’re okay with that.