In defense of distracting fidget toys

One problem with the way stim/fidget toys are discussed is that there’s often a false dichotomy drawn between good fidgets that help people to focus, and bad fidgets that distract people. Focus is not the only legitimate reason to use a stim toy.  

Further, being focused on your surroundings isn’t always a good thing. Sometimes, the main reason a stim toy is useful is *because* it is distracting.  For instance, some people use stim toys to distract themselves from trauma triggers. When an environment is triggering, it can be really helpful to have a way of temporarily ignoring it. 

Some people use stim toys to distract themselves from pain or sensory overload. Distracting stim toys can be a way to take a break without having to leave the room. Fidget spinners in particular often work really well for this.

There are any number of ways to use stim toys. Some uses, like holding a rock in order to remind yourself where your hand is, have little or nothing to do with focus one way or the other. They serve a different purpose. 

We shouldn’t let “they help with focus” be the only use of stim toys we acknowledge as legitimate. The other ways they are used also matter. And sometimes, getting distracted is the whole point. 

You can be autistic and have a sexual orientation at the same time.

glittery-cyan-skies asked: 

Me identifying as Demisexual and being on the autism spectrum goes hand in hand for me sometimes. Some days I feel like I'm completely valid because I often exhibit traits of being Demisexual, such as only truly experiencing sexual attraction at least once with someone I had known for a very long time. Then other days I feel completely unsure again because I remember that my autism means that I often only like people after knowing them for a long time. So am I demi or am I just being autistic?

Realsocialskills answered:

I can’t tell you what your sexual orientation is — you’re the only one who can answer that question. Whatever your sexual orientation is, it’s valid. It’s also ok not to be sure. Some people know what their sexual orientation is from a very young age; some people take longer to figure it out. Everyone has the right to be who they are. 

Just about anything we experience as autistic people will be influenced by our autism, including sexuality. That doesn’t make our experiences any less valid — it just means that they’re autistic experiences. Different autistic people fall different places on the gender and sexuality spectrum — we have the same range of sexual orientations that anyone else does. 

Some autistic people find that their experience of sexuality is somewhat different from nonautistic people who share their sexual orientation. For instance, if you’re demisexual, you might find that there are some differences between the circumstances that can lead to attraction for you and the circumstances that seem to lead to attraction for nonautistic demisexual people you know. That doesn’t make you any less demisexual, it just means that having a disability that affects how you relate to people sometimes affects how you relate to people. It’s ok when it turns out that autism matters.

You might find that your experiences with sexuality are somewhat different from those of nonautistic people who share your sexual orientation, or you may not. If your experiences are different, that doesn’t make them any less valid. It’s sort of like language: As an autistic person, you may communicate differently from others, but that doesn’t mean you’re any less of an English speaker — and it *definitely* doesn’t mean your question was actually written in French. You are who you are, and it’s ok that autistic difference is sometimes part of that. 

One way to think about it might be to keep in mind that you’re only one person. Don’t try to separate out a part of you that’s autistic and a part of you that’s valid. Your whole self is valid, and you can be autistic and have a sexual orientation at the same time.

 

 A cartoon protest sign on a pride rainbow background with the text "you can be autistic and have a sexual orientation at the same time"

A cartoon protest sign on a pride rainbow background with the text "you can be autistic and have a sexual orientation at the same time"

Babysitting a nonspeaking four year old

Question from an anonymous reader:

I regularly babysit a 3 (almost 4) year old who has Autism. He does not speak, and he doesn't yet have a reliable alternative form of communication like signing or AAC, though he probably will soon.

 I have a lot of friends and two cousins who have Autism, but they all speak or sign. I find it difficult sometimes to understand what the kiddo in question is thinking, or wants, and I wondered if you or any of your followers have any first hand tips or advice on how I could better understand him? 

I know everyone is different, and I'm learning to read things like his body language, but I wondered if you/any of your followers who don't speak or spoke later than most remember anything that helped them get across what they meant when they were younger, or things adults did that were especially helpful. He doesn't have the coordination to sign or draw what he wants yet, being so little. I want to help him feel less frustrated and to be as good a babysitter as I can be.

Realsocialskills answered:

For the sake of readability, I’m going to call your cousin Anthony in this post. 

The first thing I’d say is: Listening to Anthony matters whether or not you succeed in understanding him. You may not be able to figure out what he is thinking, he may not yet be able to tell you — but you *can* treat him as a person who has thoughts and feelings worth listening to. That matters in and of itself, and it also makes successful communication much more likely.

Learning to communicate is really hard, even for typically developing kids. (Which is a reason why two year olds have so many tantrums, and why older kids usually grow out of that.) In early childhood education, a lot of what kids learn is that it’s possible to communicate in ways that others can understand — and that words are usually a better option than freaking out. One of the main ways early childhood educators teach kids these skills is by listening to them, and by supporting them in understanding the feelings they’re having. 

Kids with communication disabilities have more trouble learning to communicate in ways that others can understand — and they also often have more trouble learning that communication is even possible. Disabled kids need *more* exposure to adults who want to listen to them, and *more* support in understanding their feelings — but they often get less of both. Their feelings are often ignored, and their communication is often treated as nonexistent. 

All too often, kids with disabilities learn young that no one wants to listen to them. They often try their best to communicate, only to have their attempts interpreted as random meaningless noise or deviant misbehavior. When nobody listens, it becomes really hard to keep trying. One of the best things you can do for Anthony right now is help him not to give up.

It’s important to keep in mind that Anthony is a person with a perspective of his own. Our culture socializes us to see people with disabilities as having needs, but not thoughts or feelings. That implicit bias goes really deep for almost everyone, including AAC experts and long-time disability rights activists. Be careful to treat Anthony as a person with thoughts, feelings, and questions. This is a profoundly countercultural attitude. You can’t assume that it will happen by itself; you have to do it on purpose. (I did a presentation on this for medical providers a while ago which may be of interest.  )

Some specific things you can try:

Say explicitly that you’re trying to understand, eg:

  • “I don’t understand you yet, but I’m listening”.
  • “I’m not sure what you mean, but I do care”.
  • It doesn’t go without saying — and sometimes saying it makes a big difference!
  • Look for actions that might be intended as communication:
  • Does he point at things? Lead you to things? Flap differently under some circumstances?

Make a guess about what you think he might mean, and act on it.

  • It can be worth using words to describe what you’re doing, eg:
  • “I think you want the book because you’re looking at the book. I am getting the book”.
  • “I think the light is bothering you because you’re covering your eyes. I am turning off the light.”
  • He can’t read your mind, so it might not be obvious to him that you’re acting on what you think he’s doing — so tell him!

Name feelings you think he might be having, eg: 

  • “Susan took your truck. You are mad.”
  • “You like the marbles. You are happy.”
  • “Jumping is so fun!”
  • “You don’t like that texture.”
  • (Nb: Telling *adults* what they are feeling in these terms is usually *not* a good idea, but it’s a pretty common method used to help little kids learn about feelings — *if* you know with reasonable certainty what their feelings are.)

Ask questions, and offer choices, eg:

  • “Do you want the red shirt or the blue shirt?”
  • “Should we read the princess book or the truck book?”
  • “Should we go to the swings or the sandbox?”
  • Even if he can’t respond, being asked matters — it shows him that you care what he thinks, and that there’s a reason to try to communicate.

It can help to make the options more concrete, eg:

  • He might be more able to tell you which shirt he wants if you’re holding both of them. 
  • Or if you’re holding one in one hand and one in the other.
  • Or if you put them down in front of him.

If he responds to your question in a way that you think might be communication, respond to it as communication: 

  • Eg:  “You pointed to the dragon book, so we’ll read the dragon book”.
  • Or it may make more sense to just start reading it. Sometimes that works better than inserting too many words. 
  • Eg: “Ok, we’ll go to the park”.

You can also try yes-or-no questions:

  • “Do you want to go to the park? Yes or no?”
  • “Do you want to read the dragon book? Yes or no?”
  • “Is the dragon scary? Yes or no?”
  • “Is the king silly? Yes or no?”
  • Again, even if he can’t respond in a way you understand, trying matters.

You also might be able to teach him to point to things:

  • Pointing doesn’t require motor skills on the same level that writing and drawing do.
  • Again, in the two book example, you can ask him to point to the one he wants.
  • You can also show him pointing by doing it yourself, eg:
  • Take two books, and say “I choose the dragon book”, point to it, then read it.
  • Take two books and ask him “Which book do you choose?”
  • (Etc: It can take some time and trial and error to figure out how to teach this in a way that sticks, but it’s often worth trying.)

If he has a way to communicate “yes”, and “no” or choose between options, you can also check your guesses more directly:

  • “I think you said park. Am I right?”
  • “Did you say park, or something else?”
  • “Are you trying to tell me something, or are you playing?”

Remember that words can be communication even when they’re unusual: A lot of autistic people use idiosyncratic language to refer to things, or repeat phrases they heard somewhere else – in a way that they may or may not mean literally. Here’s a method for noticing when repetition is communication , and some thoughts on listening to folks whose speech is unusual.

Give him time to process and respond:

  • The standard teaching advice is: When you ask a question, wait at least seven seconds before you say anything else.
  • This feels a little unnatural — it can feel like a *very* awkward pause, and it can be tempting to jump in and say more stuff to clarify.
  • But if you say more stuff to someone who is thinking and formulating their answer, it tends to just give them *more* stuff to process. 
  • So give him time to respond — and be aware that autistic people often need longer to process and respond.

If you have an iPad you’re willing to let him play with, iPad use can really help some kids with motor skills and learning communicative cause-and-effect.

  • Most kids learn pretty quickly how to scroll through select the app they want, and that skill often transfers.
  • Most kids that age like Endless ABC, a really fun pre-literacy words-and-spelling app. https://www.originatorkids.com/?p=564
  • (That app also builds an association between interacting with a touch screen and making meaningful sounds)
  • You can also try the Toca Boca apps — a lot of kids like those, and some, like Toca Hair Salon, don’t require particularly strong motor skills.
  • Often, the best way is to play with the app together — eg, you show them how to drag the letters around, then offer them a turn.
  • Or help them out when they get stuck, without taking over.
  • Or say things like “which color should we pick? How about purple?” and see how they react.

Don’t expect AAC to fix everything:

  • Everything in this post still applies once he gets a device or a system.
  • An AAC device is just a tool. It’s one mode of communication, which might be useful for him under some circumstances.
  • Having an AAC device will not make him instantaneously able to communicate using words in the way that typically-developing kids his age do.
  • While some people learn to use an AAC device fluently very quickly, that is rare. 
  • Most people who use AAC because of a childhood speech delay take a long time to learn it.
  • And in any case, giving someone a tool doesn’t cure their disability. 
  • An AAC user with a communication disability still has a communication disability, and disabilities that interfere with speech sometimes also interfere with language. 
  • Even people *without* language disabilities tend to take a while to learn, for all the same reasons that typically-developing kids take a while to learn how to use words to express themselves. Communication takes practice.
  • (And also, all existing AAC technology has significant limitations and difficulties. It’s easier for typically developing kids to learn to speak than it would be to learn to use AAC, and having a speech disability doesn’t magically make AAC use easy.)
  • AAC implementations can also end up treating AAC use as an end in itself and forget that the point is to support communication. 
  • For most AAC users, AAC is one communication mode among many they use, and it’s not always the best one in every situation — eg: pointing to a banana can be a *much* more efficient way to communicate than scrolling through a device and finding the “I” “want” and “banana” buttons.
  • If Anthony gets an AAC system, he will still need you to put effort into listening to him, and he will still need you to take all of his communication seriously.

Remember that disability isn’t bad behavior, and don’t be mean:

  • Don’t ignore his communication in order to force him to talk or use a system.
  • The best way to encourage communication is to listen!
  • He’s not struggling to communicate because he’s lazy; he’s struggling to communicate because he has a disability.
  • He’s doing something really hard, and he’s in a hard situation, and that needs to be respected and supported.
  • You don’t need to introduce artificial difficulty; he is already experiencing more than his share of the real kind.

Anyone else want to weigh in? What is helpful for effective communication with a nonspeaking four year old? You can answer using my contact form.

 Tl;dr If you’re babysitting a kid who has trouble with communication, the most important thing you can do is listen to them. Scroll up for some specific options. 

 Image description: Text "Kids with communication disabilities need to know that you care about listening to them", next to a picture of a young child and a picture of some plastic duplo-style building blocks.

Image description: Text "Kids with communication disabilities need to know that you care about listening to them", next to a picture of a young child and a picture of some plastic duplo-style building blocks.

One reason to tell your kids about their disability

Kids eavesdrop. No matter how hard you try to keep things from them about their disability, they will eventually succeed in overhearing you. 

The time kids are most likely to succeed in eavesdropping is when you are the most upset about their disability — because being upset and overwhelmed takes a lot of energy, and it makes it harder to pay attention to keeping kids from overhearing.

Further — kids these days have access to Google. When kids overhear adults talking about their disability, they are likely to investigate by googling it. The first result for their disability is probably *not* what you want your kid to believe about themself and their future.

Talking to your kids about their disability is much better than letting them find out about it from googling what they overhear. 

 Image description: "Talk to your kids about their disability" next to a drawing of an adult holding hands with a child.

Image description: "Talk to your kids about their disability" next to a drawing of an adult holding hands with a child.

Don't order people to feel safe.

Social justice workshops often open by demanding that everyone consider the space safe and put absolute trust in the person leading it. For instance, workshop leaders will often say things like “This is a safe space. No one will feel unsafe here — but you might feel uncomfortable confronting your privilege. Understand the difference between being uncomfortable and being unsafe.”

“Everyone will be safe” is a promise we can’t keep. “Everyone must feel safe” is a demand that we have no right to make.

No workshop is actually safe for everyone. Sometimes, people are going to feel unsafe. Sometimes, people are going to *be* unsafe. People who feel unsafe need to be welcome in our workshops — and all the more so, we need to welcome those who are taking significant risks in order to learn from us. 

When we tell people who are feeling unsafe that it must just be their privilege talking, we make the space much more dangerous for everyone in the room. Sometimes, people who feel unsafe are responding to real dangers. If we demand that participants who feel unsafe ignore the possibility that they are right, we are demanding the right to hurt them. That’s not something we should ever do.

Feeling unsafe isn’t always privilege talking. It’s always a possibility, but it’s never the only possibility. Sometimes, presenters aren’t actually as knowledgable and perceptive as they think they are. Sometimes, presenters get things wrong in ways that make the space unsafe for the most marginalized participants in the room. Sometimes, participants are so used to being unsafe that they need a lot of evidence of safety before they’re willing to risk trusting someone. 

One way this can happen is that sometimes participants are marginalized in ways that the presenter doesn’t understand. For instance, people presenting on white privilege don’t necessarily always understand the significance of ableism, people presenting on sexism and misogyny don’t always understand the significance of racism and antiblackness. No one has a perfect understanding of every form of marginalization, and we are better presenters when we keep this in mind. When marginalized people are taking risks in order to learn from us, we need to respect the risks they’re taking and not write them off as a privileged affectation.

This can also happen in other ways. We have power as teachers and presenters, and it is possible to abuse that power. Even when the people we’re teaching are more privileged than we are in every relevant way, it matters how we treat them. Being privileged in society is not the same thing as being safe in a classroom. We are all capable of making mistakes that hurt people, and when we make those mistakes, it matters. 

People have the right to manage their own safety. Our students have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they trust us, and how far they trust us. They have the right to revoke that trust at any time. We do not have the right to demand that they make themselves vulnerable, and we do not have the right to demand that they allow themselves to be hurt.

People have the right to make up their own minds about how safe or dangerous something seems to them. Calling a space safe does not make it safe, and it does not give us the right to order people to feel safe. When we present, it’s never ok to demand that people trust us. Trust is always earned. 

 Image description: A yellow caution sign next to text "Don't order people to feel safe".

Image description: A yellow caution sign next to text "Don't order people to feel safe".

Disability is not an abusive roommate

Nondisabled storytellers often seem to think of disability as an abusive roommate coming and imposing its will on a disabled person. When they think about wheelchair users, they don’t think about the mobility that’s made possible by assistive technology. They think about how they’d feel if someone chained them to a wheelchair and forcibly prevented them from walking.

This misconception is dangerous. When people see disability-related limitations as similar to violent restraint, they don’t know know to tell the difference between the innate limitations of someone’s body and limitations being forcibly imposed on them by others. When people don’t understand the difference between living with a disability and living with an abuser, they assume that abusive experiences are inevitable for people with disabilities. 

In reality, there’s nothing inevitable about abuse. Coming up against the limitations of your body is fundamentally different from being forcibly restrained by someone else. Whether or not you are disabled, having physical limitations is part of having a body. Being disabled means that you have a different range of physical limitations than most other people do, but they don’t come color coded ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’. When you’re used to the way your body works, the disability-related limitations feel pretty similar to those that aren’t disability-related. 

Using assistive technology is pretty similar to using technology for any other important reason. Everyone uses technology to do things that their bodies alone would be too limited to do. Most people use cars to go further than they could walk; some people also use wheelchairs to go further than they could walk. Some people type or use communication tablets to say more than they could with their bodies alone; some people use musical instruments; some people use both. People with disabilities have different limitations, and as a result, often benefit from technology that wouldn’t be particularly useful to nondisabled people. 

When technology is associated with disability, people tend to have the dangerous misconception that using it is the same as being restrained. This can very easily become self-fulfilling. When people prevent disabled people from doing things, their inability to do it is often misattributed to their disability. For instance:

Wheelchairs as restraints:

  • Anthony lives in a nursing home.
  • Anthony speaks oddly, and most people interpret most of what he says as meaningless. They say ‘Anthony doesn’t communicate’.
  • Anthony can walk and wants to walk, but the nursing him staff don’t let him. 
  • George, the supervisor, tells Sage, another staff member, ‘Anthony wanders. We need to keep him in his wheelchair to keep him safe. Just lock the seatbelt. After a few minutes, he stops resisting.’
  • Every morning, Sage puts Anthony in a wheelchair that he can’t move, and ties him down so he can’t escape.
  • Sage tells Marge, a new volunteer, ‘That’s Anthony. It’s so nice to have a volunteer - he’s been spending most of his time in the hallway lately. He doesn’t walk or talk, but he loves visiting the garden! Can you take him there?”
  • Marge and Sage don’t know what Anthony actually wants, and it doesn’t occur to them that it’s possible to ask.
  • Anthony actually hates the garden and hates being pushed by other people. He prefers to spend his time in the library or with children in the children’s wing.
  • Marge assumes that Sage is the expert on Anthony, and assumes that Anthony’s disability prevents him from walking and communicating.
  • Marge doesn’t know that Anthony has stopped talking because he’s constantly surrounded by people who refuse to listen to him. 
  • Marge doesn’t know that Sage is tying Anthony to a wheelchair against his will to stop him from going where he wants to go.
  • Marge doesn’t know that she’s doing something to Anthony against his will.
  • When people see disability and restraint as the same thing, they fail to notice that people with disabilities are being violently restrained — and often unwittingly participate in physical abuse of disabled people. 

The disability-as-restraint misconception also causes people to fail to understand that when they deny people access to assisstive technology, they’re preventing them from doing things, eg:

Mobility:

  • Beck is an eight year old who can’t walk.
  • Beck has a wheelchair, but he’s not allowed to bring it to school.
  • At school, he’s strapped into a stroller that others push around. 
  • His classmate Sarah has *never* had a wheelchair that she can push herself.
  • At a staff meeting, Lee, their teacher, says “Because of their disabilities, Sarah and Beck can’t move around by themselves. Even though they stay in one place all day, they’re so fun to have in our class!”
  • Lee is missing the crucial fact that the reason Sarah and Beck are immobile is because they’re being denied access to assistive technology. 
  • When people see disability and externally-imposed limitation as the same thing, they don’t notice limitations being imposed on disabled people. 

Communication:

  • Rebecca types on her iPad to communicate.
  • Clay takes away Rebecca’s iPad.
  • Clay tells Sophie, ‘Rebecca is nonverbal. Her disability prevents her from communicating, but we’re working on improving her speech.’
  • Sophie sees that Rebecca can’t talk, and assumes that it’s her disability that’s preventing her from communicating.
  • Actually, it’s *Clay* who is preventing Rebecca from communicating.
  • When people see disability and abuse as the same thing, they don’t notice abuse of disabled people.

It’s important to be clear on the difference between disability and abuse. Disability is not an abusive roommate; people with disabilities are only abused if someone is abusing them. When people with disabilities are restrained against their will, this is not caused by their disabilities; it’s caused by the people who are restraining them. Restraint is an act of violence, not an innate fact about disability. When wheelchairs are used as restraints, the wheelchair isn’t the problem; the violence is the problem. When people are denied access to assistive technology, it’s not their disability that’s limiting them; it’s neglect. When we stop conflating disability and abuse, we’re far less likely to see abuse of people with disabilities as inevitable.

 Image description: A photo of gloomy-looking stairs next to the text "Disability is not an abusive roommate".

Disability vs special needs

I’m sometimes asked “Why do you say “disability” instead of “special needs”?

Here’s the most basic reason:

When people say “special needs”, the next word is usually “kids”. 

When people say “disability”, the next word is often “rights”.

I’m an adult, and I want equal rights. For that reason, I’m going to keep using the language that has room for adulthood and power. 

 

Autism stereotypes and Not Autism Syndrome

People who have rare developmental disabilities are often misdiagnosed with autism.  This happens in part because a lot of disabilities look similar in early childhood. When kids with undetected rare genetic conditions start ‘missing milestones’, they are often assumed to be autistic. 

When people are assumed to be autistic, autism stereotypes get applied to them. They’re often assumed to be uninterested in people and communication, and they’re often put into ABA programs prescribed for autistic people. They face the same kind of degrading and damaging misunderstanding that autistic people do.

When advocacy organizations address the issue of misdiagnosis, they tend to say some form of “It’s important to distinguish between autism and Not Autism Syndrome, because demeaning autism stereotypes only accurately describe autistic people.” 

Here’s a Rett Syndrome example: “The child with RTT almost always prefers people to objects, but the opposite is seen in autism. Unlike those with autism, the RTT child often enjoys affection.”

And a Williams Syndrome example:

“Unlike other disorders that can make it difficult to interact meaningfully with your child, children with Williams Syndrome are sociable, friendly and endearing. Most children with this condition have very outgoing and engaging personalities and tend to take an extreme interest in other people.”

Statements like these suggest that the problem with autism stereotypes is that they're applied to the wrong people. The thing is, demeaning autism stereotypes *aren’t true of anyone. We all have feelings and thoughts and the capacity to care about things and relate to other people. Accurate diagnosis matters, but not as a way of sorting out who is and isn't fully human. We're all fully human, and no one should be treated the way autistic people are treated. We shouldn't pass around stereotypes, we should reject them.

Breaking writer’s block by being willing to write posts that don’t feel good enough

I have had writer’s block from hell lately, largely because I’ve been too attached to getting everything right. 

This blog was easier to write when I posted every day, because it meant that I didn’t get trapped in perfectionism-driven writer’s block. I just wrote things that were as good as I could make them in the time I had available, then posted them, then posted more things.

Now that I don’t post every day anymore, my posts tend to get indefinitely delayed. Nothing I write lately feels good enough to post, and I want to just keep working on things until they feel done — but the thing is, there is *always* room to improve posts. Wanting to wait for things to be better isn’t resulting in better posts, it’s resulting in *no* posts.

So, I’m trying to keep in mind what I know: If I want to write good posts, I have to *actually finish posts*. Waiting for posts to be better will not get them written; being willing to write them will get them written. And if I write some bad posts along the way, that’s a step towards writing the posts I want to be writing long-term. Silence will not help. 

With that in mind, I’m planning to post every day between now and Friday. I will most likely hate most if not all of this week’s posts, but they will be written and they are a step towards getting my blog voice back. 

Beware of collectors

There are people who I think of as collectors. Collectors like to maintain collections of people who they can manipulate. Often, collectors target marginalized people — especially activists and advocates who are growing into their own voices and power.

Collecting often works like this:

  • The collector will find someone who is starving for respect or struggling to be seen as a human being deserving human rights. 
  • They will give you something that feels like an unusual amount of respect or allyship.
  • Often, this comes in a the form of expressing an opinion that it’s unusual for privileged people to have.
  • Eg: An autism professional might express opposition to ABA, or the opinion that communication should always come before behavioral intervention.
  • They might talk a lot about centering marginalized voices, and give you some access to space that people like you don’t normally have.
  • Eg: They might be a man who refuses to speak on all male panels and proactively gets you invited to speak at male-dominated conferences.
  • This support comes with a heavy price. In return, they expect you to act like part of their collection and avoid doing anything to upset them.
  • (And somehow, everything you do that shows power or independence tends to upset them.)

Once you’re collected, it tends to feel like this:

  • They make you feel like they’re “one of the good ones”, and there’s a constant implicit threat that if you fail to please them, they might stop being so good.
  • They make it clear that you’d better make them feel good and validate their self-image, or else they’ll stop.
  • They’ll do all kinds of things you’d normally object to, and say all kinds of things that you’d normally be offended by.
  • One of the most sure-fire ways to upset them is to point out the threat, or to make it clear that you’re acting out of fear in any way.
  • It gets harder and harder to say things that you know will upset them. It gets harder and harder to express opinions that you know contradict theirs. It gets harder and harder to even have *thoughts* that will upset them. 
  • It gets harder and harder to realize how much you’re acting under duress, because noticing the threat will likely result in emotional retaliation. 
  • They might put you in a position in which all of your options feel blatantly unprofessional in one way or other. 
  • (For instance, they might make you choose between violating the professional ethics code in your field or else withdrawing from a project you’ve publicly committed to in a way that will cause the project to collapse.)
  • They might harshly criticize everyone else you’re allied with, and every community you’re part of. It can feel like you’re supposed to separate yourself from everyone but them. It can be difficult to resist, for the same reasons it’s generally difficult to resist deferring to their views.
  • It gets harder and harder to trust anyone else, or to have positive opinions of people who would treat you better than the collector does.

 

Collector manipulativeness tends to be excruciatingly confusing, in part because they also keep offering you things that feel important and rare, eg:

  • They’ll often tell you how important your work is, praise it effusively, and help you get access to professional opportunities. 
  • They’ll often keep expressing unusual good opinions that make you feel like they must be on your side, deep down, because hardly anyone ever agrees with you.
  • You’re usually not the only one in their orbit. They’ll often be tolerated and praised within your community, even though they blatantly do things that would normally be seen as horrifically unacceptable.
  • (Eg: Maybe they argue for autistic rights but also express graphic sympathy for parents who murder autistic children. Maybe they get women onto panels but also make gross sexual comments and mansplain to everyone who contradicts them.)
  • They’ll often be involved in projects that get publicly praised as a major step forward, despite major flaws and despite the way that they treat marginalized people.
  • Often, open they say and do things that your community normally finds unacceptable, but are perceived as an ally and a friend.
  • (Or even a uniquely valuable and indispensable ally and friend.)
  • It can get really hard to trust your perceptions of right and wrong under those circumstances.
  • Collectors are confusing and it can be hard to extract yourself from them.

When you’re trying to extract yourself from a collector, the most important thing is to find ways to stay oriented. Collectors gain power by confusing you, and they become much less powerful when you’re able to notice what they’re doing. 

Some ways to stay oriented:

Notice when your opinions are shifting in ways that might not be coming from you:

  • When you have conversations with the collector, do you tend to feel ashamed of yourself for disagreeing with them or questioning them?
  • Do you tend to go out of conversations feeling like you were wrong about everything and that they’re right?
  • Does the change in your opinions make sense to you, or does it feel like the ground is shifting underneath you in incomprehensible ways?
  • If you’re finding yourself confused after conversations, it can help to have a policy of not making decisions about what you’ve discussed until you’ve been away from the collector for at least for hours (or a day, or however long it usually takes for the effect to wear off.)

Making things explicit can also help:

  • One way collectors confuse people is by shaming you with innuendo instead of using direct language to discuss what they want you to believe and do.
  • They know that if they came out and said it, you would likely disagree with it — so instead of saying it, they manipulate you into losing the ability to contradict it.
  • (Eg: They might not say “it’s ok for parents to use electric shocks to control behavior”, but instead go off on a rant about being understanding every time you mention the issue. 
  • Or they might not *say* “we should tolerate men who grope women when they’re also major donors”, but instead talk about how important fundraising is to your organization every time you say that the groping needs to stop.)
  • If you notice what, exactly, it is that they want you to do and think, it can make it *much* easier to figure out for yourself whether or not you actually agree.
  • Some questions worth asking (either to yourself or in conversation with someone you trust):
  • What do they want me to believe? 
  • What do they want me to do?
  • What are they suggesting without coming out and saying it directly? 
  • What do I think about this? Why?

It’s also worth paying attention to contradictions. Sometimes when you notice that someone is contradicting themselves, it becomes much easier to feel ok about disagreeing with them. It can help to think about these kinds of questions:

  • What things do they want me to believe? What am I supposed to believe about them? About myself? About my community? About other marginalized groups? About privileged people? About my field? About the world? About other things? 
  • Do those things contradict each other? 
  • Is it actually possible to believe all of those things at the same time?
  • If so, what would be the likely result of pointing out the contradiction? Would they be interested in figuring out how to reconcile things, or would they be angry at me for noticing?

More generally speaking, it’s easier to figure out what your own opinion is when you notice fear. Questions worth considering:

  • What do I think about the things they want me to believe? Why? 
  • What do I agree with? What do I disagree with? What do I have questions about? 
  • What questions am I afraid to ask? Why? What do I think the answers to those questions might be?
  • What opinions am I afraid to express? Why?
  • Am I saying yes when I really want to say no? Why?
  • What do I think when they’re not in the room? What changes when they are?
  • What would be the likely result of expressing uncertainty, asking questions, or saying that I disagree about something? 
  • Would I be able to say what I actually believe without having a fraught emotional conversation in which I have to praise them and struggle to find ways to say that I agree with them after all?
  • What I am I afraid they might do to me? Realistically, could they do that? Would it be worse than the situation I’m already in?
  • Is there any way to mitigate the threat?

It can also help to ask yourself concrete questions about their actions and how they are percieved:

  • Collectors typically act in ways that blatantly contradict their reputation.
  • Then they manipulate people into not noticing, or they manipulate the conversation to prevent people from having language to describe it.
  • It’s worth asking: *Why* do they have a good reputation? Is it based on anything they’ve actually done to earn it? 
  • Does their good reputation depend on excusing an awful lot of statements and actions that would normally be considered dealbreaking if someone did even *one* of those things?
  • If you feel like they’re great and worth putting up with despite the way they treat you, why is that?
  • What’s the best thing they’ve done for you? What has letting them do that for you cost you? Is it worth it? If so, why?
  • Do they really mean the good things that they say? If so, why aren’t they acting like it more consistently?

You’re not as alone as you might feel:

  • Collectors are really good at looking much more powerful and influential than they really are. 
  • They may be giving the impression that everyone in your community is ok with what they’re doing, but it’s almost certainly not true.
  • Often, a lot of the silence and praise is because people are afraid to contradict the collector, not because they actually think everything is ok. 
  • The collector may be manipulating the conversation in ways that silence others, but you’re not the only one who notices what they’re doing, and you’re not the only one who sees it as a problem. Connecting with others who think that the manipulation is wrong can help, a lot.

It also helps to remember that the world is bigger than the collector is making it seem:

  • Collectors aren’t God, and they’re not the source of all good things.
  • They are not the only ones who will respect you or work with you. 
  • There is a whole world out there that is not about them, at all.
  • There are people who don’t care at all about the collectors opinion. There is work being done and art being made that they’re not part of.
  • The world does not revolve around collectors, and your life shouldn’t either.
  • You’re a real person, and you deserve respect in your own right.

Tl;dr Sometimes people build creepy collections of other people they’re manipulating. If a collector collects you, the world can end up seeming like a tiny and terrifying place, and it may seem like they’re a refuge. This can be very disorienting. Scroll up for some thoughts on how to notice when you’re being collected and some methods for getting your perspective back.

Allyship does not mean seeing yourself as worthless

There are people who like to make others feel worthless. Some of them use the language of social justice to get away with it. 

Often, this comes in the form of proclaiming to hate allies and then demanding unbounded deference from allies. This is typically conflated with accountability, but it’s not the same thing at all. 

Hatred and accountability are different things. Accountability as an ally means, among other things:

  • Listening to the people you’re trying to support instead of talking over them.
  • Making good-faith efforts to understand the issues involved and to act on what you learn.
  • Understanding that you’re going to make big mistakes, and that sometimes people you’re trying to support will be justifiably angry with you.
  • Accepting that your privilege and power matter, not expecting others to overlook either, and taking responsibility for how you use both.
  • Facing things that are uncomfortable to think about, and handling your own feelings about them rather than dumping on marginalized people.
  • Being careful about exploitation and reciprocity, including paying people for their time when you’re asking them to do work for you.
  • Understanding that marginalized people have good reason to be cautious about trusting you, and refraining from demanding trust on the grounds that you see yourself as on their side.

When people use the language of social justice to make others feel worthless, it’s more like this:

  • Telling allies explicitly or implicitly, that they are worthless and harming others by existing.
  • Expecting allies to constantly prove that they’re not terrible people, even when they’ve been involved with the community for years and have a long track record of trustworthiness. 
  • Berating allies about how terrible allies are, in ways that have no connection to their actual actions or their actual attitudes.
  • Giving people instructions that are self-contradictory or impossible to act on, then berating them for not following them.
  • Eg: Saying “Go f**ing google it” about things that are not actually possible to google in a meaningful way
  • Eg: saying “ shut up and listen to marginalized people” about issues that significant organized groups of marginalized people disagree about. https://www.realsocialskills.org/blog/the-rules-about-responding-to-call-outs-arent
  • Eg: Simultaneously telling allies that they need to speak up about an issue and that they need to shut up about the same issue. Putting them in a position in which if they speak or write about something, they will be seen as taking up space that belongs to marginalized people, and if they don’t, they will be seen as making marginalized people do all the work.
  • Giving allies instructions, then berating them for following them:
  • Eg: Inviting allies to ask questions about good allyship, then telling them off for centering themselves whenever they actually ask relevant questions. 
  • Eg: Teaching a workshop on oppression or a related issue, and saying “it’s not my job to educate you” to invited workshop participants who ask questions that people uninformed about the issue typically can be expected to ask.
  • More generally speaking: setting things up so that no matter what an ally does, it will be seen as a morally corrupt act of oppression.

Holding allies accountable means insisting that they do the right thing. Ally hate undermines accountability by saying that it’s inherently impossible for allies to do anything right. If we want to hold people accountable in a meaningful, we have to believe that accountability is possible. 

Someone who believes that it’s impossible for allies to do anything right isn’t going to be able to hold you accountable. If someone has no allies who they respect, you’re probably not going to be their exception — they will almost certainly end up hating you too. If someone demands that you assume you’re worthless and prove your worth in an ongoing way, working with them is unlikely to end well.  

If you want to hold yourself accountable, you need to develop good judgement about who to listen to and who to collaborate with. Part of that is learning to be receptive to criticism from people who want you to do the right thing, even when the criticism is hard to hear. Another part is learning to be wary of people who see you as a revenge object and want you to hate yourself. You will encounter both attitudes frequently, and it’s important to learn to tell the difference. Self-hatred isn’t accountability.

Tl;dr If we want to hold allies accountable in a meaningful, we have to believe that accountability is possible. Hatred of allies makes this much harder.

 Image description: A sign with text "allyship does not mean seeing yourself as worthless".

"I never do x" vs "When I do x, it doesn't count, because it's justified".

It’s important to have morally neutral language to describe actions. This is especially important for actions that are always, usually, or sometimes morally wrong. 

For instance:

  • In English, ‘killing’ and ‘murder’ mean different things.
  • ‘Murder’ always means killing that is either illegal or morally wrong. 
  • ‘Killing’ can describe any act that causes someone to die. 
  • This distinction makes it possible to talk about when killing is and isn’t justified. 
  • Even for people who think that killing is always murder, this is important. 
  • Without morally neutral language, it’s impossible to express a clear opinion on whether or not killing is ever acceptable.

For instance (names randomly generated using http://www.fakenamegenerator.com/gen-random-us-us.php): 

  • Heather: *shoots Sonja*.
  • Sonja: *dies as a result of being shot by Heather*.
  • In this situation, Heather definitely killed Sonja. Whether or not she murdered Sonja is something people can argue about.
  • Eg: If Sonja was trying to kill Heather and Heather shot her in self-defense, almost everyone would argue that this isn’t murder.
  • Eg: If Heather was trying to rob Sonja’s store and shot her to prevent her from calling for help, almost everyone would consider that murder.
  • Eg: If Heather felt threatened by Sonja in a public space and shot her rather than trying to run away, most people would consider that murder, but some people would vehemently disagree.
  • Because ‘murder’ and ‘killing’ are different words, everyone would be able to express their opinion in a clear way.

When it’s impossible to describe actions without condemning them, it can be impossible to describe what people are actually doing. This makes it hard to have an honest conversation, and even harder to hold people accountable. 

Here’s a disability services example (randomly generated names): 

  • Charles (a staff person): I don’t believe in coercion. I never control my clients or tell them what to do. They’re totally in control of their own lives.
  • Patricia  (a disabled adult client): I want to eat some cookies at 3am.
  • Staff person: You can’t eat cookies at 3am. You agreed to take care of yourself by making healthy choices, and it’s important to keep your agreements.
  • Patricia: You’re telling me what to do instead of letting me decide. 
  • Staff person: No I’m not. I’m telling you that you can’t eat cookies at 3am because staying up past your bedtime and eating junk food aren’t healthy choices. I would never tell you what to do.
  • Patricia doesn’t get access to cookies, and is put on a behavior plan if she leaves her room after 10pm.

In this example, Charles is blatantly and unambiguously controlling Patricia and telling her what to do. When Patrica says ‘telling me what to do’, she means it literally. When Charles says, ‘telling people what to do’ he really means ‘telling people what to do (without a good reason)’. He doesn’t realize that coercion is still coercion even if he thinks it’s justified coercion. Without a direct literal way to refer to the act of controlling people, it becomes nearly impossible to discuss when coercion is and isn’t justified. 

This happens a lot, in any number of contexts, often following this kind of pattern:

  • Person: I would never do The (Unacceptable) Thing!
  • Person: *does The (Unacceptable) Thing*.
  • Someone else: You literally just did The (Unacceptable) Thing.
  • Person: No, I didn’t do The (Unacceptable) Thing. I had a good reason, so it wasn’t The (Unacceptable) Thing. I would never do The (Unacceptable) Thing.

Sometimes people who talk this way are lying — but not always. Sometimes it’s that they don’t understand that reasons don’t erase actions. Sometimes they think actions only count as The (Unacceptable) Thing when they consider the actions to be unjustified/unacceptable. If you point out that they are, in fact, literally doing The Thing, they think that means you’re accusing them of being bad — and that you couldn’t be right, because they have a good reason.

This language problem is breaking a lot of conversations that need to happen, particularly around privilege and misuse of power. 

Tl;dr: It needs to be possible to describe what people are doing in morally neutral terms. This is especially important for actions that are always, usually, or sometimes morally wrong. Scroll up for more about why and a concrete example.

 Image description: Quote text "coercion with a good reason is still coercion" on top of a photo of grass growing.

Image description: Quote text "coercion with a good reason is still coercion" on top of a photo of grass growing.

A red flag: "I don't want you to see me as an authority figure"

If your boss or academic advisor says something like “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure,” that’s a major red flag. It almost always means that they want to get away with breaking the rules about what powerful people are allowed to do. They’re probably not treating you as an equal. They’re probably trying to exercise more power over you than they should.

Sometimes authority figures say “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure” because they want you to do free work for them. The logic here works like this:

  • They want you to do something.
  • It’s something that it would be wrong for an authority figure to order you to do.
  • If they were a peer asking for a favor, it would be ok to ask, and also ok for you to say no.
  • The authority figure wants you to obey them, but they don’t want to accept limits on what it’s acceptable to ask you to do.
  • For purposes of “what requests are ok to make”, they don’t want to be seen as an authority figure.
  • They also want you to do what they say. It’s not really a request, because you’re not really free to say no.

For example:

  • It’s usually ok to ask your friends if they would be willing to help you move in exchange for pizza. It’s never ok to ask your employees to do that.
  •  It’s sometimes ok to ask a friend to lend you money for medical bills (depending on the relationship). It’s never ok to ask your student to lend you money for a personal emergency. 

Sometimes authority figures pretend not to have power because they want to coerce someone into forms of intimacy that require consent. They know that consent isn’t really possible given the power imbalance, so they say “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure” in hopes that you won’t notice the lines they’re crossing. Sometimes this takes the form of sexual harassment. Sometimes it’s other forms of intimacy. For instance:

  • Abusive emotional intimacy: Excepting you to share your feelings with them, or receive their feelings in a way that’s really only appropriate between friends or in consented-to therapy. 
  • Coming to you for ongoing emotional support in dealing with their marital problems.
  • Trying to direct your trauma recovery or “help you overcome disability”.
  • Asking questions about your body beyond things they need to know for work/school related reasons. 
  • Expecting you to share all your thoughts and feelings about your personal life.
  • Analyzing you and your life and expecting you to welcome their opinions and find them insightful. 
  • Abusive spiritual intimacy: Presuming the right to an opinion on your spiritual life. (Eg: Trying to get you to convert to their religion, telling you that you need to pray, trying to make you into their disciple, telling you that you need to forgive in order to move on with your life.) 

If someone says “I don’t want you to see me as an authority figure”, it probably means that they can’t be trusted to maintain good boundaries. (Unless they’re also saying something like “I’m not actually your boss, and you don’t have to do what I say”.) Sometimes they are intentionally trying to get away with breaking the rules. Sometimes it’s less intentional. Some people feel awkward about being powerful and don’t want to think about it. In either case, unacknowledged power is dangerous. In order to do right by people you have power over, you have to be willing to think about the power you’re have and how you’re using it. 

Tl;dr If someone has power they don’t want to acknowledge, they probably can’t be trusted to use their power ethically. 

 

 

 

 Image description: Quote "If someone has power they don't want to acknowledge, they probably can't be trusted to use their power ethically" next to a picture of some power lines.

Accepting apologies without saying “it’s ok”

Sometimes apologies fix the problem. Sometimes all that’s needed to make things ok is to acknowledge that you did something wrong. For instance, if you accidentally bump into someone, saying “sorry” clarifies that you didn’t do it on purpose and don’t intend to hurt them. That’s usually enough in that kind of situation.

When someone apologizes in a way that fixes the problem, it’s usually good to say something like “it’s ok”. Because now that they’ve apologized, it *is* ok.

Sincere apologies aren’t always enough to make everything ok. Sometimes mistakes hurt people in ways that persist even after an apology. They can still matter. Fixing part of a problem is better than doing nothing. 

If someone apologizes to you in a way that’s real but doesn’t erase the problem, you may not want to say “it’s ok” (because it still isn’t). One thing you can say instead is “Thank you for apologizing”. Thanking someone for apologizing acknowledges and accepts the apology without pretending that everything is fixed. This can create space for the problem to actually get solved.

Tl;dr: When sincere apologies don’t fix everything, ‘thank you for apologizing’ can be a better thing to say than ‘it’s ok’.

 

 Image description: Text: Accepting apologies without saying "It's ok". 

Adding a new blog mirror

I decided to make a new blog mirror. From now on, realsocialskills.org will point to this new site, and realsocialskills.tumblr.com will be the URL for the Tumblr version of this site.

I’ll continue to post all of my posts to both realsocialskills.org and realsocialskills.tumblr.com. If you prefer to read via Tumblr, that will still work the way it always has. I will continue to read my Tumblr asks and submissions. I can also be reached at my new contact page.

Here’s why I’m adding a new site at realsocialskills.org: 

Tumblr isn’t for everyone:

  • Tumblr is a great platform — for some people.
  • Some people would rather read a regular website than a social media website
  • Some people find Tumblr completely unusable, especially on mobile devices.
  • Tumblr sometimes breaks accessibility features, and I want a platform I have more control over.
  • In order to make my website useable to more people, I’m making it possible to read my content without using Tumblr.

Tumblr might not be around forever:

  • Social media sites come and go. 
  • Tumblr may shut down at some point. 
  • They also might change the interface or terms of service in ways that break my blog.
  • (Eg: If they start requiring users to be logged in in order to read content)
  • Tumblr also sometimes abruptly bans, shadowbans, or deletes accounts
  • If Tumblr shuts down, deletes my account, or becomes unusable, I want my blog to keep existing. 
  • Creating another blog site mirror now means that if I lose access to Tumblr for whatever reason, I won’t lose all my subscribers.

Some links are probably going to break — please let me know if you encounter broken links, and I will fix them.

 

 Image description: Text "New website: realsocialskills.org"

Image description: Text "New website: realsocialskills.org"

Manipulative fake apologies

Some apologies amount to someone asking for permission to keep doing something bad.

  • These apologies generally shouldn’t be accepted.
  • (But it can be really hard not to, because who want permission to do bad things tend to lash out when they don’t get it.)
  • (If you have to accept a bad apology to protect yourself, it’s not your fault.)

Eg:

  • Moe: “I’m sorry, I know this is my privileged male opinion talking but…”
  • Or, Moe: “I’m sorry, I know I’m kind of a creeper…” or “I’m sorry, I know I’m standing too close but…”
  • At this point, Sarah may feel pressured to say “It’s ok.”
  • If Sarah says, “Actually, it’s not ok. Please back off” or “Yes, you’re mansplaining, please knock it off”, Moe is likely to get angry.
  • The thing is, it’s not ok, and Moe has no intention of stopping. 
  • Moe is just apologizing in order to feel ok about doing something he knows is wrong.

Another example:

  • Sam is a wheelchair user. He’s trying to get through a door.
  • Mary sees him and decides that he needs help.
  • Mary rushes to open the door. As she does so, she says “Oh, sorry, I know I’m supposed to ask first”, with an expectant pause. 
  • At this point, Sam may feel pressured to say “It’s ok”, even if the ‘help’ is unwanted and unhelpful. 
  • If Sam says, “Yes, you should have asked first. You’re in my way. Please move”, Mary is likely to get angry and say “I was just trying to help!”.
  • In this situation, Mary wasn’t really apologizing. She was asking Sam to give her permission to do something she knows is wrong.

More generally:

  • Fake Apologizer: *does something they know the other person will object to*.
  • Fake Apologizer: “Oh, I’m sorry. I know I’m doing The Bad Thing…” or “I guess you’re going to be mad if I…”
  • Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
  • The Target is then supposed to feel pressured to say something like “That’s ok”, or “I know you mean well”, or “You’re a good person, so it’s ok for you to do The Bad Thing.”

If the Target doesn’t respond by giving the Fake Apologizer permission/validation, the Fake Apologizer will often lash out. This sometimes escalates in stages, along the lines of:

  • Fake Apologizer: I *said* I was sorry!
  • Fake Apologizer: *expectant pause*
  • The Target is then supposed to feel pressure to be grateful to the Fake Apologizer for apologizing, and then as a reward, give them permission to do The Bad Thing. (Or apologize for not letting them do The Bad Thing.)
  • If the Target doesn’t respond in the way the Fake Apologizer wants, they will often escalate to intense personal insults, or even overt threats, eg:
  • Fake Apologizer: I guess you’re just too bitter and broken inside to accept my good intentions. I hope you get the help you need. And/or:
  • Fake Apologizer: Ok, fine. I’ll never try to do anything for you ever again. And/or
  • Fake Apologizer: *storms off, and slams the door in a way that causes the person who refused their intrusive help to fall over*.

Tl;dr Sometimes what looks like an apology is really a manipulative demand for validation and permission to do something bad.

 Image description: Text "Manipulative fake apologies" next to a picture of a man with flowers an an affected apology facial expression.

The rules about responding to call outs aren’t working

Privileged people rarely take the voices of marginalized people seriously. Social justices spaces attempt to fix this with rules about how to respond to when marginalized people tell you that you’ve done something wrong. Like most formal descriptions of social skills, the rules don’t quite match reality. This is causing some problems that I think we could fix with a more honest conversation about how to respond to criticism.

The formal social justice rules say something like this:

  • You should listen to marginalized people.
  • When a marginalized person calls you out, don’t argue.
  • Believe them, apologize, and don’t do it again.
  • When you see others doing what you were called out for doing, call them out.

Those rules are a good approximation of some things, but they don’t actually work. It is impossible to follow them literally, in part because:

  • Marginalized people are not a monolith. 
  • Marginalized people have the same range of opinions as privileged people.
  • When two marginalized people tell you logically incompatible things, it is impossible to act on both sets of instructions.
  • For instance, some women believe that abortion is a human right foundational human right for women. Some women believe that abortion is murder and an attack on women and girls.
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you who to believe, what policy to support, or how to talk about abortion. 
  • For instance, some women believe that religious rules about clothing liberate women from sexual objectification, other women believe that religious rules about clothing sexually objectify women. 
  • “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you what to believe about modesty rules. 
  • Narrowing it to “listen to women of minority faiths” doesn’t help, because women disagree about this within every faith.
  • When “listen to marginalized people” means “adopt a particular position”, marginalized people are treated as rhetorical props rather than real people.
  • Objectifying marginalized people does not create justice.

Since the rule is literally impossible to follow, no one is actually succeeding at following it. What usually ends up happening when people try is that:

  • One opinion gets lifted up as “the position of marginalized people” 
  • Agreeing with that opinion is called “listen to marginalized people”
  • Disagreeing with that opinion is called “talking over marginalized people”
  • Marginalized people who disagree with that opinion are called out by privileged people for “talking over marginalized people”.
  • This results in a lot of fights over who is the true voice of the marginalized people.
  • We need an approach that is more conducive to real listening and learning.

This version of the rule also leaves us open to sabotage:

  • There are a lot of people who don’t want us to be able to talk to each other and build effective coalitions.
  • Some of them are using the language of call-outs to undermine everyone who emerges as an effective progressive leader. 
  • They say that they are marginalized people, and make up lies about leaders.
  • Or they say things that are technically true, but taken out of context in deliberately misleading ways.
  • The rules about shutting up and listening to marginalized people make it very difficult to contradict these lies and distortions. 
  • (Sometimes they really are members of the marginalized groups they claim to speak for. Sometimes they’re outright lying about who they are).
  • (For instance, Russian intelligence agents have used social media to pretend to be marginalized Americans and spread lies about Hillary Clinton.)

The formal rule is also easily exploited by abusive people, along these lines:

  • An abusive person convinces their victim that they are the voice of marginalized people.
  • The abuser uses the rules about “when people tell you that you’re being oppressive, don’t argue” to control the victim.
  • Whenever the victim tries to stand up for themself, the abuser tells the victim that they’re being oppressive.
  • That can be a powerfully effective way to make victims in our communities feel that they have no right to resist abuse. 
  • This can also prevent victims from getting support in basic ways.
  • Abusers can send victims into depression spirals by convincing them that everything that brings them pleasure is oppressive and immoral. 
  • The abuser may also isolate the victim by telling them that it would be oppressive for them to spend time with their friends and family, try to access victim services, or call the police. 
  • The abuser may also separate the victim from their community and natural allies by spreading baseless rumors about their supposed oppressive behavior. (Or threatening to do so).
  • When there are rules against questioning call outs, there are also implicit rules against taking the side of a victim when the abuser uses the language of calling out.
  • Rules that say some people should unconditionally defer to others are always dangerous.

The rule also lacks intersectionality:

  • No one experiences every form of oppression or every form of privilege.
  • Call-outs often involve people who are marginalized in different ways. 
  • Often, both sides in the conflict have a point.
  • For instance, black men have male privilege and white women have white privilege.
  • If a white woman calls a black man out for sexism and he responds by calling her out for racism (or vice versa), “listened to marginalized people” isn’t a very helpful rule because they’re both marginalized.
  • These conversations tend to degenerate into an argument about which form of marginalization is most significant.
  • This prevents people involved from actually listening to each other.
  • In conflicts like this, it’s often the case that both sides have a legitimate point. (In ways that are often not immediately obvious.)
  • We need to be able to work through these conflicts without expecting simplistic rules to resolve them in advance.

This rule also tends to prevent groups centered around one form of marginalized from coming to engage with other forms of marginalization:

  • For instance, in some spaces, racism and sexism are known to be issues, but ableism is not.
  • (This can occur in any combination. Eg: There are also spaces that get ableism and sexism but not racism, and spaces that get economic justice and racism but not antisemitism, or any number of other things.)
  • When disabled people raise the issue of ableism in any context (social justice or otherwise), they’re likely to be shouted down and told that it’s not important.
  • In social justice spaces, this shouting down is often done in the name of “listening to marginalized people”.
  • For instance, disabled people may be told ‘you need to listen to marginalized people and de-center your issues’, carrying the implication that ableism is less important than other forms of oppression.
  • (This happens to *every* marginalized group in some context or other.)
  • If we want real intersectional solidarity, we need to have space for ongoing conflicts that are not simple to resolve.

Tl;dr “Shut up and listen to marginalized people” isn’t quite the right rule, because it objectifies marginalized people, leaves us open to sabotage, enables abuse, and prevents us from working through conflicts in a substantive way. We need to do better by each other, and start listening for real.

What to expect content-wise

Anonymous said to realsocialskills: hi, I really appreciate all the social justice type posts you’ve been making but I was wondering if you are going to be continuing to make posts with tips about dealing with different social situations that can come up in day to day life? thanks

realsocialskills said:

Hi there!

The short answer: Yes, that’s my intention.

A somewhat longer answer: I’ve always defined social skills really broadly, and that’s going to continue to be the case. Some of my posts have political overtones, some don’t. From my perspective, it’s all about interacting with people. 

It’s hard for me to predict what topics I’ll address when — I tend to write about whatever happens to be on my mind. That’s influenced by what I’m spending my non-blog time doing.

As you might imagine, I’ve been spending more time doing political things than I used to — so some of my posts reflect that.