activism

Beware of charisma mirrors

There are people who look much better than they actually are. They trick other people into admiring them for virtues that they do not actually possess. Sometimes they do this by using their charisma like a mirror. 

It works along these lines (I’m using ‘he’ here both for ease of reading and because this is *often* male-coded behavior, but there are also people who do this who aren’t men):

  • Charisma Man is a bad leader. He talks a lot about important causes, but doesn’t do any effective work on them. 
  • Mostly, Charisma Man insults all the leaders who are doing serious work on those causes for not having fixed it yet.
  • Idealistic people see that the problem hasn’t been solved yet, and assume that it’s because the other leaders don’t care as much as Charisma Man does.
  • They are sincere, and they think Charisma Man is too. 
  • They will tell everyone that Charisma Man is kind and wise and good.
  • None of this is actually true. There is wisdom and kindness and sincerity and goodness in the room, but it’s not coming from Charisma Man, it’s coming from his followers. 
  • When they look at Charisma Man, they see their own good qualities reflected back, and then give him credit for them.
  • Charisma Man is wielding his charisma like a mirror in order to stop people from noticing what he is actually like. 
  • People don’t notice all the ways that Charisma Man is failing at leadership because they’re seeing their own reflected goodness instead.
  • They also don’t notice all the ways that they are good and competent and valuable because they are attributing everything good they notice to Charisma Man.

If you are admiring a leader in an unbounded way and losing sight of your own worth, you might be looking at a charisma mirror rather than reality. It’s worth asking yourself: 

  • What does this leader do that I think is admirable? 
  • Do they actually do those things?
  • Is it unusual to do those things? Who else does them?
  • How is this leader helping others to be effective?
  • How is this leader valuing other people’s work?
  • When there is kindness and wisdom and sincerity in the room, where is it coming from? Is it from the leader, the followers, or both?

If a leader is making you feel like the only valuable thing you can do is follow them, sometimes is seriously wrong. Everyone, including you, has their own good qualities and their own contributions to make. Good leaders don’t want you to depend on them for your own sense of self worth, and they don’t want you to see them as the only person with something to offer. Good leaders don’t want unbounded admiration from their followers; good leaders collaborate and show respect for other people’s strengths. 

 

image description: "beware of charisma mirrors" written on a vaguely mirror-like shape, next to a cartoon mirror with a cartoony mask face, on a background that's shiny reflective water

image description: "beware of charisma mirrors" written on a vaguely mirror-like shape, next to a cartoon mirror with a cartoony mask face, on a background that's shiny reflective water

Care Bear stares do not work in real life

In the Care Bears movies, the heroes could solve just about any problem by speaking truth to power. Whenever a handful of bears cared enough to act, they could get together and give the villain the Care Bear stare. Their intense caring made the villain care too — at least until the next episode. (And in the movies, it was sometime permanent.) Whenever they weren’t solving a problem, it was because they were failing to care about it. The real world does not work that way.

In the Care Bears world, caring is magic. In real life, it’s not enough to care about something — you also have to have power. It’s not enough to know what needs to change — you also have to have a strategy for changing it. Sometimes speaking truth of power can be a source of power; sometimes you need other kinds of power. Sometimes you need to vote, get out the vote, build coalitions, wait for the right moment, make compromises, fundraise, reach out behind the scenes or otherwise find another source of power. Most real-life power is partial, most real life change is not fully satisfying — but it’s real, and it’s worth pursuing.

People unfamiliar with advocacy sometimes cause problems by expecting Care Bear stares to work in real life. They assume that any group of activists who cares about something should be able to get together, speak truth to power, and change hearts and minds with the sheer power of concentrated caring. As a result, when they see that a handful of activists who say that they care about a problem have not solved it, they angrily assume that this means that the activists just don’t care enough to be willing to do the Care Bear stare. When people aren’t solving a problem, it’s important to ask *why* they’re not solving the problem. Sometimes it’s because they don’t care, but often it’s because they don’t have the power to make all of the change they want to make. Often, they’re doing the best they can with the resources available to them.

This also happens in politics: For instance, people sometimes ignore the implications of the fact that the Democrats are the minority party in Congress and that there is a Republican in the White House. They believe, implicitly, that if the Democrats just *cared* enough, they would be able to stop the Republicans from passing bad laws and appointing awful people — and that they could pass the laws that we need without any Republican support. They sometimes reach the dangerous conclusion that Democrats don’t really care and aren’t worth voting for. But in real life, Democrats don’t have the option of using the Care Bear stare — they need power. If we want the Democrats to have the power to protect us from Trump and pass better laws, we have to vote in more of them. 

People also sometimes expect *themselves* to be able to use a Care Bear stare. People stuck in this mindset feel a lot of shame when they notice problems that they don’t know how to solve, because they it must mean that they don’t really care as much as they think they do. It is much more helpful to understand that caring about problems does not in and of itself create the ability to solve problems.  In real life, you won’t have the power to fix everything you want to fix, but you will have the power to fix something. When you accept that caring doesn’t create power by itself, it can enable you to find the things that do — including solidarity with other advocates who are doing the best they can.

T;dr Care Bear stares do not work in real life. In real life, caring about a problem does not in and of itself create the ability to fix the problem. In real life, you also have to have power. When people ignore power and expect caring to fix everything, it creates a lot of problems in advocacy.

Image description: A carton person throwing off-color rainbows in the general direction of a sign that says "Care Bear stares do not work in real life"

Image description: A carton person throwing off-color rainbows in the general direction of a sign that says "Care Bear stares do not work in real life"

We need to be as good at lifting up as we are at calling out

In advocacy/activist space, we’ve gotten really good at noticing and naming oppression. We’ve gotten really good at criticizing the things that people are doing wrong, and demanding change. We’re also good at noticing organizations and people who shouldn’t be supported, and explaining why people shouldn’t support them.

This is important — and it’s not enough. We need to be equally good at noticing and naming things that *are* worth supporting. We need to be equally good at noticing what people are doing well, describing why their approach is good, and finding ways to support it. Calling out isn’t enough. We need to seek out things to lift up.

When we focus exclusively on finding things to call out, we send the implicit message that nothing good anyone is doing is worthy of our attention. But none of the work of building a better world happens by itself. It depends on the people who are putting the effort into doing the work. When we ignore the value of the work people are doing, we both harm those people and the work itself.

The work is hard, exhausting, and vital. It’s also often thankless — because we’re not acknowledging it in the way we need to be. Often, doing activism and advocacy means signing up for a life of being paid less than a living wage (or volunteering your very limited time), having your work ignored, and being noticed by your community only when people are angry at you.

This is particularly common when the work is done by marginalized people. Our culture socializes us to ignore the work that women and other marginalized groups do, except when we find reason to criticize it. This dynamic carries over into activism/advocacy spaces. It’s just as toxic when we do it as when corporations do it.

There’s nothing inevitable about this. We can make it stop. We can pay attention to the work people are doing, and we can show respect to the people doing it. We can describe the worthwhile things people are doing, and talk about why they should be valued. We can seek out ways to support what people are doing, whether that means donating, signal boosting, going out and voting, connecting people to each other, or any number of other things. By getting just as good at support as we are at call outs, we can make the world much better.

Activism must not be derailed by behaviorism

Behaviorist ideology says that there are four basic reasons people do things: to get things/activities, to get pleasant sensations, to avoid something they dislike, or to get attention. 

All of these are real reasons people do things, and it’s useful to keep them in mind. It’s also important to remember that they are not the only reasons people do things. People also have thoughts, feelings, and values.

This behaviorist framing assumes that human beings are fundamentally amoral and selfish.  Behaviorism has no room for courage, integrity, or concern for justice. In real life, values matter.

For instance: People who would not steal to support themselves will put their lives on the line to protest cuts to Medicaid. People who find it humiliating to be publicly praised as ~inspiring~ will call congress to fight bad policies, including bad policies that affect groups other than their own. There’s more going on than attention. Values matter.

In activism and advocacy, it’s often useful to show others that it’s in their interests to support our policies. (Eg: “Your constituents care about Medicaid, and you’ll lose your seat if you vote for a bill that would cut it”, or “No matter how responsible you are, you could get sick tomorrow and need access to Medicaid.” 

It’s *also* useful to show them that the policies matter within *values* they already care about. For instance, if someone cares about religious freedom, it could be useful to point out that institutionalized people lose access to their houses of worship and other things they need in order to practice their religion on their terms. If someone cares about encouraging people to work, it could be useful to point out ways in which Home and Community Based disability services make it possible for people to work.

It’s also important to make a case for our values more broadly. People don’t understand what ableism is and why it’s bad. Many people are receptive to learning, if it’s explained in a way that they can understand. It’s not just about self-interest. It’s also about values. People can understand right and wrong, and act accordingly, whether they are marginalized or privileged.

Privilege doesn’t need to prevent someone from being a good person and doing the right thing. There’s more to life than behaviorism and self interest. People are capable of caring about their values more than they care about enjoying the advantages of privilege. 

tl;dr Behaviorism reduces everything people do to self-interest, with no room for values. Activism based solely on privilege analysis falls into the same mistake. We need to keep in mind that all people are capable of learning to tell right from wrong and act accordingly. We need to make the case for our values, in a way that people can understand. Lives depend on it.

You can only fight evil as the person you really are

When you’re fighting evil, it’s important to be aware of your limitations. You can only fight evil as the person you really are. Trying to ignore your limitations will not make you a better activist — it just crushes you.

Fighting evil is a lot of hard work. It’s not just about being a good person, or caring, or having the right values. Mostly, it’s work. And no one has infinite capacity to do that kind of work.

In fact, no one has infinite capacity to do *any* kind of work. As human beings, we’re limited. We have bodies, and needs, and we can’t do everything. Trying to work flat out all the time doesn’t end well, no matter how important the work is.  

One of the things we need is love. Part of that is being aware that not everything is evil. Some things are good. Some things are amazing. Some things are important in other ways. And, no matter what, people matter, and our world is worth fighting for.

Fighting evil is incredibility emotionally draining. In order to fight evil, it’s generally necessary to come into close contact with it. And to face the fact that not everyone is on your side, and not everyone means well. Many people act with active malice or callous indifference. It can be very hard to keep going when you lose an important battle and feel the weight of the consequences. It can be very hard to avoid slipping into despair. Love is one of the most powerful defenses against despair.

It is not only ok but *necessary* to find things that you can value and enjoy. Valuing your own life and the things you enjoy is an important act of resistance. Keep in mind that one of the lives you’re fighting for is your own. You are worth fighting for.

You may have to do hard, draining things that no one should ever have to do. You may have to make sacrifices. You may need to learn how to do things you never thought you’d need to do. But you don’t have to do more than you’re capable of doing — and trying to ignore all of your feelings and limitations will not help.

Understanding your limitations actually makes you more effective (at activism and at anything else you might want to do.) Working with your brain and body works better than trying to become a superhero through sheer force of will. You can only fight evil as the person you actually are.

Ideological predators

Content note: This post is about adults exploiting teenagers on the internet for validation. It’s about the ideological form; not the sexual form, but a lot of the underlying logic is similar. This is likely to be a difficult post for anyone who has an emotional connection to this issue.

Some some predators use vulnerable people as validation objects to make their  flawed ideologies feel true. This can happen between people of any age, but it’s particularly common for adult predators to do this to teenage victims they meet online. Adults with bad ideas manipulate teenagers into praising them. They offer false respect to teenagers who are starved for respectful adult attention. They make teenagers depend on them emotionally in completely inappropriate ways. Then they lash out when the teenagers start to notice flaws in their ideas. Teenagers can get hurt very, very badly by this.

From a teenage perspective, relationships with ideological predators can feel really good at first before the predator starts lashing out. As a teenager, you’re often at the beginning of noticing that there’s a lot wrong with the world, and that you and others have the power to make it much better. But seeing yourself as powerful enough to change the world isn’t the same as knowing how to do it. Changing the world is hard work that requires skills that are difficult to acquire. It also requires connections with others doing the same work, which can be really hard to build for teenagers without much control over their lives. And teenagers who want to make the world better are often surrounded by adults who think their desire to do so is cute, and certainly not something to take seriously. (And who may not be taking the teenager seriously on any level). That’s degrading, and very, very hard to cope with.

And then a predator shows up online. At first, they’re this really interesting adult who at first seems to take you much more seriously than anyone else does. Their ideas seem amazing, and they seem to be opening all kinds of possibilities for making the world better. They’re willing to spend endless hours talking to you. They listen to you when you are sad and lonely, and they tell you that you’re amazing and brilliant and that you deserve so much more respect than anyone is giving you. It feels really good to be exposed to an exciting new idea, and it feels even better when it’s coming in the form of conversations with an apparently experienced person you respect. And, support from an experienced person who really does respect you is an amazing thing. Sometimes teenagers get the real form of this online. And sometimes, a predator fakes respect in ways that end very, very poorly.

An emotional relationship with a predator falls apart at some point, because their ideas aren’t actually very good, and their respect for you wasn’t real. It turns out, they weren’t listening to you, they were using you as a mirror. They didn’t want respect and conversation, they wanted you to admire them. When you start noticing flaws in their bad ideas, you stop being useful as a mirror, and they stop wanting to support you. All the vulnerabilities you shared with them turn into weapons they wield against you. It’s excruciating, and it can be very, very hard to recover from.

Teenagers deserve to have adults in their lives who respect them and spend time talking to them about the world. Ideally, this should happen both on and offline. Ideological predators who want validation seek out teenagers who aren’t getting real respect from adults, and seduce them with fake respect. This shouldn’t happen to anyone, ever, but it’s unfortunately really common. (It’s not just teenagers this happens to, but teenagers are often particularly vulnerable because teenagers are often both very isolated and inexperienced with evaluating the merits of ideologies, political views, and effective approaches to activism.)

One of the most important red flags for ideological exploitation is: Do they respect your right to consider other perspectives, or do they want you to believe everything they say without question? 

Nobody is right about everything; it is never reasonable for someone to want you to believe their ideas without question. You have the right to think for yourself. It is never ok for someone to be mean to you for asking questions or for reading about other perspectives. (Even if they’re right and the other perspective you’re reading is a dangerously bad idea that has hurt them personally.) No one has to be willing to talk to you about everything; they do need to respect your right to think for yourself. If someone is trying to persuade you to agree with them, they should expect that you will want to think about it and ask questions. That’s how conversations work when you are explaining something.

No one is the boss of your reading or your other media consumption. You get to decide what you want to read (and what you don’t want to read, and you don’t have to justify your reading choices to anyone. It’s a red flag if an adult tries to monitor your reading or aggressively tells you not to read people they disagree with. Or if they try to dictate who you are and aren’t allowed to talk to.
It’s also a bad sign if they refuse to explain to you why they disagree with a particular position, especially if they’re encouraging you to see them as a mentor. “Why do you think that?” and “What’s wrong with that?” or “Why is that idea harmful?” or “Why is this important?” are reasonable questions, and it’s not ok if they lash out at you for sincerely wanting to know.

(Even if they regularly get asked that question insincerely as a form of harassment, they still shouldn’t lash out at you. You aren’t doing that. You’re asking a question because you want to understand. It’s not your fault that mean people do something superficially similar. If they’ve spent hours and hours talking to you and saying how insightful you are, then they know you well enough to trust your sincerity. It’s not ok if everything they know about you suddenly flies out the window when you ask an uncomfortable question. Also, if they’re presenting themselves as a mentor figure and want you to trust them in that role, then it *is* their job to educate you, and part of educating people is answering their sincere questions respectfully.)

Which is related to another sign to watch out for — trustworthy people with good ideas are able to disagree with others respectfully. If someone is only willing to talk about ideas they agree with and ideas they have withering contempt for, that’s a really bad sign. Reasonable people have some positions they disagree with respectfully, and they also know that people can mistakenly be attracted to bad ideas for good reasons. No one has to be willing to respect all ideas or treat all positions as honorable; everyone has to be able to tolerate *some* disagreement respectfully. Reasonable people know that they’re not right about everything, and that sometimes they will find that people they initially disagreed with had a point.

If they can’t tolerate disagreement with anyone else, what they’re feeling for you is probably not real respect. They’re probably using you as a mirror; expecting you to reflect everything they say back to them, using your sincerity and enthusiasm to make it sound true and important. But you’re not a mirror; you’re a person. Even if everything they’re saying to you right now sounds amazingly true; eventually you will disagree with them about something you both care about. (No one is right 100% of the time, and it is normal for people who care about things to have some degree of disagreement.) Their talk about how insightful and wonderful you are will very, very likely melt away when you stop agreeing with them about everything. If they could tolerate disagreement, they’d be tolerating it from other people too.

Tl;dr Some adult predators use teenagers as ideological validation objects. They offer false respect to teenagers who are hungry for genuine respect from adults. The teenage victims are expected to become mirrors, enthusiastically reflecting back whatever the adult says, making it sound true and wise. Inevitably, eventually teenagers figure out that the adult isn’t 100% right about everything, and they start questioning their ideology. The adult predator then lashes out, and withdraws all of their false respect, leaving the teenager they have isolated to pick up the pieces. This is a horrible an inexcusable thing to do to someone. People have the right to think for themselves, and to ask questions. Adults who take it upon themselves to teach teenagers about the world have a particularly strong obligation to support them in thinking for themselves. If someone effusively praises you at first and then lashes out at you for questioning them or disagreeing, something is really wrong. It’s not your fault, and you’re not alone. People should not treat you that way.

Finding what you can fix; living with what you can’t

Activism and advocacy are emotionally difficult on a number of levels.

One reason is that the problems that need solving are enormous.

No one has the capacity to solve all of them. Everyone has some degree of power to act; nobody has the power to fix everything or address every injustice.

Making the world better is largely a matter of seeking out opportunities to act. Caring about the problems isn’t enough. Being willing to fight for what you believe in isn’t enough either.

It’s important to look for circumstances in which you have power to make something change. If you look, you will find some — and not others.

The opportunities you have to create change are not always the opportunities you care about most. Caring deeply doesn’t always create power.

And there are always tradeoffs. There will often be situations in which there are many things you could do — and only the resources to do one of them.

There are usually compromises. Victories are usually partial. And they often involve complicity in things you’d rather not be complicit in.

And in order to find the opportunities to change things, you have to keep looking — even though this means you’ll see things you can’t fix.

This can be very hard to live with. It can be tempting to believe that if you just tried harder, you’d be able to fix everything. Or that if you cared more, you’d be able to do everything. Or that if you were a better person, you’d be able to avoid making compromises (or working with people who do bad things).

I think it helps to remember that it’s like this for everyone. No one can fix everything; everyone has to make choices and compromises.

I think it also helps to remember that the problems exist whether or not you’re looking at them. Looking at the problems hurts; it also gives you the chance to do something about some of them.

It’s also important to remember that you matter, and that there are things in the world that are good. Not everything is horrible (even though sometimes it feels that way); a lot of things are good. And people matter and are worth loving now, as things are. Activism isn’t about hating everything; it’s about making things better. And recognizing already-good things and valuing people both actually help with that.

tl;dr Activism involves caring about more things than you can fix. It involves a lot of tradeoffs and difficult choices. It’s not your fault; it’s like this for everyone. You can’t fix everything; you can do work that matters and make some things better. Remember that the world contains good things too.

Disability and power

A group of people with disabilities is not always a group in which everyone has equal power. 

Some examples (by no means an exhaustive list, and not all of these examples apply all the time):

People who are better at asserting power can have more power.

People who speak more easily can have more power.

People who think more quickly can have more power.

People with the most common disability in the group can have more power.

People used to being ok with their disability can have more power.

Power dynamics in a group always need to be monitored and taken seriously.

Restricting the group membership to people with disabilities can be part of the solution, (because it can eliminate the part of the problem involving nondisabled allies and parents taking over), but it can never be the whole solution. Power dynamics exist in all groups, even with members of the same marginalized group.

It is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it

I’ve learned a lot about rape and rape culture from Tumblr, and now I want to start educating people. However, I am quite socially awkward, so I’m not really sure when and how to bring it up appropriately. Also, how do I make sure I don’t overwhelm them when it is the first time I am talking about rape culture to them? Should I arrange a campaign at my high school or should I talk one on one? Also, I don’t want to trigger anyone, how do I do that?

The value of preaching to the choir

The choir has spiritual needs and oftens spiritual commitments. That is why they show up every week.

They need a sermon. They need to keep learning and growing.

Preaching isn’t just about telling people to care. It’s also about telling them how. And reminding people who already care that their efforts matter and are appreciated, and that they still have room to grow.

No group can be outreach-oriented all the time. Not religious groups, not activist groups, not social groups - everything has to, at times, focus on the needs of committed members.

Preaching to the choir isn’t enough. But it’s not something you should neglect, either.

recreational anger

recreational anger

Sometimes it is fun to be angry.

Sometimes it is satisfying. Sometimes it fuels creativity.

And sometimes we get angry on purpose, for the sake of being angry.

We go out and look at angry-making things. To get angry. 

It’s ok to do that, up to a point. Because it can be useful, and it can also be an effective way of coping with some of the awful things in the world. (Seeking it out on purpose and dealing with it on your terms can be better than waiting for it to come to you.)

But it’s important to know when you’re seeking out angry-things and not to make an anger-centered world view.

There is a lot to be angry about. A lot a lot a lot. And it’s good to know that. But don’t make the rest of the world disappear, because there’s a lot of good too.

And when you’re doing recreational anger, don’t direct your anger at people who don’t deserve it. It’s ok to get really angry on purpose, but it’s not ok to vent it on someone who innocently used a problematic word after you just read a bunch of horrible articles to make yourself angry.

Make space for anger. Use anger. Use your powers of anger for good. But don’t let it take up all the space.