social skills

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

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".

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.

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.

On solving the right problem

Not every problem disabled people have is a failure to understand social situations.

Sometimes the problem is that our bodies are considered socially unacceptable.

No amount of social skills training will change our bodies.

No amount of social understanding will make typical movement and typical speech physically possible.

No matter what we learn, bodies and brains matter. We’re still disabled when we understand things.

It’s ok to be disabled. It’s not ok to be bigoted against disabled people.

If we want to get anywhere, we need to make sure that we’re solving the right problems.

Absolution seeking behaviors

Dear disability professionals,

We need to talk about your absolution-seeking behavior. When disabled people go to conferences, disability professionals flock to us and ask us to help them feel good about themselves and their field. This isn’t ok. It needs to stop, and you need to be part of stopping it.

This is never ok, but it’s especially bad when it’s a defense against listening. Disabled people often put themselves on the line to bear witness to the problems in the disability field. When we do this, the last thing it’s appropriate to do is seek out validation. It’s a time for reflection, not absolution.

Too many disabled disability advocates are having some version of this conversation with disability professionals:

  • Disabled Advocate: Your field is doing serious harm to disabled people. 
  • Disability Professional: Tell me about it! They’re all awful. But not me, I’m the exception. I’m one of the good ones.
  • Disabled Advocate: How?
  • Disability Professional: I am the exception because I recognize the uniqueness of individuals by doing Something Disabled Advocates Oppose and Another Thing Disabled Advocates Lobby Against. I’m sorry you’ve had such bad experiences with other people in my field, there are a lot of bad apples!
  • Disabled Advocate: Actually, the things you’re describing are the things we object to in your field, and here’s why.
  • Disability Professional: I agree with you! That’s why I do those things. I’m one of the good ones.

Please stop doing this to disabled people. Please stop assuming that you’re one of the good ones and that what we say doesn’t apply to you. Everyone seems to think of themselves as an exception because they have helped some people or had some sort of good intentions.

Please keep in mind that it is not remotely unusual to do good things in the disability field. Most people who have done great harm have also done some good. That doesn’t make you special, and it doesn’t erase anything you’ve done to disabled people. Good intentions don’t heal broken bones or broken dreams. Don’t seek absolution from us. Listen to us, acknowledge the problems, and find ways to do better.

Sincerely,
The disabled presenter who you called inspirational

Autistic people can have friends

One reason I started writing this blog is that I got tired of seeing social skills programs teach autistic people that they have to become normal in order to have friends.

It’s not true. There are a lot of autistic people who have friends without becoming remotely normal. Oddness and friendship are entirely compatible.

You can be autistic, seem autistic, and have friends who like you and enjoy your company.

Some people won’t like you, and that’s ok. Not everyone has to like everyone.

Some people will dislike you because they are bigoted against autistic people. That’s not ok, but it doesn’t have to ruin your life. Ableists don’t speak for everyone. Those people aren’t your friends. Other people can be.

You’ll probably always face ableism. Trying to be normal probably won’t make that go away; accepting yourself probably won’t make that go away either. You don’t need to change the whole world in order to have friends.

You can have friends as the person you are, in the world as it is now.

On bearing witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructiveness of ableism

One of the most powerful things that we can do is to bear witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructive consequences of ableism. When we bear witness to our humanity and to the things that others do to us, it changes the conversation. Our stories are powerful.

Some people have the privilege of being largely untouched by ableism. (Or being untouched by a particular kind of ableism.) Most people who are privileged in this way are also unaware of how deeply marginalized disabled people are being harmed. (I’m using disability as the primary example here, but this actually applies to ever kind of marginalization.)

We are dehumanized, and a lot of people don’t notice that it’s happening. They’re taught to overlook our humanity, and a lot of what happens to us is hidden from them. When people learn how to notice, they often start caring.

Bearing witness to our humanity means making it impossible to discuss disability in the abstract. It means making people have to notice that when they talk about disability, they’re talking about *actual human beings*. We do things. Some of us have jobs. Some of us are artists. Some of us write. Some of us are married. Some of us are fans of TV shows. Some of us are experts in our fields. Some of us cook. All of us matter. Making people notice us as real human beings changes the conversation about disability.

Speaking out about the consequences of ableism also changes the conversation. When institution survivors bear witness to what happens in institutions, it becomes much more difficult for people to believe that institutionalization is good for disabled people. When people speak out about what authoritarian childhood therapy did to them, it’s harder to pretend that compliance training is harmless. When people speak out about electric shock, it is much harder to pretend that people who are tortured with electric shocks think that it makes their lives better.

When disabled people talk about what it is like to learn the name of their disability by eavesdropping and googling, some parents listen. Likewise, when disabled people talk about what it’s like to grow up without accurate language for ourselves, some parents come to understand the importance of talking to children about their disabilities.

Bearing witness also matters to other disabled people. We often learn to overlook our own humanity. We often learn to disregard the things that others have done to us. When other disabled people are unapologetically human, it’s easier to see ourselves as human. When other disabled people talk about the harm ableism does, it’s easier to remember that these things shouldn’t happen to us.

This doesn’t always work. When people with disabilities bear witness to our humanity and to what happens to us, we often get hostile responses. Even when some people are listening, there are usually also angry people who are not. Even when people are eventually willing to listen, they are often initially angry and mean. Those of us who talk about these things pay a price for doing so. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether this is a price they’re willing to pay in a given situation.

Your stories belong to you. Stories can be a powerful force for liberation, but you are not a liberation object. You are a person. You have the right to decide whether or not to tell your stories. If you choose to tell stories, you have the right to decide which stories to tell, how you want to tell them, and who you want to tell them to. (Including, whether or not you want to answer questions that people ask you.) You can also change your mind. Doing some advocacy work doesn’t make you an advocacy object, and it doesn’t strip you of the right to say no. No matter how politically or socially useful your stories are, they belong to you.

Urgent: The GOP is close to destroying the ACA and Medicaid

The GOP is trying to repeal the ACA and cut Medicaid again. They almost have the votes to do it. We have the chance to stop them from getting the votes, if we act *right now*. We need to put overwhelming pressure on every senator to vote no.

Their current attempt to take away our health care is called “Graham-Cassidy”. It’s important to tell our elected officials to vote *against* Graham-Cassidy. The Autistic Self Advocacy Network has more information about what’s going on, and how to contact your representatives. This is the script they suggest using for phone calls and emails (They also have suggestions for what to do if you can’t make calls):

My name is [your name], and I live in [your town]. I’m [calling/writing] to ask Senator [Name] to vote NO on the Graham-Cassidy bill, or any other bills that would repeal the Affordable Care Act, cut Medicaid funding and leave millions of people with no health insurance. The people of [your state] are still watching, and our health care is just as important to us now as it was in July. We’re counting on you to do the right thing and save our health care. Please vote NO on Graham-Cassidy.

It’s also worth contacting your state governor. They can’t vote on the bill, but they *can* put pressure on senators to vote against it. Senators sometimes listen to governors about what’s right for their state. You can find your state governor’s contact information here.

You can't fight stigma by making disability unspeakable

I’ve noticed that a lot of well-meaning people try to fight disability stigma by making disability unspeakable.

The logic seems to be like this:

  • They notice that when people are seen as disabled, they are respected less. 
  • They call this stigma, and think of stigma as a very bad problem. 
  • They then try to figure out how to make stigma go away so that people will be respected more.
  • They think that if no one was seen as disabled, there would be no stigma.
  • They try to get people to pretend that disability doesn’t exist.
  • They expect this to somehow improve the lives of people with disabilities. (On the grounds that if everyone ignores disability, there will be no disability stigma.)

This approach doesn’t work. Disability exists, whether or not anyone is willing to acknowledge it. When we try to fight stigma by ignoring disability, we send the message that disability is unacceptable.

When people are made to pretend that their disability does not exist, they learn that basic things about their body are unspeakable. When people are made to pretend someone else’s disability doesn’t exist, they learn that if they stopped ignoring basic things about them, it would be impossible to keep respecting them. These are not good lessons.

If you need to pretend someone isn’t disabled in order to respect them, you’re not really respecting them. You’re giving imaginary respect to an imaginary nondisabled person. People with disabilities deserve better. People with disabilities don’t need fake respect handed out as a consolation prize. People with disabilities need to be treated with real respect, as the people they really are.

If we want to fight stigma, we have to get real. Disability exists, and pretending that it doesn’t just makes the problem worse. Stigma is not caused by noticing disability; stigma is caused by ableist attitudes towards disability. It is ok to be disabled, it is not ok to be ableist, and it is upon all of us to build a culture that understands that.

Why you should contact your representatives even if they’re already on your side

When your politician wants to do the right thing, they need your help. Calls and tweets are very helpful to them. Here’s why:

Politicians can’t just do whatever they want, because they represent us. Whatever they believe personally, they have to take into account what their voters think. Politicians can do some unpopular things, but they have to pick unpopular issues very, very careful, or they lose reelection and can’t do anything at all.

If you call/tweet your representatives about something they already agree with, you are telling them: We have your back. You don’t have to worry that doing the right thing will cost you the election. Doing the right thing will get you votes, and make you *more* likely to win. That gives them more options.

Another way that calling representatives who are on the right side helps them: Representatives can’t pass legislation by themselves. They have to persuade other representatives to vote the right way. There are usually politicians who are on the fence and potentially open to persuasion.

If your representative can say to other representatives: “My phones are ringing off the hook about this issue”, or “My twitter mentions are overwhelmed with people asking me to do this”, it can persuade other politicians that this issue matters to voters. Every representative who can do this makes a difference. A politician may sometimes be in denial about what their constituents are saying; it’s harder to stay in denial if they’re hearing it from multiple politicians whose states/districts are similar to theirs. Even if your representative is unwaveringly on your side and in a safe seat, your calls/tweets can help them  to persuade others.

Stories and pictures also matter. Telling stories can persuade politicians to do the right thing. During the health care debates, every politician told stories that a constituent told to them. The vote was close, and the Republicans who voted against it said that stories were part of what convinced them to do the right thing. If you tell your representatives stories about why the issue matters to you, it can help them to act on it, even if they already agree with you.

Tweeting pictures at your representatives can also help. Pictures of protests show politicians that people care enough to show up in person and protest. This suggests to them that people care enough to show up and vote. This is reassuring to politicians who agree with you, and they can use those pictures to put pressure on politicians who aren’t sure how they want to vote. Pictures of real people affected by the issue are also helpful. They show, viscerally, that this is about real people. That can be very persuasive.

Another reason why contacting politicians who agree with you matters: If you make the issue you’re calling/tweeting about a safe issue for them, then they don’t have to spend political capital on it. If they don’t spend political capital on it, then it’s available to spend on a risky issue. Calling/tweeting them helps them to do the right thing about the immediate issues *and* future issues which may be riskier.

Tl;dr: Even if your representatives agree with you, it’s still worth contacting them about important issues. Calling, tweeting, and otherwise contacting them can give them them *ability* to do what they already want to do. Tell them stories. Tweet them pictures that tell stories, including pictures you take at any protests you go to. Scroll up for more explanation of why this matters.

A problem with “behavior is communication”

In certain contexts, just about everything a disabled person does will result in someone following them around with a clipboard, taking notes on their behavior, and designing a behavior plan for them.

This is often called ‘listening to what the behavior is communicating’ or ‘keeping in mind that behavior is communication.’

I know that nothing I’ve ever done was intended to communicate ‘please put me on a behavior plan’. If anyone asked me, they would know with certainty that I don’t want them to do anything of the sort.

I’m not alone in this. Very few people would willingly consent to intense data collection of the kind involved in behavior analysis. Far fewer people would willingly consent to the ways in which that data is used to control their behavior. 

A lot of people never get asked. People do these things to them that very few people would willingly consent to — without asking, and without considering consent to be a relevant consideration.

Somehow, an approach that involves ignoring what someone might be thinking gets called ‘listening to what is being communicated’.

That is neither ethical nor logical. Behaviors don’t communicate; people do. If you want to understand what someone is thinking, you have to listen to them in a way that goes beyond what any behavior plan can do.

Collecting data is not the same as listening, modifying behavior is not the same as understanding what someone is thinking, and disabled people are fully human. 

Using Twitter to contact (and keep up with) your representatives

This is a US-centric post, but some of it probably applies outside the US as well.

Contacting politicians isn’t just about using the phone to make calls. Twitter can *also* be a really useful way to talk to elected officials.

Politicians who have Twitter feeds pay attention to them. They use them to market themselves to constituents, and to gather information about what constituents care about. The way constituents interact with politicians on Twitter can make a real difference.

This is a post explaining some of how I interact with politicians on Twitter. There are a lot of things, and some may seem overwhelming. Don’t feel like you have to do everything — *anything* you do will help, even if it’s only occasional.

I’ve found that it’s much easier to keep up with and interact with politicians if I make Twitter lists of them. Here’s a way to keep up with your representatives on Twitter:


Step one: Make a Twitter list called “Representatives”. Twitter has instructions for making Twitter lists here.

  • Step two: Find out who your senators and representatives are:
  • You have one Representative in the House. Your state is divided up into congressional districts, and you are represented by the person whose district you live in. Find out who they are here.
  • Your state has two Senators. They both represent you. Find out who they are here.

Step three: Find your senators and representatives on Twitter:

  • Generally, the fastest way to do this is to search for “[their name] Twitter”
  • Senators and congresspeople also often have their Twitter handle on their page.
  • (You likely also have local and state level politicians who are on Twitter, but don’t get bogged down trying to find them if it’s taking a while. There will be more information about finding them in a subsequent post.)

Step four: Add your representatives and senators to your Twitter list:

  • Now that you have a Twitter list, it’s easier to check up on what your representatives are saying. 
  • It’s also easier to remember who they are.
  • This will be useful in a lot of situations.

Step five: Ready the block button:

  • If you’re interacting with politicians on Twitter, you may attract unwanted attention from deplorables, Nazis, misogynists, and other cruel people. 
  • If you do, remember that you don’t have to talk to them. If people tweet obnoxious things at you, err on the side of blocking them.
  • You may also want to subscribe to an automated block list in order to block known cruel people. 
  • (I subscribe to Nazi Blocker

Now that you have a Twitter list of your representatives, here are some things you can do with it:

Check your “Representatives” list, and watch what your representatives are doing:

  • When you open your list, you will see all your representatives. 
  • This can be a fast way to keep track of all of them.
  • Even if you don’t interact directly, or don’t often interact directly, knowing what’s going on can be helpful.

Reward and boost tweets you like:

  • When politicians say things you agree with, like and/or retweet them.
  • You can also reply and say something like “Thank you, I’m glad you’re representing me”.
  • Politicians use Twitter to market themselves to constituents, so it’s useful to tell them when you see something you like.
  • It’s also useful to show *other people* who follow you that a politician is doing something good.

Express disapproval of tweets you *don’t* like:

  • When politicians post bad things, it’s useful to tell them that they’re upsetting constituents.
  • Eg, you can reply saying something like “I’m a constituent, and I’m appalled that you’d do/say that”.

Reply with a comment:

  • You can also reply with comments that say more specific things than “thank you” or “don’t do that”.
  • It helps to say something personal that establishes 1) that you’re a constituent, and 2) that this will have a real effect on you.
  • Politicians respond well to stories. 
  • Eg: “I’m a North Carolina small business owner, and this healthcare bill would damage my business”
  • Or: “As a public school teacher in [your town], I’m appalled that children are at risk of being deported as school”

Retweet with a comment:

  • You can also retweet with a comment. If you do it that way, other people will see it. 
  • One useful thing to do can be to tag your other representatives.
  • Eg: say, your senator @SenatorExample tweets about supporting Good Bill [S. Example Number].
  • You can retweet it with a comment “Thank you @ExampleSenator. @OtherSenatorFromMyState @ExampleRepresentative, do you support it too?”
  • You can also do that with bills that other people’s senators/representatives support. (I also maintain a list of politicians I like in order to do this.)

You can also initiate contact yourself. Use your Twitter list to remind yourself who your representatives are/what their Twitter handles are, and then you can do these things:

When you get an action alert asking you to call your representatives, you can also tweet to them about the issue:

  • Generally speaking, phone scripts are too long for Twitter — but you can still use them to make tweets!
  • The most important part is the specific thing you’re asking them to do.
  • Usually, this will be either asking them to vote for a bill, cosponsor a bill, or vote against a bill.
  • Sometimes it will be other things, eg: Asking senators to call for a Senate hearing on white supremacist violence.
  • Point being, action alerts will contain a specific ask, and your tweet should too: 
  • Eg: “@ExampleSenator @ExampleSenator2 @ExampleRepresenative I’m a constituent from [Your Town], and I’m asking you to vote against Example Terrible Bill”.
  • You can also add more details about who you are/why you oppose the bill.
  • Eg: “@ExampleSenator @ExampleSenator2 @ExampleRepresenative Everyone deserves the right to vote. Please vote against the Terrible Voter Suppression Act.”
  • Eg: “@ExampleSenator @ExampleSenator2 @ExampleRepresenative the Stop Abuses of Power Act would make us safer in [your town]. Please support it”.

Tell your representatives stories about issues you care about:

  • Politicians tend to respond well to stories — and they can also sometimes use stories in speeches and negotiations. 
  • Tweet a story about who you are, and why you care about the issue:
  • Eg: “I’m disabled. Civil rights protections made it possible for me to go to school in [your town].”
  • Eg: “My grandmother came to this country as an immigrant. Please don’t deport other people’s grandmothers”.
  • Eg: “Violent white supremacists marched through my town. I’m scared. What are you doing about it?”
  • (If you have relevant pictures, it can be helpful to include them.).

Twitter can also be very useful at protests (whether or not you’re there in person):

Tweet about protests and tag your representatives:

  • These days, most protests have hashtags. Include the protest hashtag in your tweet. 
  • If you’re there, mention that you’re there:
  • Tweet something like “@ExampleSenator, I’m at #IStandWithPP asking you not to defund Planned Parenthood”.
  • You can also tweet things speakers are saying at the protest.
  • Check what others are saying in the protest hashtags. You can also retweet those, and tag your representatives saying you agree.

Tweet pictures of protest signs and tag your representatives:

  • Tweeting close-up pictures of people with protest signs can be an effective way to show representatives that you and others care about this issue.
  • Ask permission before taking pictures of people at protests — some people may be in danger if their picture is seen.
  • When you ask “May I take a picture of your sign to tweet at representatives?”, most people will say yes.
  • (But some people may ask that you leave their face out of the picture. *Always* respect this boundary. If someone doesn’t want their face in a picture, *leave their face out*).
  • Remember to include the context when you tweet pictures, and make a specific ask.
  • Eg: “We’re at #ProtestHashtag, asking you to protect our care by voting against Example Terrible Bill Act. @ExampleSenator @ExampleSenator2 @ExampleRepresenative” 
  • Some people may ask you to also tag *their* representatives. In which case you can say “@ExampleSenator, one of your constituents asked me to share her sign with you. Please vote against Example Terrible Bill Act.”
  • This can show politicians that a protest is happening, remind them that the people protesting are real people and not just generic “protestors”, and show them that some protestors are constituents.

If you can’t go to a protest yourself, you can still use Twitter to draw your representatives’ attention to the protest by:

  • Tweeting in the protest hashtag yourself, and tagging your representatives.
  • Watching the protest hashtag, retweeting things you agree with, and tagging your representatives in the retweet.
  • It’s especially helpful to retweet pictures. Eg:
  • Say you see a sign that says “Kill the bill, don’t kill us” in #HealthcareProtest. 
  • You can retweet that, and add “@ExampleSenator Don’t kill me either. Vote against #AHCA and anything else that would cut Medicaid”.

It’s also useful to tweet/retweet information about where a protest is happening and why it’s happening. Whether or not you’re there, tweeting about it can help other people to go and/or boost the protest’s message.

Tl;dr Twitter can be a really useful way to interact with elected officials. Scroll up for some examples of ways to do it.

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.

Advice about contacting rabbis to discuss conversion

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:
Hi! Do you have any advice re: contacting a rabbi to discuss [reform] conversion? I am disabled and struggle with a lot of anxiety (especially around communicating clearly and needing accommodations!) Please let me know if you’d rather I message you off anon. Thank you and have a great day <3

Realsocialskills said:

A few things (this is US-centric advice; it’s somewhat different in other countries):

The short version: Send them an email, say you’re interested in conversion, and ask to meet with them. If you can’t find their email on the synagogue website, there will probably be a general office email — email that and say you want to meet with the rabbi about conversion. (If you’re a college student, you might want to start with the Hillel rabbi, but you don’t have to.)

Probably what will happen next is that they’ll set a time to meet with you. Probably what will happen at that meeting is that they’ll ask why you’re interested, along with general getting-to-know-you kinds of questions. They’ll also probably want to know if you’re dating anyone, and they may want reassurance that you understand that Judaism is not a form of Christianity.  

They’re likely to tell you to take an introduction to Judaism class, through their synagogue or through a local organization. Not everyone does this, but it’s really common. Conversion almost always takes at least a year, in part to make sure that prospective converts have a clear sense of what they’re getting into.

There’s a myth that rabbis tell you to go away three times — *some* Orthodox rabbis do that, but it’s *really* uncommon in liberal movements. I know a lot of rabbis, and none of the rabbis I know would do that. You don’t have to prove your worthiness, and you don’t have to be sure what you want. 

It’s ok to feel anxious and uncomfortable. Most people do when considering conversion, especially when making first contact.

In terms of needing accommodations — there’s a *huge* range of where Jewish communities are in terms of accessibility (I’m working on improving this). I can’t tell you what your particular community is like, or how they’ll regard disability. (One thing I can say is that Jewish conversation patterns are different than the mainstream, and some people find them intrinsically more accessible. But again, I can’t say what your experiences will be access-wise.)

Also, religious descriptions of Judaism and books written for people considering conversion can sometimes be misleading about what communities are actually like. One way to learn some of the things those sources don’t cover well is to look at Jewish humor. This huge set of Jewish jokes may help. 

The drawbacks of anger, and some alternatives

A lot of things that are normal aren’t ok. It’s hard to notice this. We’re socialized to accept a lot of things that really ought to be unacceptable. When we try to object, we’re punished. Being punished for objecting is often humiliating and disorienting.

It’s hard to remember that these things are wrong even when others punish you for saying so. It’s hard to remember that you have rights when others act like you don’t.

One way to remember that things are wrong is to get angry about them. Feeling outraged can make it easier to hold onto your sense that, no, this isn’t ok, and yes, it is ok to object.

Unfortunately, the price of rage is high. Rage hurts. It’s physically unpleasant, physically exhausting, emotionally draining, and makes it hard to think clearly. The physical and emotional exhaustion from anger makes it harder to do other things. The fog of anger can lead to mistakes that make it harder to remember after the fact that you were justified in objecting. Rage is better than nothing, but there are other strategies that don’t hurt as much.

One thing that can help is to develop your understanding of the situation over time. If you learn to understand what you’re angry about and why, it can make it possible to use understanding rather than anger to stay oriented.

Questions like these can help:

  • What am I angry about?
  • Why am I angry about that?
  • What happened that I think is wrong?
  • Why do I think it’s wrong?

For instance, say I’m in class, we’re doing an activity, I’m not able to do the activity, and I’m feeling angry. We’re writing thoughts on big paper, and I can’t do handwriting well enough to participate. In that situation, I might think:

  • Why am I angry?
  • I’m trying to participate and failing over and over and that’s intensely frustrating.
  • Why am I angry about that?
  • Because I’m sick of being left out all the time.
  • What happened that I think is wrong? 
  • The teacher knew about my disability and didn’t do anything to accommodate it when they planned the activity. 
  • When I pointed out that I couldn’t participate, they didn’t do anything to fix it.
  • Why do I think that’s wrong? 
  • Because I have a right to be here, and the teacher is supposed to be teaching me. 
  • I’m a student here, and I have the right to learn the material and be part of the activities we’re using to learn it.
  • This is disability discrimination, and that’s wrong.

Then, the next step in using understanding rather than anger is to notice that something is wrong before you start feeling enraged. Sometimes that can make it possible to fix the problem without having to get to the point of outrage. It can also make it more possible to decide when to fight and when not to.

For instance, take the class activity. If I remember that I have the right to be there and that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to teach me, this might happen:

  • I go to class and see that there is big paper on the walls.
  • I remember that I can’t do big paper activities.
  • I remember that I have the right to participate in educational activities.
  • I remember that I have the right to learn the material.
  • I ask right away “Are we doing a big paper activity today? How will I participate?” 
  • At this point, I’m annoyed, but not outraged, and able to assert something without it hurting so much.

They may or may not respond the right way — and I might still get really angry. But if that happens, I can repeat the strategy again, figure out what I’m angry about and why. Then I can get further without depending on anger the next time. (Even when you can’t win or fix the problem, it’s still often possible to use that kind of strategy to stay oriented without rage. I have more posts in the works about that specifically.)

Anger isn’t a failure. It’s ok to be angry when unacceptable things are happening. It’s also ok *not* to feel physically angry. Anger hurts, and you don’t owe anyone that kind of pain. You don’t have to be pushed to the point of rage in order to be justified in objecting to unacceptable things.

Sometimes it might help to explicitly remind yourself of this. Some affirmations that have sometimes worked for me:

  • I don’t have to hurt myself to prove that this is wrong.
  • It’s still wrong if I’m calm. 
  • It’s still wrong if I’m not crying and shaking. 
  • It’s still wrong if my heart isn’t pounding.
  • Even if I’m ok, the situation isn’t ok.
  • Even if I’m ok in this moment, it’s ok to object to a situation that’s hurting me and/or others.

It also helps not to beat yourself up for getting angry. Anger in the face of outrageous things isn’t a failure. No strategy can completely replace physical outrage for anyone. Holding yourself up to impossible standards won’t help. Working on your skills at staying oriented in other ways will.

These strategies are harder to learn and harder to use. They also make it a lot more possible to resist and stay oriented without hurting yourself. It’s not all or nothing — any skills in this area help, and it gets easier with practice.

Anonymous advice on getting fundraising callers to stop

Anonymous said to realsocialskills: I have done fundraising calling (different, but similar), and in the UK, it is illegal for us to keep contacting people who tell us to stop calling. But you have to be very unambiguous. “Please do not call me again for any reason, and take my number off your list” will work.

realsocialskills said:

Thanks for the tip!

Cancelling cable service

Anonymous said:

I wanted to pass on a tip. My cable company, Comcast, is very aggressive with trying to keep people on their service. I received many calls pressuring me to stay. Finally, I told them I’m moving to Europe. They stopped harassing me because they don’t have service there. I hope this helps others.

realsocialskills said:

I’ve never tried this, but it makes sense to me that it could work. Have others tried this? Has it worked for you?

If you want to help in Israel/Palestine, acknowledge context and support local efforts

I see a lot of Western talk about Israel and Palestine, and not a lot of Western awareness of the context or the work of Israelis and Palestinians. People on both the right and the left often treat Israel/Palestine as a symbol and ignore the fact that it’s a real place, it has a real history, and real people live there.

One of many pieces of context that matters: Israeli Jews are mostly genocide victims and descendants of genocide victims who see Israel as the only reliable way to protect themselves. In their experience, most Jews who relied on non-Jews to protect them died. That context matters in any discussion of Israel, and it’s antisemitic to disregard it.

Another piece of context that matters: Israel is a mess. Israel is about as well-governed as you’d expect from a country run by people with PTSD in one of the most volatile regions in the world. In addition, Israel has from the beginning depended on less-than-stable compromises between different populations in the area, in a way that’s hard to imagine in the West.

I don’t know what would make things better in Israel and Palestine. The more I learn, the less I feel comfortable having a lot of opinions about policy. There are just too many pieces of game-changing context that I’m unfamiliar with.

One of the few things I’m sure of is that no one involved is suffering from a shortage of Western feelings. It’s not news to anyone who lives there that things are a mess. Israelis and Palestinians who live in Israel/Palestine have their own feelings about the situation.

Israelis and Palestinians also have their own opinions about what would help, and they’re doing their own work. There are Israelis and Palestinians all over the political spectrum, pursuing all kinds of attempts to make things better. (Some of which I’m inspired by; some of which I find horrifying.) I think Western conversations on all sides tend to erase the actual Israelis and Palestinians involved.

For instance, the Western left often erases the work of the Israeli left by pretending that only Americans and other Westerners have heard of justice and human rights). Similarly, the Western right often erases the work of Palestinians pursuing coexistence by speaking as though only people in the West have heard of peace.

If loud Western feelings and platitudes from afar could fix the situation in Israel and Palestine, the conflict would have been over decades ago. Palestinians and Israelis have heard it all before. It’s not helpful. Israelis and Palestinians already know about peace and justice, and many of them are working very hard to pursue both.

If you want to help make things better in Israel and Palestine, the best way to do that is by supporting the work being done by pro-justice/pro-peace Palestinians and Israelis who live there. Find Israel/Palestine-based organizations that share your values, and support their work. Foreigners can’t support political parties, but there are a lot of nonprofit organizations doing good work.

I don’t have an extensive knowledge of justice work in Israel and Palestine, but there are a few organizations I’m comfortable recommending:

The Jerusalem Open House For Pride and Tolerance. Hebrew home page; Facebook page  (They used to have an English page as well. In any case, you can use the Hebrew page to find contact emails). 

JOH is an LGBTQ center located in Jerusalem. (In Hebrew, the word for “gay” is a pun on the word for “pride”.) They provide services in Hebrew, Arabic, English, and I think Russian as well. They also organize the Jerusalem LGBT pride parade.

A Wider Bridge (an organization I’m *not* personally familiar with) has an English summary and links to English-language news articles about the Jerusalem Open House. 

Bizchut: The Israel Human Rights Center for People With Disabilities.

Bizchut works for disability rights in Israel, and has information in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. They work on a number of issues, including alternatives to guardianship, inclusive education, voting rights, and communication access for people with disabilities in the legal system.

Yad b’Yad/Hand In Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel  runs joint schools for Jewish Israeli children and Arab Israeli children. The Yad b’Yad schools teach in Hebrew/Arabic/English, and are educationally progressive in other ways as well. (Eg: The Jerusalem Yad b’Yad school has physically disabled students in regular classrooms, which is unusual in Israel.)

There are many other good organizations doing important work on the ground in Israel/Palestine — these are just the ones I’m personally familiar with. Whatever justice issue you care about, there are Israelis and Palestinians who care about it too. If you want to help, support them.

Tl;dr Neither idealization nor contextless criticism will make things better in Israel/Palestine. Palestinians and Israelis are not suffering from a shortage of Western feelings. Israelis and Palestinians already know about justice, peace, and human rights. If you want to help, support local efforts led by Israelis and/or Palestinians who live there.