Category Archives: Difficult People

Emotional Intelligence and Hissy Fits: The Cultural Ecology of Antifragility

turkey prozac

We all have experienced this at times: other people can drive us crazy! We love our families and friends, so why this old saying: fish and house-guests stink after three days?   Why can’t we live together peacefully, like elephants? Why aren’t we rational enough to avoid doing things that annoy each other?

Look at the list of things about, um, other people that can grind our gears… and even drive friends and family wild with frustration, or even apart with resentful anger: recklessness, cruelty, meanness, inconsistency, pranking, deceit, maudlin sentimentality, duplicity, illogical beliefs, gullibility, hubris, sanctimoniousness, jealousy, manipulative wheedling, conniving, and sheer over-the-top emotionality (making “a scene”, being a “drama queen”)

What if I suggested that such things about human behavior are not bugs but features? What if they are all part of the overall adaptation of human nature, that somehow helped turn our adjustments to living in social groups into the building blocks of a whole second replicator?

I suggest that “rationality” and analytical intelligence are evolved traits, with a starring role in shifting our species into a new level of networking and communicating, bumping up the flow of information, and personnel, within much larger communities and much wider geographical ranges than are characteristic of any other primate.   Inter-links between people at several or more degrees of separation meant that  individual networking actually disarticulated the individual from restriction to any local group. I suggest that even territoriality, linked to defensive aggression, and such a normal feature of the behavior of many primates, fell under negative selection in hominids at some point in our evolutionary history.

I, furthermore, suggest that dominance hierarchies and ranking systems, based on aggression, were actively curtailed. They had to be, to permit the evolution of the degree of infant helplessness, and the longer childhoods that accompanied brain enlargement during human evolution.   Sure, humans are capable of violence, especially in groups.   But I am suggesting that this was because violently aggressive individuals have always had to be contained and countered by coalitions of the brave and compassionate.   Without such opposition from the “good guys” who rally behind heroes, there would never have been sufficient blow-back to keep bullies and killers in line.

We individual humans are, for the most part, the products of a long evolutionary history that has favored compassion and cooperation, but that does not mean we are uniformly so kind and rational that we never lose our tempers, never yearn to get our own way, never wish for the personal luxury of solitude, having a beautiful object (a bauble or a blanket…!)

Now we might ask ourselves, what exactly was the evolutionary environment that gave a thumbs up to hyper-sociability, and a thumbs down to inter-group and intra-group competition and aggression? What possible environment generated higher fitness for individuals whose activity tended to flatten gradients of stress and life expectancy?

My initial insights in trying to answer this question arose from a field study among a patient and kindly bunch of hunter-gatherers. The Kua were my teachers for three years, and yet, as I left the Kalahari, my dominant sensation was not that I was leaving a group of peaceful and “noble savages”, but rather that this foraging economy produced individuals as ordinary, as flawed, as insightful, wistful, funny, and sometimes as intensely annoying, as any other humans I have ever known. It was merely a different economy, not another way of being human.

I have thought about this over the intervening years. What if our obvious capacity, for small deceptions, fractiousness,  and occasional surliness,  actually balances our kindness and sociability not by accident but, rather, as it were, by design? We can hardly ignore these aspects of human interpersonal antics today… well, what if it was precisely some kind of continuing see-saw between naughty and nice, convivial and argumentative, politeness interspersed with occasional huffy misunderstandings and temperamental behaviour, that was precisely the behavioural mechanism that kept these bipedal apes ecologically solvent?

2cab2e339136fb565536e7576f611f5cWhat if, in the long game of playing off individual genetic destinies against benefits to the collective cognitive niche, the occasionally explosive mix of emotional and irrational behavior was the key to generating “antifragile” cultural ecologies that were less likely to over-exploit any given local resource?

Thus, as humans evolved, reflection literally was an after-thought. As irritations and small conflicts increased, even as individuals found themselves holding back from escalating an argument, even as everyone’s impulse control was tested, there was always “the last straw”: an emotional scene that might set everyone packing to leave.   And, just as we still often find ourselves doing today, reflection after the event will then supply “good reasons” to justify it.

The fact that this pattern is at least partly learned, and not just an innate drive, made it more flexible still. It permitted more condensed and sedentary organization in richer ecosystems, more dispersed and mobile organization in poorer ones. Further, as learned system, it could incorporate the tighter social control during the more condensed phases within a cultural repertoire or an annual round of economic activity, without sacrificing the overall scope of individual networking.

People, today, when living in more crowded and sedentary communities, still tend to establish networks, through marriage and friendship, and those of each individual are still variable and rarely identical even among siblings. Furthermore, these tend not to be limited to a single community or neighbourhood. indeed, many individuals have maintained networks spanning the globe.

Despite the idea of “tribal” tendencies that cause links between people in groups to converge, individual life histories among human beings still tend to create ties (even “weak” ties) to more physically distant relatives, acquaintances, “pen pals”, and “old childhood friends”. Such links tend to be kept up more actively by some individuals. Sociological research into networks has suggested that such people are hubs in terms of information flows between communities. The idea that people across continents are hardly ever more than six links away from everyone else – the “six degrees of separation” model, has been experimentally confirmed many times. It began with the appearance, n 1961, of a seminal piece of work, in the form of a doctoral thesis by Michael Gurevitch, entitled “The social structure of acquaintanceship networks”.  This was presented and accepted by the  Department of Economics and Social Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This research, and the many studies that followed, suggest that extensive networking is a human adaptation to culture, an aspect of the “social brain”: so perhaps it is not a contingency of any one kind of economic system. It is species specific, not culture specific. And we come by it through our evolutionary history as social mammals, and particularly, as social apes.

People appear to activate networks to achieve some consensus about who should undertake leadership roles.   In small scale subsistence economies, such leadership roles – in rituals, in setting up task forces, in dispute resolution, and in disciplinary courts, and in safeguarding community assets – often go to quiet and modest people that can be trusted not to abuse their positions. Often such responsibilities fall upon older people, especially those who are already hubs within local networks.

A reputation-based system of rank, thus, imposes a burden of responsibility on the most trusted elders, so they have authority over communal working groups, as well as for the convening of assemblies to undertake dispute resolution.

Even mobile hunter-gatherers can stick it out despite arguments with neighbors and even intimate betrayal, especially at times of greater aggregation, given that such ephemeral institutions for conflict resolution emerge at such times.  The rest of the year,  impulse control and reflective philosophizing over human foibles comes into its own.  And this is incorporated into even the most mobile forager culture. Networks of family and friends, therefore, can effectively restrain people: no one wants to lose a hard-won reputation for strength of character.

That the historical and ethnographic record from hunter-gatherer societies suggests that such roles can disappear and reappear with the seasonal cycles of aggregation and dispersal is critical. Mobile hunter-gatherers are not nomadic in the sense of wandering ceaselessly in search of food: on the contrary, they circulate through a variety of locations with known resources.

Arrangements between families to meet at particular localities to camp together are often made during seasonal aggregations, and are always negotiated via networks among friends and relatives. So the times of aggregation could be characterized as a kind of network convergence, pulled toward those particular gregarious and trusted persons who serve a hubs linking many individual networks together. And this temporary integration of networks in a larger gathering, under leadership of the most trusted and respected persons, affords people the necessary time to negotiate camping parties and permissions with those who hold primary rights to each small local part of the overall territory within the aggregate.

It is conceivable that this flexibility – what Julian Steward called various “levels of integration” above simple “bands” – represents a capacity for organizational complexity not often attributed to foragers. And yes, it does indicate that even mobile foragers have the capacity for political and social organizational arrangements well beyond the scale and scope of the simple camping party.

Recently, David Graeber and David Wengrow suggested that the emergence of such leadership and more complex organization, during hunter-gatherer aggregations, indicates that humans have an innate tendency to develop political hierarchy. Is the term hierarchy the correct one in this case?   The term is synonymous with “pecking order” and has often been used to describe the way dominance of one animal over another in a ranked system is related to access to food and solace.   It conjures up a flow of authority and even coercion from the individual at the “top” which controls the movement and opportunities of individuals further down.

Brian Hayden has even suggested that “aggrandizer” personalities make use of these emerging hierarchies during periods of aggregation to seize power over others, partly by persuasion and partly by Machiavellian manipulation of others.

Hayden suggests that these self-promoting persons may have some overlap with the sociopathic traits seen on Hare’s checklist. In other words, when people live in more settled aggregations, they become vulnerable to the self-serving aspirations of a narcissistic and psychopathic minority, who make themselves “big Men” and assume power over others. In other words, the emergence of the bully gang explains the way hierarchical political power evolved in humans. (1)

One of the difficulties with this interpretation is that it does not always correspond with observed behaviour in people who are diagnosed as psychopaths today (2).  Another is that it does not situate the cultural behavior (or the ruthless individual) in terms of the consequences within that particular environment (3).  The most striking aspect is, of course, the way both the New Guinea and the NW coastal systems of leadership tend to exhort their communities to produce surpluses.   There is an obligation to contribute to a communal store of fish or other food and even material goods, a store managed by a trusted – and haranguing – senior leader. This results in higher overall productivity than is called for by the simple calculus of dependency ratios.

This communal store is risk insurance. Food and other assistance can be secured for families who meet with illness or injury. I would suggest that is why leadership in a band or tribal system is a function of trust and respect; if leaders merely hoarded or extorted tribute for personal gain, they would not last long.

Such surpluses also fuel a certain level of recurrent ceremonial socializing. Feasts can be planned which assemble people from many more surrounding communities. Thus, while a display of generosity towards those in hardship within a community can demonstrate the character of the leader, any display of generosity where a village hosts many of its neighbors during a festival goes well beyond this. It demonstrates the quality of the people of the hosting community. The net effect is that the people in each community are given additional motivation to work harder.

Why is this important? I suggest that such regional festivals also redistribute food across regions where not all harvests of are likely to be equal. Each local community is thus less exposed to risks of famine. The community, with the most surplus food in any given year, trades this food for higher prestige and simultaneously reduces the chances that hungry neighbors will come to raid.

What happens if the concentrated settlement becomes more permanent: a village? Organizational improvisations can become entrenched institutions, with people developing hereditary rights to leadership roles – especially in adjudicating disputes.   Vested interests that resist change can entail internal conflict, which can be resolved by proof of generosity and earned reputation for diligence. In this case, the famous “potlatch” can also offset conflicts between neighboring communities over access to fixed resources.   Political and judicial roles maintain cooperation, restore peace, and offset risks in a sedentary community.

Lineages and “big man” systems, therefore, appear to be risk aversion strategies – aspects of cultural adaptation, not evidence of selection pressures on human genomes causing novel shifts in innate behaviours during the Holocene.  Hierarchies of coercion and the self-affirming narcissists are not, as Hayden suggests, products of evolutionary genetic change, but rather, I think,  illustrations of the behavioral plasticity of human beings, and the way people have learned to collectively cope with higher environmental risk.

Meanwhile, we see further cultural reification of emotional sensitivities to behavior causing physical or reputational damage to other persons. This takes the form of legal codes, ethics, human rights, and codes of polite behavior. This always involves symbolic evaluation; labeling behaviors as negative, positive and even sacred and profane.


However the danger under such circumstances comes not from people who are born psychopaths but from brain changes caused by power.  What the foragers seem to all have understood only too well was that the human “behavioural plasticity” can take a wicked turn: people have a great emotional weakness- the “sin” of pride, more specifically the kind of hubris that comes of being placed somehow above one’s fellows (4). That was the point that Richard Lee was trying to drive home when he wrote “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari”. One  old guy’s comment was: “If a man is praised for sharing the meat of his kill, he may come to think he is better (more important) than other people. Someday he might kill someone.” 

It has taken years of research to uncover this aspect of our human nature. To uncover the fact that the assumption of authority or wealth, even the the conformity that prompts a person to suspend their own judgement to a higher authority, can give rise to evil actions that hurt other people.  Even in an experimental setting putting people into roles that permit harm to others somehow turns off empathy and compassion. It seems that even just being richer than others, or higher up in the chain of a corporate or civil service ladder, can set in motion the “banality of evil.”.  This is a human characteristic that is far beyond normal fractiousness  and occasional hissy fits, and it gives rise to far more serious trauma and human tragedy than mere incidents of rage and tears.

The only good thing this research discovered is that it does not happen to everyone – there are people who see what is happening and fight it. People who say “this is wrong”. Often they are the folks who either stop the experiment, or in real life will resist tyranny and injustice.  They risk their lives – or die on the barricades. Human beings do have the capacity to act with heroism. The fact that we have a word for this in every known culture should tell us something.

By the way, the word for “hero” among foragers is often translated incorrectly as “warrior” since it means one who fights on behalf of others. I have a feeling that the first battles among human beings were fought, in fact, by heroes of this kind.  In his book, Hierarchy in the Forest, Christopher Boehm suggested that one of the very early developments on the path that led to the evolution of our species, was an overthrow of aggression-based dominance hierarchy.  This led to an egalitarian revolution led by coalitions of people who resisted bullies and protected the vulnerable.  If so, this converted the desirable ideal of adulthood from a self-serving “alpha” into a heroic “first among equals”.. the epitome of the trusted leader.

A human being who lives as a hunter-gatherer could thus refuse injustice; could fight for equal treatment – or walk away. Personal faults and foibles, jealousies and temper tantrums were possibly part of  human nature evolved to create a relatively antifragile economy where high mobility makes it possible to vote with one’s feet. A hunter-gatherer inhabits an economic system that preserved and even enhanced the stability and diversity of the ecosystem that supported that way of life.   A hunter-gatherer cannot be thrown out of their job or lodgings.

But most humans on this planet can, and frequently are. Entire peoples have had their whole landscape taken taken out from under them. Look at the Scottish highland clearances. And that was done by their own clan leaders. And the pain of people under such circumstances, and the guts it takes for them to try to remake their lives elsewhere, is heart-breaking. Makes me weep. And we wonder why the world is full of people in a rage, crying out for justice and radicalized; while those who are relatively well-off tend to develop elaborate explanations that affirm their own superiority. 

Footnotes

1) Brian Hayden Big Man, Big Heart? The Political Role of Aggrandizers in Egalitarian and Transegalitarian Societies

http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-0-230-11626-9_7#page-1

Abstract

Anthropological theories of elites (leaders) in traditional societies tend to focus on how elites can be viewed as helping the community at large. The origin of elites is cast in functionalist or communitarian terms (viewing societies as adaptive systems). A minority opinion argues that elites were not established by communities for the community benefit, but emerged as a result of manipulative strategies used by ambitious, exploitative individuals (aggrandizers). While the communitarian perspective may be appropriate for understanding simple hunter/gatherer communities, I argue that elites in complex hunter/gatherer communities and horticultural communities operate much more in accordance with aggrandizer principles, and that it is their pursuit of aggrandizer self-interests that really explains the initial emergence of elites. This occurs preferentially under conditions of resource abundance and involves a variety of strategies used to manipulate community opinions, values, surplus production, and surplus use. http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007%2F978-0-230-11626-9_7

2) Although Hare does suggest that psychopaths might be more successful within aggressively competitive systems, their comparative rarity even after some five thousand years of hierarchical civilization tends to weaken arguments that such systems are functionally dependent upon the success of a type of personality. It seems more likely to me that the development of stratified societies may have occasionally increased the chances of highborn psychopaths not being spotted and eliminated.

3) See: “Pathways to power: Principles for creating socioeconomic inequalities” in Foundation of Social Inequality edited by T. D. Price and G. Feinman. 1995.     https://books.google.ca/books?id=ZGth6qbXg6oC&dq=“Pathways+to+power:+Principles+for+creating+socioeconomic+inequalities”+in+Foundation+of+Social+Inequality+edited+by+T.+D.+Price+and+G.+Feinman.&source=gbs_navlinks_s

(4) see  Monbiot on “the Self-affirmation Fallacy” where he summarizes recent research showing that socio-economic inequality generates precisely the kinds of narcissism that Hayden wishes us to believe is psychopathology  expressed in hierarchical leaders. “The findings of the psychologist Daniel  Kahneman, winner of a Nobel economics prize, are devastating to the beliefs that financial high-fliers entertain about themselves . He discovered that their apparent success is a cognitive illusion. For example, he studied the results achieved by 25 wealth advisers, across eight years. He found that the consistency of their performance was zero. “The results resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest, not a game of skill.” Those who received the biggest bonuses had simply got lucky.

Such results have been widely replicated. They show that traders and fund managers across Wall Street receive their massive remuneration for doing no better than would a chimpanzee flipping a coin. When Kahneman tried to point this out they blanked him. “The illusion of skill … is deeply ingrained in their culture.”

So much for the financial sector and its super-educated analysts. As for other kinds of business, you tell me. Is your boss possessed of judgment, vision and management skills superior to those of anyone else in the firm, or did he or she get there through bluff, bullshit and bullying?” http://www.monbiot.com/2011/11/07/the-self-attribution-fallacy/

In contrast, of course, the operation of networks – which can be sensitive communicators of reputations based on observed ethical and kind behavior, continue to do, in these other forms of economic system, exactly what they do in hunting and gathering economies:
http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-11-social-networks-cooperation-discourage-selfishness.html

The Bastard Sons of Postmodernism

gavin-mcinnes-red-eyeThere is a type of person (you know this person) who loves things (e.g., musicians, bands, musical styles, authors, ideas, causes, movements, etc.) until they become popular. If you ask this person what their favorite Bowie song is they’ll invariably choose some random, obscure song found on the b-side of one of his lesser known albums. Gavin McInnes is one of these people. And his bizarre political trajectory makes sense as soon as you realize that. Like many hipsters of his age, who were schooled (directly or indirectly) in the postmodern nihilism of thinkers like Foucault, Gavin equates being radical, not with any vision of social justice, but with being provocative, pissing off the bourgeoisie, and making fun of people who really care about stuff (any stuff). I know people like Gavin who enthusiastically supported Trump, and probably even voted for him, not because they liked any of his proposed policies, but because they just wanted to watch the world burn. As a guy I know put it, with gritted teeth, “I just want Trump to win so I can see the look on Jon Stewart’s smug little face.” Gavin and Milo Yiannopoulos, and others like them, are, in a sense, the bastard sons of postmodernism.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2017)

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The Year of the Asshole

Jian Ghomeshi
Canadian broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi attends the Opening Night Party for the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival at Maple Leaf Square on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013 in Toronto. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

First it was that smiley feminist ally, the Q-ute metrosexual guy on CBC, Jian Ghomeshi; and then it was Barack Obama, the candidate of HOPE; and that Yoda-like Zen master, Joshu Roshi, who wisened up my homeboy Leonard Cohen, my cousin Lindsey, and David, sweet David, da Albuquerque; and now it’s Bill Cosby, Cliff, motherfucking, Huxtable!

What’s next? Seriously, what’s next? Look, I know disillusionment is part of growing up (a part I’ve never been particularly good at), and I know that wanting to be “illusioned” is itself morally suspect in the world of WikiLeaks and Five Eyes, CSIS, ISIS, and Edward Snowden. But, life, for God’s sake, can you at least stagger the bad news, give me a chance to catch my breath, before you punch me in the stomach again?

My friend Ray Taylor said this was going to be remembered as The Year of the Asshole, a year of reckoning wherein a whole lot of assholes get their comeuppance. And that prophecy proves more and more prescient the farther we push into this godforsaken Year of our Lord. Because it’s November, it’s grey, and the party appears to be over.

But perhaps it’s all for the best. Perhaps it’s good to be down here, on my hands and knees, picking up the pieces of broken glass, with all the other sinners.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

Asshole Magnet

10h2w4“Know what you are, John? You’re an asshole magnet.” She said other mean stuff (as did I), but I’ve forgotten the rest. We were in the middle of that particularly painful part of the break-up ritual: when the sweet wine of love turns into bitter vinegar in your mouth; when the potion you and Isolde quaffed a lifetime ago turns into a kind of Tourette’s-inducing truth serum, and we fall into an epileptic fit of compulsive truth-telling. Still, she was right about me. I do seem to have an unusually high number of difficult friends. But the reason for this has nothing to do with sphincters or magnetism, and everything to do with my lifelong love affair with courage. No virtue charms me more. But every love comes at a cost, even the love of a virtue.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Myth of the Fuckbuddy (2016)

How to Ride a Bus

z6mt7I’ve ranted about how to drive a bus before.  Today is different.  I’m going to teach you how to ride a bus.  Specifically I will teach you why you need to erase the preconceptions that you have—and that insidiously poison every thought you have if you’re not careful—if you wish to truly learn (or teach—another fine example of foreshadowing!).

Back-story

A friend of mine has lived in Japan for many years.  We’ve spoken (online) at length of the differences in living in “the East” vs. life in “the West”.  This is always a fruitful area for exploration because things are often done differently in “the East” and those differences can often be surprising to those brought up in “the West”.  In conversations with him I found the perfect illustration of these differences and, at the same time, an important lesson to all who think themselves smart.  I’ll let him take over here.

Benjamin’s story

Outside of Tokyo, the buses are not yet westernized.  They have the entrance at the back[pic], the exit at the front.  There is a ticket you pick up when you enter (at the back).  Just like when you visit a doctor, a number is on the ticket.  The number increases each stop so the ticket shows which station you entered at.  Next to the bus driver at the top there is a large display that shows all the tariffs for each number[PIC] and they go up as the bus continues on its journey from stop to stop.  So if you leave, you can see exactly what your fare is at the time, as can the driver when you get off.

(As a sad note, this conversation was one that’s almost a decade old now.  Given what Benjamin was saying about the development of Japan, it is almost certain that none of these buses exist any longer.)

The arrogance of western visitors

The first time most westerners encounter a system like the above the reaction is “how odd”.  Then the mind closes and it’s viewed as “silly” or “stupid” or whatever.  The assumption is that the western system is superior in some way that is “obvious” yet … well … indefinable.  And the reason that it’s indefinable is because it’s not superior in any way, shape or form.

Consider the advantages:

  • it’s very simple;
  • it’s cheating-resistant;
  • you always know what you’re going to pay;
  • you pay only for what you use, no more and no less;
  • the driver’s handling of payments is easier;
  • if you change your mind mid-journey, you pay only for what you’ve used of the system up to that point.

Ottawa’s alternative

The system I had access to in Ottawa was inferior on all counts:

  • you had to pay the same fare whether you were going one stop away or one hundred;
  • if you had to change buses a complicated (yet easily-gamed) system of transfers was used;
  • the driver had to know every possible transfer code—and these changed daily because of the gaming possibilities—that could work on his bus.

Wuhan’s alternative

The system here in Wuhan, apparently based on some French city’s system, is bad on other grounds:

  • you pay per bus, period;
  • the fare is fixed, like in Ottawa;
  • there is no transfer system, however, so if you have to travel ten stops but change buses twice, you’re paying three times the fare of someone who’ll be travelling a hundred stops on one bus.

(At least you can pay by waving a card at a plate, though.  That’s way ahead of Ottawa.)

Both systems, in short, are obviously inferior to this “pre-modern” Japanese system, yet the reaction of people encountering it is to deride it reflexively as wrong and somehow “silly”.  This has extended to the point that the Japanese, to be “modern”, are actually switching to an inferior system just to be more “western”!

This applies to more than buses—or to Japan

There are some lessons to be taken away from this bus system.  We carry an awful lot of baggage into any situation.  In most cases (like bus systems) this isn’t a problem, but when it comes to some very important circumstances (social activism and engineering both spring to mind here) it is very important to be wary of that baggage.

The lesson is to follow three simple steps:

  1. Acknowledge that yes, indeed, it’s different.  Believe it or not, things can be done differently from how you think they should be.
  2. Don’t dismiss things out of hand because they’re different.  Stop.  Think.  Analyze.
  3. After your analysis, be honest: consider the very real possibility that what you’re used to—what feels “natural” to you—might, in fact, be inferior.

The lesson for software

Yes, this is another one of my software rants, albeit in muted form.  This kind of baggage is especially prevalent in software, of all “engineering” disciplines (remind me to explain at some point in the future why I laugh at the notion of “software engineering”), where there’s more cargo cult nonsense than actual thought than in any other industry I’ve worked in or alongside.  (Evidence: the whole curly brace blight.)

When you hit a new programming language, for example, don’t suddenly decide that begin ... end means that a language is useless because it involves typing six more characters (or four more keystrokes) than { ... }.  Even more importantly, when you hit a language that’s confusing at first glance, say one in a paradigm you’re unfamiliar with (which, if you’re like the Chamber’s Constant of developers means any paradigm other than imperative/OOP), don’t discard it because it doesn’t use loops and explicit branching.  See if maybe the approach used isn’t perhaps superior in some way in at least some problem domains.

The lesson for social activism

Social activists in particular are arrogant in their assumption that what they “know” is superior to what others may know.  I see them coming to China all the time to “teach the locals”—they “teach” Christianity, they “teach” democracy, they “teach” Objectivism even (!)—and they find out that their messages fall on deaf ears because what they think of as “obviously superior” is thought of as obviously inferior to the locals.  These people come to China to “teach the locals how to do it right” and leave frustrated and angry at the Chinese because the imagined mass flocking to their ideology they were expecting didn’t happen; because the “intransigent” locals just won’t do things the way the visitors think they should be done.

It never seems to dawn on them that the locals don’t want the new way because the old one is, at least in their eyes, superior.

To be a successful social activist you’re going to have to remove your ideological blinders at times and try to see things from the others’ perspective.  And you’ll have to, on occasion, and likely far more frequently than you’re comfortable with, confess that perhaps the other side’s approach is superior.

The take-away lesson

We all have blinders.  Every last one of us.  These blinders lead our thoughts in well-travelled ruts that are often so deep we can’t even see over them.  In many cases—like bus systems—this doesn’t matter much.  A stupid bus system isn’t the end of the world.  In some important cases, however, like engineering or social activism, these blinders can be a problem that leads to failures both minor and major.  We can’t avoid the existence of these blinders, but we can at least try to mitigate their impact.  When you encounter something different:

  • Recognize that it’s different and move on.
  • Analyze the differences instead of reacting with knee-jerk negativity.
  • If the different way is better, admit it, even if it’s only to yourself.

    —Michael Richter

How to Drive a Bus

z6mshMany, many years ago, early in my tech career, before I could afford a car, I took the bus to work every day. This being Kanata (then a separate city from Ottawa) it meant a four-block walk to the bus stop followed, typically, by waiting at least 35 minutes for the bus that came every half hour. (Yes. 35 minutes or more for a twice-hourly bus. Did I mention this was the beginning station for the route?  I didn’t?  Consider it mentioned now.)

The Bus Driver

There was one bus driver who I seemed to be cursed to always get. The bus I needed to catch to get to work on time was his bus. This bus driver hated the public as far as I can tell. If you greeted him as you got on the bus you got ignored stonily on a good day; on a bad day you got a hateful glare that made you wonder if you were going to be next in a bizarre series of ritual murders.

This guy was a real piece of work. He glared at you if you got on the bus. He glared at you if you got off the bus. He turned beet red, looking like he was just this side of an aneurysm if you dared to signal your intent to get off at the next stop. Heaven help you if you delayed him for three seconds at a stop!

That’s what I did once, you see. I showed up late (for the first time since he’d started the route) and came running to the bus stop just as he’d thrown the bus in gear. He literally had to stop for three seconds to open the door, let me on, and carry on moving. This was too much for him.

“Next time come to the bus stop on time!” he scolded me.

My back went up. (This happens frequently in my life and I make no excuses for it. Nor do I apologize for it.) I turned to him and said, in a clear, loud voice, “Listen, asshole. You’ve got a real attitude problem given that without riders you don’t have a job.” I then proceeded to my seat.

To cut a long story short (too late!) he slammed on the brakes and refused to move the bus unless I got off. I refused to get off. The other passengers supported me, however, so his peer pressure thing didn’t work out. (We’d been comparing notes on this guy for several weeks, you see, and nobody liked him one iota.) The passengers filed off the bus, several of them giving me supportive pats on the shoulder while glaring defiantly at the driver. They just waited for the next bus while I waited for what came next.

His error

The rest of what happened (I got driven to work personally by the guy’s supervisor and he was never on that route again) is irrelevant to my point. My point is that this guy had the wrong attitude as a bus driver. He thought—incorrectly—that his job was to drive the bus. It wasn’t. His job was to drive people and the bus was the means to that goal.

By confusing what his job actually was he focused on the wrong things. Delays were interfering with his incorrectly perceived job instead of being, you know, the whole point of his job. I’m sure he thought he could do his job perfectly if it weren’t for all the customers…

And here’s where I get personal

(Well, here’s where it gets personal if you’re a programmer. If you’re not a programmer you may want to skip this section if you have any delusions about what programmers think of you.)

This error is typical of people in the software industry. (That’s software industry. If you’re a researcher the status is obviously different.) Indeed I’d guess that the Chambers Constant (that’s 99.44%) of software developers share this guy’s attitude. “If only the users weren’t so stupid then I could do my job!”

Don’t believe me? Ask yourself this question if you’re a practitioner: when was the last time you used a term like “luser” non-ironically when talking about the people who use your software? (If you’re a non-practitioner, ask an honest practitioner that same question. Watch them squirm.) When was the last time you sat down and listened to a user complaint (say in a bug report) without rolling your eyes at the injustice of having to support such a dunderhead? If you’re like most of the people I’ve worked with or interacted with over the years—and that numbers well into the multiple hundreds scattered across three continents (North America, Europe and Asia)—you’re probably rolling your eyes now because you know what’s coming next and you want to get your defensive eye-rolling and dismissal going before you see the punch line.

What comes next

Because, you see, just like the job of a bus driver isn’t driving a bus, the job of a software developer isn’t developing software. The job of a software developer is solving user problems using software. Those “lusers” who irritate you so?  They’re the entire reason you’re in the fucking industry. If you lose sight of that you’re no better than that asshole bus driver. Indeed, since you’re presumably educated and/or intelligent, you’re likely a worse asshole than that bus driver.

If you can’t cope with this fact do yourself, your co-workers, and your customers a favour and find another job.  Software development just isn’t for you.

—Michael Richter

My Problem with “The No Asshole Rule”

xq7m3In The No Asshole Rule (2007), Robert Sutton describes—often in excruciating detail—how badly behaved adults can poison a work environment. Among other things, he recommends that you get rid of these types as soon as they show their true colors—viz., after the first blow-up, shouting fit, or temper tantrum. What Sutton says makes perfect sense to me, so long as the person we’re firing is mediocre or incompetent. And they are. Most of the time. Probably 95% of the time. But not all of the time. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the difficult diva in question really is the best.

Sometimes the prima donna really is the best person for the job. For instance, Dr. Gregory House drives everyone nuts on the popular TV series House—he’s precisely the kind of employee that Sutton says you should fire in a heartbeat—and yet House’s boss, the Dean of Medicine, Dr. Lisa Cuddy, deals with his bullshit because House really is an amazing doctor. Likewise, in Homer’s Iliad, Achilles drives Agamemnon insane with his arrogance and insolence—and yet Agamemnon is forced to deal with his bullshit because Achilles really is amazing. People put up with Sherlock Holmes for many of the same reasons. Same is true of Dr. Temperance Brennan on the hit show Bones. She’s incredibly arrogant, hard to get along with, and shockingly deficient in empathy and tact. But her boss, Dr. Camille Saroyan, puts up with her bullshit because she’s a genius, because she’s the best.

Humble people who selflessly devote themselves to the common good of the organization are rare. If you happen to have a few of these silent saints in your organization, treasure them, for they are indeed worth their weight in gold. But alas, these would-be Atlases cannot bear the weight of the world, nor can they bear the weight of your organization. If you want to get things done, you’re going to have to involve the loud-mouthed egotistical show-offs—you know, the pushy people who love to listen to themselves talk. You’ve got to engage these people, let them take over an existing part of your organization, or create something brand new.

These Type A’s won’t give you their all, and they’ve got a great deal to give, unless they feel that they’re in charge. You can’t micromanage them; they’re touchy, and don’t take criticism especially well. They’re going to claim ownership of territory within your organization. And you’ve got to let it happen if you want to realize their potential. But, and here’s the big BUT, these pushy people have a tendency to grow more and more arrogant over time, especially if their endeavors prove successful. The hot air of their hubris propels them to ever higher heights of delusion, until they come to see their little part of the organization as the most important part of the organization. Indeed, they may even come to view the organization as itself unimportant. They may come to believe that the entire organization’s raison d’être is to serve and support their particular needs. They may lose sight of the common good altogether.

Eventually, you’ll find yourself at a meeting, wondering what to do. Some will say squash them, put them in their place, fire them, defrock them, or humiliate them. Though these options may provide sadistic satisfaction to some, they’re rarely good ideas. The real question—rooted in a perennial problem that has bedeviled organizations since the beginning of time—is this: How do you knock these puffed-up buffoons down a couple of notches without losing their valuable contribution to the life of the organization?

I have no problem with show-offs, so long as they put on a good show (by being interesting and entertaining), just as I have no problem with bossy people, so long as they’re good at getting shit done once they’ve taken control. Most families would fall apart if it weren’t for the bossy matriarchs and patriarchs who make the trains run on time. My problem isn’t with difficult people per se; it’s with boring show-offs, and control freaks who desperately need to have power but don’t know what to do with it once they’ve got it.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2016)

Irony and Sarcasm

zn29jMy generation is noted for its fondness for irony and sarcasm. This makes us delightful dinner guests and witty travel companions. But it also makes kids and students hate us. The problem is this: kids don’t pick up on irony, for the most part—same is true of those who are new to the English language. Both frequently conclude that the literal meaning of your witty little remark—the obvious meaning, the meaning on the surface—is the intended meaning (i.e., what you really meant to say). Thus, liberal parents who mouth racist remarks—within earshot of their kids—in a mocking tone of voice (a Southern accent, perhaps) frequently communicate to their children (inadvertently) that they hold these racist views in earnest.

Same thing happened to a Jewish professor at Concordia University. He made a few anti-Semitic remarks during a lecture on Depression-Era America. He did so to make fun of the stupidity (and asinine reasoning) so often found in antisemitic thought. I was thus shocked to discover, after class, that a francophone student (a friend of mine, studying in English for the first time) thought the professor (the Jewish professor!) was a flaming Nazi. Indeed, he went so far as to suggest that we file a complaint against the professor with B’nai Brith Canada. Naturally, I dissuaded him and clarified the professor’s meaning.

This experience (and countless others) have convinced me that irony and teaching don’t mix, unless you’re teaching privileged kids with a strong grasp of the English language. What’s true of irony is, I suspect, doubly true of sarcasm. Children and new English speakers invariably miss the subtleties of the sardonic style. Hate to be the one to break it to you: but all they hear is senseless meanness. They don’t think you’re cute. They just think you’re an asshole. Alas, though the charms of irony and sarcasm are undeniable, confining them to the company of peers is prudent, and forgoing them altogether in the presence of children is wise.

—John Faithful Hamer, The Goldfish (2016)

Is Therapy Destroying Your Life?

Just as those who pay for sex soon suck at sex, those who pay someone to listen soon suck at listening.

books020410_03-003Although we spend billions on it, talk therapy seems to help, at best, one in four. Numerous studies have demonstrated this: it simply does not work for most people. What’s odd, to my mind, is that nobody who knows what they’re talking about seems to dispute this, not even the profession’s most vocal apologists. And yet for some strange reason, our collective faith in the promise of therapeutic salvation remains strong—stronger now, perhaps, than ever before. Despite this abysmal track record, most of us reflexively advise our friends and relatives to “get some help” when they’re going through a tough time. Most of us believe—in a lazy, unthinking way—that seeing a therapist whenever life hurts is, well, you know, just what normal people do. Those who fail to seek professional help when they’re “in a bad place” are viewed with suspicion. At best, we think them eccentric, quirky, and odd, like that weird old friend who still doesn’t have a driver’s license at 42, or that funny middle-aged aunt who lives alone, makes her own hummus, and refuses to use underarm deodorant. At worst, we begin to resent their refusal: “I can’t believe she still hasn’t seen someone! I mean, seriously, at this point, I’m starting to think she wants to be miserable.” “Ya, I know what you mean, my brother’s the same way. It’s like he just doesn’t wanna be happy.”

z024p-001Peer pressure to “get help” can be surprisingly strong on Planet Oprah. We’ve probably all found ourselves in its orbit at some point or another; but none have felt the terrible tug of its gravitational force more than the parents of bratty kids and troubled teens. Most give in to the zeitgeist’s demands regardless of whether or not they think it’s going to help. And they are richly rewarded for their conformity: they and their wayward children shall be washed in therapeutic grace. Schoolyard sins shall be forgiven. These parents—who get their little monsters “the help they need”—are deemed decent, upstanding, responsible, virtuous, and good. But those who stubbornly refuse to seek professional help for their problematic offspring are subjected to a tsunami wave of righteous indignation.

THAT BOY NEEDS THERAPYIf Dante was reincarnated today as a mommy-shaming helicopter parent, my guess is that he’d reserve a particularly nasty place in his new and improved Inferno for suburban heretics who refuse to find therapists for their difficult kids. These parental outlaws will share a spot on Hell Crescent with crackheads who gave their kids beer for breakfast, working parents who slipped peanut butter sandwiches into school lunches, and that coked-up celebrity who sped down the highway in a red convertible with an unsecured baby on his lap. Of course all of this social pressure to “get help” is predicated on the assumption that therapy works—that it can fix you, fix your kid, fix your marriage—however, as I mentioned from the outset, numerous studies have demonstrated that therapy simply does not work for most people. Some find healing, no doubt about that; but most of those who show up broken, leave broken. That being said, my concern, here, isn’t, first and foremost, with whether or not therapy works; it’s with therapy’s side-effects. I suspect that many of those who find healing in the therapist’s office trade in old problems for new ones. What’s worse, I suspect that many who show up broken, leave more broken. There are three reasons for this: (1) talk therapy often erodes social skills; (2) most talk therapy is based upon a discredited model of the mind; and (3) talk therapy often undermines friendship.

(1) How Talk Therapy Erodes Social Skills

Although some learn how to communicate more effectively in therapy, most do not. All to the contrary, talk therapy usually reinforces many of the same inept ways of relating, such as a monological manner, which contributed to the individual’s social isolation in the first place. Good conversation is based on give-and-take, dialogue, empathy, reciprocity, and giving a shit about how the other person feels. When you’re talking with a friend, even an extremely close friend, you’re always trying, to some extent, to engage them, to be funny and entertaining. But when you’re talking with your therapist, it’s all about you—and that’s, well, not that good for you.

(2) Talk Therapy is Based on a Discredited Model of the Mind

We live in a therapeutic culture that’s been extolling the virtues of venting for the better part of a century. As such, we’ve all heard a great deal about the need to express our anger and talk, at length, about things that have made us angry in the past. All of this is based upon a hydraulic model of the mind that was popularized during the Industrial Revolution, a model that still relies heavily—perhaps unsurprisingly—upon steam-engine metaphors (e.g., pressure build-up, the importance of pressure-release valves, etc.). But since we’re dealing here with the received wisdom of our age, this underlying rationale is rarely made manifest, nor is it subjected to serious scrutiny. Most of us simply assume that venting is good for us. What’s more, we assume that its benefits have been proven (somewhere) and backed-up by solid research. In fact, the rationale for venting is based upon a hydraulic model of the mind which researchers disproved and discarded decades ago. As Susan Cain puts it, in Quiet (2012): “The ‘catharsis hypothesis’—that aggression builds up inside us until it’s healthily released—dates back to the Greeks, was revived by Freud, and gained steam during the ‘let it all hang out’ 1960s of punching bags and primal screams. But the catharsis hypothesis is a myth—a plausible one, an elegant one, but a myth nonetheless. Scores of studies have shown that venting doesn’t soothe anger; it fuels it.” What does all of this mean? Well, it means that talking about your problems can often make them worse. This is probably what Aaron Haspel had in mind when he wrote: “If you want to kill your marriage, talk about it.”

(3) Talk Therapy Undermines Friendship

We all like going out for dinner from time to time, and this usually involves paying a stranger to cook for us. Still, most of our meals are home-cooked by family members or friends. But imagine, for a moment, how strange it would be if we all ate out at restaurants so much that we forgot how to cook for each other. What’s more, imagine if we came to believe that it was actually dangerous and unhealthy for “non-professionals” to cook for themselves and others. That, to my mind, is where we are right now vis-à-vis therapy in our culture. Many of us seem to have come to the conclusion that the normal thing to do—Plan A, as it were—is to go to a therapist whenever something’s wrong. And that’s the problem. That’s what’s stunting the growth of our personal relationships and rendering so many of our friendships shallow and superficial.

In The Commercialization of Intimate Life (2003), sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild maintains that an over-reliance upon therapy is one of liberal feminism’s greatest weaknesses: “While books like Women Who Love Too Much focus on therapy, ironically the actual process of healing is subtracted from the image of normal family or communal bonds. The women in Norwood’s tales seem to live in a wider community strikingly barren of emotional support. Actual healing is reserved for a separate zone of paid professionals where people have PhDs, MDs, MAs, accept money, and have special therapeutic identities. While psychotherapy is surely a help to many, it is no substitute for life itself. In the picture Norwood paints, there is little power of healing outside of therapy. In the stories Norwood tells, love doesn’t heal. When you give it, it doesn’t take. When another offers it, it may feel good but it’s not good for you. . . . If the word ‘therapy’ conveys the desire to help another to get to the root of a problem, this is a very deep subtraction from our idea of love and friendship. It thins and lightens our idea of love. We are invited to confine our trust to the thinner, once-a-week, ‘processed’ concern of the professional. This may add to our expectations of therapy, but it lightens our expectations of lovers, family, and friends.”

Though some of our deepest and most meaningful connections to others grow out of joy, most are forged in adversity: e.g., she was there for me when I was going through that terrible break-up; she was there, as well, when my mother was dying of cancer; he was there for me when I got fired; he was there, as well, when I was recovering from that horrible car accident. Every time you pay someone to hang out with you during a rough patch, you rob yourself of an opportunity to get closer to a friend or relative.

I once took a powerful course of antibiotics that wreaked havoc on my digestive system for months. Do I regret taking the antibiotics? Of course not. But I wish I had been better informed about how much damage “the cure” would do. Likewise, it’s time to have an honest conversation about the sociological side-effects of talk therapy. We need to start viewing talk therapy the way we’ve come to view antibiotics. Only a fool would say that antibiotics are useless. Likewise, only a fool would say that talk therapy is useless. But we now know that antibiotics have been vastly over-prescribed, and that this overuse has done real damage. What’s more, we now know that even when the use of antibiotics is warranted, there are harmful side-effects associated with their use which need to be acknowledged and addressed. The same is no doubt true of talk therapy.

—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2017)

Untouchable

“Philosophy’s first and most general task, in the war against anger and fear, is to make things clear—to give the soul an understanding of its own situation and its possibilities. . . . the anxiety that gives rise to strife can be put to flight only by knowledge and self-knowledge . . . . Anxiety is the soul’s darkness, philosophy its light. . . . The triumph of philosophy, in short, is a triumph not through political action . . . but within each human soul in relation to itself—as the soul learns . . . to understand and accept the ways in which a human life is necessarily vulnerable and incomplete, to be willing to live as a soft body rather than an armed fortress.”—Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994)

Invisible-woman-artwork-20060626041749688_640w_1205023163_7756It is most likely a defense mechanism against extensive physical, verbal and emotional abuse in childhood that led me to believe that I was untouchable. Maybe it was some sort of ‘never again’ reaction but I just sort of naturally came to believe that if I thought myself untouchable I was untouchable: I couldn’t be abused, just wasn’t possible. This belief system was delusional on many levels. If I was nice to anyone who made fun of me or harassed me, then they were my friends and I remained untouched; if I scrutinized myself and offered up what I had done wrong and apologized to someone bullying me, then we were just having a disagreement and I had managed to resolve it, and so I remained untouchable; if something done to me was too bad, I would try to bury it – refusing to talk or think about it (although the inevitable period of obsessive rumination would lead me to justify burying the events to prevent others from seeing how deeply flawed I must be to provoke such violence) and so I was tenuously untouchable.

I had to appear untouchable because or else, I believed, everyone would see the fatal flaw of who I really was and join in, turn their backs on me and hurt me. I had to be untouchable because the cost of being touched was too high.

jalba13And so I never really addressed anything that happened to me. Just ran away from it – either physically through travel or mentally through books and a rich fantasy life of one day achieving something. Anything, really. Though I was so ‘nice and friendly’, I did everything alone. I travelled alone, I walked alone, I read alone, I wrote alone, I dreamed alone. The only thing I did not do alone was go out at night alone – too many sexual assaults led me to believe in all honesty that a woman should not go out alone at night. Never mind that none of that had happened while I had been out alone. It’s just that the only way I could cope with all that was by beating myself up about things like my blonde hair being ‘bad’, being too nice or not nice enough, the clothes that I wore, etc.. I stopped drinking for years because I wanted to better be able to gauge other’s behaviour; if I failed to do that the consequences were obviously my fault.

And yet through all this I really thought I was untouchable. It was completely delusional.

It took an extremely abusive ex-boyfriend to get me to confront the ways in which I enable abusers by constantly seeking compromise with them, refusing to judge them for their behaviour and placing full responsibility on me to control other’s behaviours. It’s delusional to think I can act in such a way that nothing bad will ever happen to me. Obviously, I still believe a person’s behaviour influences generally the kind of reactions they will get, but it does not control specific reactions. And while as a general rule my approach to life was extremely successful, in a narrow way there were pathological people that could pick-up on signals I was sending that I would do anything to refuse to acknowledge I was experiencing an instance or a sequence of abuse : that I was really a wet noodle with no spine. And even just with luck of the draw, as most women will definitely experience, a crazy random guy that just pinballs his way through life only knowing that I am the only one trying to be nice and understanding, and not telling him to shove off.

So I’ve been learning how to do fight instead of flight. The worst part is that that some people think suddenly I’m a bitch or that I’ve gone crazy, thinking that there are all these crazy men out there when surely it must be me. Trust me, I’ve gone over the possibility that I’m the person at fault about thirty-three thousand times already. I’m not perfect, but it’s not me. It’s just that I went from having blinders on and thinking abuse was something that exclusively happened to others to suddenly realizing, wow, there’s a real sense in which I do not know how to draw proper limits around myself.

In one case, I verbally expressed to a house guest that I was not in a good mood and wanted to be left alone. He became infuriated and screamed insults at me until I cried and he vaguely threatened about ‘really getting mad’ (his girlfriend made him leave). At this point, it might seem like it’s my fault but think about it : everyone has bad days and especially if someone verbalizes their needs, an emotionally adequate response is to give the person space, not attack them. The next day when I said good morning to his girl friend he was apparently still mad and came one inch away from my face screaming extremely personal insults; he was very much in my personal space and when someone does this in a threatening matter your gut reaction is to push the person – I knew if I did he would knock me unconscious and his girlfriend had locked herself in the bathroom when he entered the room, he was refusing to leave my house when I asked him 3 times, I informed him if he did not leave immediately I would call the cops, he left the room and sat on the couch still yelling insults so I called the cops. Oh man did I ever cry and beat myself up about this hair trigger reaction. I felt I had no right to remove him from my space and send him home. I was so mad at myself. Why didn’t I calmly walk away? Why wasn’t I the bigger person? The truth is he would likely have started again next time he saw me (since a day away had not calmed him down) and in even if he calmed down he would learn that he had the right to talk to me that way. I knew I had made the right choice – so why was I so sad?

I wasn’t untouchable.

In the other case, a man I had met through friends was just a text maniac. The day after meeting him, I took two hours for dinner and returned to 8 messages asking me why I wasn’t answering and what he had done. Plus to be honest half the things he messaged me sounded like straight up lies. I really did not like this person and I was having a hard time remaining patient. Still I wanted to be nice and not just ghost. So I told him I did not like to text, that I was extremely busy and that I was sorry but that maybe in a month if I had time I would let him know. Pretty obvious – but, yes, ever so slightly ambiguous. Well, he started calling (because I didn’t like texting). I never picked up. More texts. Like six in an hour. Never answered. Than he wrote me asking if I thought I was stalking him. I told him listen, you are a very nice guy, you are not a stalker but yes I was overwhelmed by his communication style and did not see this working. Responded that when I had more free time we should hang out. More calls. More texts. Now Facebook messages – ten of them(!) going from ‘hey how are you’ to angry ‘I do not like how you make it look like I’m chasing after you by not responding, I’ve made my intentions clear and I’d like you to make your intentions clear’. So I responded ‘I think I have. I’m confused’. 8 responses including ‘Oh I think you must have messaged the wrong person’. So I bite the bullet, tell him that I’m sorry for being harsh but I feel he will misinterpret anything else, that I have multiple times said I was not interested and that there were no mixed signals (that ‘you are not a stalker does not = I’m interested’ (!)) and that at this point I wanted absolutely no further contact with him. The messages just kept coming ‘I’m not done with you’, ‘I don’t want to talk your head off’, ‘the texts are psychological warfare’ at which point I tell him I’m considering blocking him. 6 messages later I block him. Then he starts texting me. At which point I tell him that this is why I’m blocking him and to please not turn into a weird cliché before I figure out how to block texts on Android 5.0. I know I did the right thing and was actually considerably patient with him… just not the kind of patient I used to be. Just not the kind of person that would figure out a way to make things OK for this guy at the expense of my time and energy. But also to avoid feeling, well, contaminated. If I ended things well and platonically with him than there was nothing to feel weird and exhausted about. It was in my control to decide if this ended though blocking or mutual agreement, right? It wasn’t delusional at all to think somehow I could control the behaviour of someone that I had met once amongst all the other factors contributing to how he chooses to communicate? Right?

Why else do I feel so sad? Why else do I only want to sleep? Why else do I not want to see anyone again? I admire people that medicate their anxiety with activity. Me, I just stare at the wall and ruminate all the ways this is my fault and what I could have done differently for this never to have happened so that I can be untouchable. Actually, it’s not that all the time, but it is that often enough that it always surprises me when people think I go out a lot and do, you know, stuff.

I don’t want people to know these are the kind of people that have been in my life this last month because what if they think that I must be attracting this kind of attention, that I love and crave drama, that I’m provoking otherwise normal people into odd patterns of behaviour, that somehow I’m beyond just manipulative and I actually have this power to make people behave in odd ways because I’m so abnormal and flawed that I would drive anyone to madness — much the way I’m driving myself to madness… But I’m driving myself mad trying to cope with a world in which I’ve had to experience some pretty horrible things at an age so young that my mind was not equipped to explain it. When the only ways I was taught to cope with these things was silence, shame, secrecy and self-reprimands. These tools worked as a delusional child who believed that you could just keep these things a secret and strive to be perfect and untouchable and that was the way the world worked. People that did not have horrible things happen to them were normal. I just wanted to be normal. But I was so abnormal I had to be stronger. I had to be untouchable. The times I have been manipulative almost exclusively are in times I sensed physical danger was imminent. Have you ever manipulated violence into love? I had to be delusional because reality was strangling me.

It’s cognitive dissonance in motion, but is this a ‘girl thing’? Surely a lot of women experience these frustrating stereotypes about women, strange double-binds and never-ending prescriptive demands and come out semi-normal? Is this a ‘child of abuse thing’? Surely it’s like some sort of Stockholm Syndrome where you identify with your aggressors more than with your own plight because, well, they have the power to end this nightmare, not you — so if you identify with them you have the illusion of power… Is this ‘my own special brand of weirdness’? God knows I’m convinced I’m weirder than I probably am because I just want to make myself interesting because that’s the kind of piece of shit I am that drives people so crazy. I don’t know. I really don’t know.

But now I know I’m not untouchable. I’ve cut the hippie karma krap and have started being bitchy and defensive sometimes. I do not do it because I enjoy it but because I want to truly and genuinely feel safe. People have hurt me and will continue to hurt me. But I have the right and the ability to defend myself and set limits for appropriate interactions. It will always hurt me to do so because it reminds me that I’m not untouchable. A limit I’m setting for appropriate interaction is you do not have the right to question the limits I set for behaviour I don’t feel comfortable handling. My limit might be lower than yours, or maybe my limit rebuffed someone you know and you think that makes me ‘too sensitive’ or ‘crazy’– well yes I’m too sensitive. I set a limit because the behaviour was more than I could handle. Even with the limit I’m the one sitting alone crying for a couple of days wondering what I did to deserve this. I set the limit so that it wouldn’t trigger a full-on depression. You questioning my limit in a mean-spirited manner or in a way in which you are trying to shift blame onto me is stepping on that limit. Maybe try understanding why I have a limit with the same care you are putting into understanding the behaviour of the person who went loco and contributed to me temporarily retreating from the world in fear tomorrow will bring just some other bullshit that I do not want in my life.

I’m extremely sensitive and have to be careful the people I allow into my life as I easily set myself aside to try and figure out how they can be happy. Yes, a certain happiness comes from casting aside one’s own ego – but I no longer believe trying to create a void in the self to suppress negative emotions about one’s self is ‘healthy’. I don’t know what the answer is but I’m in my own body and mind and I’m going to start by placing limits around me because I’m not untouchable.

—V. Lynn Therrien