Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Boiled Potatoes and the Analytic Method, part 1

I found myself in need of counselling last year. The counselling I received was extremely helpful, but it's only as, in the intervening time, I've started to study critical perspectives from gender and race discourse in depth that I've been able to understand the wider context of my difficulties. These approaches emphasise connectedness; the marketing of children's toys, for example, contributes to a domestication of women that in turn commodifies their sexuality and devalues their consent, leading to rape culture.

By contrast, the idiom of 'analytic philosophy', the tallest and remotest of the academic ivory towers, to which I've given a decade of my life and all my adulthood, puts detachment and abstraction foremost. It was detachment and abstraction - an overdose of both - that led me to counselling. What follows is a reflection on that journey.

As for what boiled potatoes have to do with anything? Wait and see...

Part 1: To Paint a Comfort Zone, First You Must Destroy It

First, the journey itself, or at least the closing chapter of it. This, by the way, is not a dramatic or melodramatic story. Probably it's quite underwhelming. It has no histrionics, no blubbering collapses, and the longest redemptive journey involved walking round the corner from my department building to the university's counselling service.

Proportionately to that, it starts with decorating. Having made this rather optimistic post about how my bout of decorating last summer might go, things actually went pretty well for most of the process. The schedule was met, and by the Sunday of the week after that posting, I'd finished all the decorating work. All that remained was the carpet, which was to be delivered and fitted, along with a carpet for the adjacent bedroom, on the Monday.

And then, about lunchtime on Sunday, we spotted that the boiler, which is in the other bedroom, had leaked a few spots of water from what looked like a badly-corroded valve.

Obviously, there was no way we were going to put a new carpet into a room where a boiler might need a valve replacing (where, indeed, the whole boiler might turn out to need replacing - it's a pretty old one, though - *touch wood* - still reliable). And it was a Sunday, so reaching the carpet fitter to discuss arrangements with him was going to take a while.

I can't quite put into words how I felt about this (more on this point in a later part). But to resort to tired metaphors, a stone sank into my gut. My chest felt tight, and I found my jaw clenching a lot. Even thinking about the emotional state I was in then is making me feel a bit hollow now. In retrospect, it should have been a warning, but I was a little too self-absorbed to notice (if that even makes sense - too self-absorbed to notice my own emotional state?)

But it gets worse, because I wasn't the person dealing directly with any of the people who needed to be contacted about the carpet and the boiler. All that was handled by one of my housemates, the one whose bedroom had the boiler in it. I tried not to pester her, I promise I tried, but it still got to the point that I almost drove her to tears by passing my stress onto her.

Perhaps oddly, it was the break in tension that brought matters to a head. When she finally managed to get confirmation from the carpet fitters that they would be happy to come and fit just my carpet on the Monday, and do the other one at a later date, it was my expression of relief that finally pushed her to tell me to back off.

I spent the next fifteen minutes shivering in my temporary bedroom, fighting off a panic attack. A mild one, by the standards of some I've had. It was half an hour or more before I even managed to apologise.

AND EVEN THEN, I was only thinking about maybe seeking counselling, not really sure what I should be seeking counselling for. Being a rationalist is no guarantee of always being rational; being a lover of wisdom is no guarantee of always being wise. These revelations have a significant role to play in what's to come, but for now suffice it to say that I was eventually convinced to make good on the counselling idea.

(part 2)

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Everyday sexism (that I am guilty of) part 2

Actually, this time it's not just sexism - it's every other dimension of privilege as well.

I'm working on a lengthy and complicated thing about white male identity and 'gamers' - my identity, basically. What I'm trying to do with it is address self-identified gamers defensive of our identity on the grounds that it's the only thing we have. I examine why it's possible to feel this, and how to think more broadly about our identity.

But it's really hard to do that without feeling embattled. 'Gamer' is an identity with a lot of really toxic associations. 'White' and 'male' are even worse, both having a long history of oppression and brutality. The urge is always there to get defensive, to rationalise or try to explain away my association with those identities. It's the urge to mansplain, whitesplain etc. (I'm not sure that 'gamesplain' is a thing yet, or just regarded as a combination of 'all the above') -  call it xsplaing in general.

The problem with xsplaining is difficult to state succinctly. It's most problematic when a privileged person butts into a conversation about a problematic pattern of privileged behaviour to explain why - even if not done in an explicitly abusive way, this reinforces existing power dynamics by demanding that every conversation be limited by our comfort. It also equates our discomfort with the actual harm suffered by other groups, which is dismissive of their experience as well as flat-out inaccurate.

Another problem is in demanding 'they' solve 'our' problems - the attitude of 'if you don't like it, you tell us what to do'. We're adults. If someone criticises us, we've got to be able to take responsibility for that. Before demanding specific attention from someone - adding to the burden you've already imposed on them - do some googling, or at least some self-reflection, to try to understand the problem.

This goes doubly for issues of identity. The piece I'm writing is an attempt to collect some criticism of 'gamer' and develop from that a better model of the identity. I don't agree 100% with everything I'm quoting, so there is some editorialising, but my primary purpose is not to refute or dispute those criticisms; it's to identify what we can learn from them.

So I have to be very careful of where I'm pointing my arguments. How often do I have to check for xsplaining? Every. Damn. Sentence. That's really what I want to get at here (as with last time out); this isn't something to only worry about occasionally. It's not even limited to times when you're actively engaging with someone from a different background (though that's when it's at its absolute most important).

It's so hard to resist the urge to make excuses, to haggle, to move from addressing the problem to denying it. And this is in an article specifically addressed to our concerns - I'm not trying to join an existing debate (though I am responding to one). It's even harder when engaging with people 'live'. But you can't learn or grow while rationalising; xsplaining serves your ego at the expense of your mind - not to mention at the expense of other people's peace of mind.