Perspective as a Bad Habit and the Sock Story

I am beginning to realize that the world I inhabit is very different from the world as others experience it. At this juncture, it seems as though I will always be beginning to realize this, for every day seems to present a new opportunity to realize how my perspective differs from a large portion of humanity’s. While reading through the various Atheism+ discussions that have taken place throughout the last week, I have been gaining a deeper appreciation for how very different people’s lives can be. On a purely intellectual level, I already knew all of this, but knowing something is one thing—grokking it is entirely another.

I have to take a step back before proceeding, however. Let’s not let ourselves be fooled into thinking that “perspective” is a monolith—it is impossible for a person to have a single perspective. When we use language such as “my perspective differs,” we have to recognize that this is nothing more than cognitive shorthand—a linguistic trick. The idea represented by this expression is merely a summary of the intersections of a multitude of interrelated thoughts, each stemming from a multitude of disparate experiences.

This verbal shortcut comes complete with an insidious pitfall—one whose very serious potential repercussions we may walk right into if we, forgetting it for but a moment, do not watch where we plant our mental feet. Specifically, we are prone to forgetting that others do not share our perspective—our thoughts and experiences. How could they? At the time of this writing, there are approximately 7,067,065,000 people in the world. Through running a detailed statistical analysis of the world’s population, I can scientifically conclude that of that number, my perspective on any given matter will be held by, give or take the margin of error, exactly one single person. You and I may share an opinion about something, but we do not share the same mental associations about that thing.

It is vital to recognize that our process of perspective-taking tends to be mostly subliminal—we do not consciously apportion our responses to each object and situation we encounter in every moment of every day. We do not—can not—engage in an inner monologue on the relative merits of a thing until that thing has been brought to the forefront of our conscious experience. As an example of this:

You are now breathing manually.

On a slightly more serious note, let’s look at a different example.

Choosing one’s socks is hardly a meaningful decision on the grand scale of things, but we are socialized to be fashion conscious to varying degrees, and so it may well be that you are required to put some trivial amount of effort into that process. For example, suppose that you own precisely as many socks as you need, so you have no particular desire for new ones. However, now let’s suppose that you’ve just finished shopping for a new shirt when you happen to notice a matching pair of socks on sale. Your eye is drawn to them in a way that would not have happened at any moment prior. Until this moment, every dimension of your life’s sockishness was being satisfied, but now you realize that no other socks would match this shirt nearly as well as these new ones. Do you buy them?

Ultimately, your answer to that question is irrelevant. For our purposes, the point of the question is merely the journey. The thought process is illustrative of the number of things that pass unnoticed. How much thought does the average person ordinarily put into socks? Certainly less than someone with diabetes, for whom sock choice can be a matter of some importance. So too with all things—no one shares identical perspectives because not everything is equally relevant to every person’s life. From here, we can extrapolate to see how something that does not even register on our personal scale of ab/normality might be a major cause of concern for someone with a different perspective.

So yes, not everyone views everything as having the same importance. It’s not this trivial observation, true though it is, that I find so compelling but rather the deeply profound repercussions of this kind of “small” difference. In the world of psychology, small things can have big effects. When I stumbled upon the wide world of microaggressions, my perspective on social interactions changed radically. Where before I suffered from Social Analysis Myopia (that’s a bit corny, I know—sorry), that discovery gave me a lens through which a wide array of otherwise hidden passive aggressive marginalizing behavior could be seen. It’s a microscope that I’m still learning to use, but I see that it is a necessary key to unlocking the mystery of the status quo.

Different groups are affected by different combinations of social pressures. The feminist model of the patriarchy can be expanded beyond gender relations into a kyriarchy model to describe how all manner of dominant groups marginalize minority groups. Under this model, privileged classes belong to the kyriarchy, and non-members of the privileged class experience a wide range of repercussions for their non-membership. (If you only click one link in this post, make it that one.)

Yet for some, pointing out how these microaggressions compound each other is seen as “Oppression Olympics.” To respond to a recounting of the micro- and macro- aggressions disproportionately (sometimes solely) inflicted upon members of a minority class with this charge is to discount those experiences as some twisted competition to see who can accrue the most Misery Points—as if being marginalized were some game to be won by losing!—as if people enjoyed being marginalized! This perspective is entirely alien to me; it tacitly defends the status quo by signifying that anyone who speaks out against the kyriarchy should be sanctioned. It would be akin to calling Martin Luther King Jr. a crybaby for whining about the injustices of racial inequality even though segregation had already “been abolished” in his day. This language is fundamentally invalidating; disregarding the experiences and emotions of the marginalized person as “Oppression Olympics” is implicitly stating that to acknowledge systemic problems facing a group (or groups) of people is too high a price to pay for improving society. It is nothing short of the defense of one’s privilege.

If the “Oppression Olympics” are a thing at all, the winner is not the person who complains loudest about oppression—the winner is the one who perpetuates the most oppression. Let’s return to the examination of socks. Your prototypical sock is a hammock of cotton and/or polyester covering the bulk of your foot and typically the ankle, but this has not always been the case. In the “Sock Oppression Olympics,” I get to wear cotton socks, and you’re only allowed to wear those flimsy disposable nylon socks that come in a tissue box and are found in shoe stores. In the Sock Oppression Olympics, when you comment on how comfortable my socks look, I respond by telling you that your socks are just fine—even though I’ve never tried to live my life wearing only your disposable socks. “But I understand your situation,” I’ll tell you, “because I’ve tried your socks on, and they’re not too bad.” (Nevermind that I haven’t ever worn them for an entire day.) In order to compete in—and win—these games, I don’t even have to know that your socks are different from mine; my purported ability to empathize is just icing on the oppression cake. To score points, it’s sufficient merely to refuse to talk about socks. I don’t need to have even the slightest inkling that refusing to talk about socks has the unintended consequence of reinforcing the sockus quo.

I have always been “a minority,” but so what? For what I hope are incredibly obvious reasons, not every minority status is equally concealable. With my minority status, I have had the exquisite privilege of being fully capable of what sociologists refer to as passing—I wear cotton socks against orders, but I still wear the disposable ones on top, so to any cursory examination, it looks like I’m obeying the expectations placed upon me, and I get away with it until someone performs a close inspection. For a Sock Oppressee to be wearing cotton socks is something of a scandal—it gets people talking, you see. Even if wearing cotton socks is not a violation of a society’s laws, it can still cause quite a stir to be found doing so, and that social pressure is a very real thing that discourages people from breaking the taboo (in the same way that you’re not allowed to wear socks with sandals). What’s more, there can a tangible benefit to being a minority member in vocal support of the status quo. The negative effects of doing so are often harder to identify but still significant. (In short, it’s complicated. If you want to have a cerebral moment, use this as a lens to consider this example of the intersection of sexual harassment, gender stereotypes, and system justification.) Conversely, those negative consequences are largely absent for members of the majority class who endorse the status quo. Indeed, as a Sock Oppressor, I may be judged positively by my fellows for putting myself through the experience of (perhaps even making a show of) wearing disposable socks.

To summarize in the parable of the Sock Oppression Olympics, it is commonly known that there are a number of reasons that you would want to wear only disposable socks. It’s more hygienic, for example, because there is no risk of forgetting to wash a sock before donning it. It’s also more convenient because it takes considerably less effort to put on a smaller, thinner sock. There are many who say that it’s more natural because your feet remain closer to the ground. Furthermore, the decreased padding allows for an increased sensory experience, permitting you a more robust ambulatory experience. For these reasons and many others, I think everyone can agree that the blisters you get from giving up the increased protections offered by the cotton sock are but a small price to pay for these life-affirming benefits. Anyone who supports overturning the system is simultaneously rejecting these positive factors while also denying the existence of the extensive drawbacks (which are too numerous to list here) that go hand-in-hand with assembling, purchasing, utilizing, and maintaining the cotton sock. There really is no need to discuss the matter of socks any further, and those who would seek to unnecessarily prolong this conversation must certainly have questionable motives. We should end this debate once and for all, before those lederhosen advocates see this as an invitation to add their misguided opinions to the mix.

Ultimately, the question is this: what aspects of your life are cotton socks, and what nylon socks are you overlooking? I suppose the answer to that question will depend on the ratio of cotton socks to nylon socks in your sock drawer.

The Slippery Slope to Polygamy?

(It seems a bit meta to be writing a blog post about another blog post. I hope you can forgive me.)

Reading this fine example of careful reasoning has me thinking about the issue of marriage. I am pleased with how this argument was made. To summarize, the linked post addresses the argument that allowing homosexual marriage will create a snowball effect that will ultimately end with polygamist marriages becoming legal,* so for the sake of avoiding polygamy, we should not legalize gay marriage. This slippery slope argument (from gay marriage to polygamy) does not hold water, in large part because the arguments for and against each of these things use completely different reasoning. Demonstrating the legal necessity of one does not establish the necessity of the other.

The issue of polygamy isn’t receiving much attention in the media, but how about it? Is it okay for people to marry more than one person? I have to confess that I see little reason this should be universally forbidden.

After all, what’s the difference between an adulterer and a polygamist? And if it’s not illegal for a married man to support a girlfriend or two and father children out of wedlock with them, how can it be illegal for him to bind himself to them according to the laws of his church? Why is a practicing Mormon with two wives a criminal while [a politician, publicly] embarrassed by the discovery of his second family, is simply a punchline?

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Holy Blatant Sexism, Batman!

So yeah, this actually got written.

Women’s judo: it’s disturbing to watch these girls beat each other up

Watching Gemma Gibbons gaining Britain’s first judo medal in 12 years, I found myself wondering: is women fighting each other violently a perfectly wholesome spectator sport?

With those judo contestants – and I realise this will probably sound appallingly sexist – I couldn’t help wondering about their soft limbs battered black and blue with bruises.

Holy crap.

The good news? As of right now, there are almost 700 comments on the thread, and they seem to be almost universally attacking the (male, of course) author for his condescending patriarchal vapidity. Does one need any more evidence to conclude that feminism is still relevant?

Screw Your Preconceptions (Part 2)

As a follow-up to this post, I’d just like to point out the difference between sex and gender. Sex is seen as biological while gender is a social construct. What it means to be a man or a woman varies by culture (masculinity in Mexico is not at all the same as masculinity in Japan, for example). What this means is that a person can be biologically XY (sex) while also being female EDIT: a woman—thank you to ellenfremedon for the correction—(gender). Even this man-woman dichotomy is an erroneous preconception, however! Humans have more than two sexes, and genders vary so much across the world that I wouldn’t want to have the job of counting them all. And just in case you were wondering, etiquette dictates that you refer to someone with the pronoun appropriate to their gender, not their sex. (When in doubt, ask, but don’t be a jerk about it.)

Screw Your Preconceptions

Life is not Disney. Everything you know from Hollywood is wrong. “Common sense” is bullshit. How much of life’s misery could be averted by keeping these things in mind? Take, for example, relationships. If TV is to be believed, relationships are pretty straightforward: Meet someone. Fall in love. Dating turns into marriage. Kids. Happily ever after.

This is a fantasy, and it’s not the “gosh, that would be ideal” kind of fantasy. It’s the “complete work of fiction” kind.

Healthy relationships don’t just happen. They take work and commitment. Not every day is sunshine and roses. Sometimes you argue—sometimes about big things. And odds are good (like 100%) that this won’t always happen in the ways you anticipate.

Consider the romantic comedy genre (cue groaning). How many unique movies are there within this genre? Basically none. Take a look at that chart over there (→ that way →). X meets Y. X flubs meeting. X and Y get to know each other better. X and Y begin dating. Things go well. Really well. Then not so well. Big problem. The couple either splits up or seems likely to split. Additional hardships come, causing X and Y to rekindle their devotion to one another. X and Y overcome hardships. Marriage. Roll credits. The End. Happily ever after. X and Y are forever satisfied with their love, and there’s no more to the story.

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Humor’s Great … If You’re Funny

When something bad happens to someone you care about, a natural response is the desire to comfort them. There are a number of different strategies for doing this, and the longer you know someone, the more you learn about which strategies will be appropriate. What can reliably calm one person down may instead aggravate the problem for another. And when you’re in that situation, on either end, it’s kind of a big deal.

My default strategy for coping with upset people is humor because it’s much harder to be angry or sad if you’re laughing. Still, delivery is an important part of any joke, and it’s important to know your audience. Not everyone enjoys offensive humor; some people love off-color jokes while others have no sense of humor see them as perversely morbid. It’s generally best not to get those two crowds mixed up, so the safer option often becomes erring on the side of caution. Sometimes overriding the urge to make light of a serious situation can be difficult, but there’s wisdom in not needlessly pissing people off, especially people you’re less familiar with.

Unless you’re the Internet, that is. Many people on the Internat exhibit some strange compulsion to piss people off. (This is often called trolling, but in my experience, people who claim to have been trolling usually are just trying to save face after making idiots of themselves. Or perhaps to piss the other person off even more.)

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On Isms, Part 1

I see a number of recurring trends with some of the more pervasive social problems, and I can’t help but think they stem from the interaction of a few powerful subconscious processes. Let’s jump right in, shall we?

1) People generally want to think of themselves (and their in-groups) as being good people. Even when this does not hold, people still view themselves as better than out-group members.

2) The status quo is the normal state of affairs and is thus assumed to be correct (or the null hypothesis).

Add on to this the following proposition, and you can see how stagnation can take root:

3) A criticism of one’s in-group is often interpreted as a direct personal attack.

  • Because membership in a group conveys a schema, an attack on that group also becomes an attack on that schema, which has become part of a person’s self-identity. See again self-schema/self-image, linked above. Additionally, the individual may feel a need to respond to feelings of guilt-by-association—another fallacy.

Before you start writing up an angry response, these attitudes, and coping mechanisms aren’t universal. Don’t waste your time by whining, “Not everyone is like this!” I know. I just said so. But a significant number of people are, and this is why consciousness-raising is important. I’m not trying to suggest that this is the case with all people. Stay with me until the end. Keep reading…

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