Missing the point

I finally got around to reading The Panic Virus by Seth Mnookin last week. It’s a pretty good roadmap of how we got where we are, from the crude beginnings of deliberate infection to today’s controversies. There were a couple quotes that really stood out to me, though, and struck me as examples of taking things for granted.

From page 19–“And because I live in a country where the norm is vaccine, I can delay my vaccines.” In short, I don’t have to because everyone else does.

At an individual level, this is fairly true because of herd immunity–the more people who are vaccinated, the harder it is to spread, giving protection even to those who haven’t gotten vaccinated. A single person delaying or skipping a shot isn’t likely to seriously affect anything. The problem is when those individual choices add up. It’s kind of like voting–a single person’s choice isn’t going to really affect the outcome most of the time, but it’s the aggregate of everyone’s individual choices that determine the outcome. It would be like not voting because your riding is ‘safe’ for your preferred candidate. If enough people come to that conclusion, then ze might not get enough votes to win even though ze is who most people want to win.

The second quote comes near the end of the book, on page 273–“I believe our nation can tolerate a certain percentage of unvaccinated children without risking the overall public health in any significant way.”

Sadly, this second quote comes not from a random parent, but from one Dr. Sears, who has written several books, including The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision for Your Child where he promotes an alternative schedule. In other words, this quote comes from someone people listen to. While again, his statement is true, it’s missing the point somewhat. He’s not able to determine which children will or will not get their shots on the recommended schedule on a large scale (which would at least let him control the uptake rate to keep uptake high enough to protect herd immunity), but he IS able to affect choices on the individual level, which is the more dangerous one for him to be influencing because of how the aggregate of those individual choices can drop the uptake rate until outbreaks can happen.

Both of these quotes count on a high rate of vaccination to justify delaying shots–others use the same reasoning to opt out entirely. And the more people who follow this train of thought, the less true it becomes. It’s a self-defeating prophesy.

Intimate knowledge

Ever feel like your life is being appropriated for someone else’s agenda?

I’ve been involved in a conversation elsewhere about whether or not to vaccinate your children, and–big surprise–the conversation turned towards autism and vaccines. I kind of knew that it would be a bit of a trainwreck going in, but vaccination is important to me as a community health issue, so it was hard for me to stay out of it. As things became more and more autism related, a couple things happened, both of which struck me as being on some level fundamentally wrong.

1) As things became more and more autism-centered, I felt less and less like I should be contributing to the conversation. Let’s let that sink in for a moment–I felt out of place participating in a conversation that was partly about people like me. It’s hard for me to really pin down why that happened–maybe because I’m fairly mildly affected, maybe because I didn’t feel I’d be listened to, maybe because I didn’t want to have to drop the information that I’m on the spectrum because I didn’t think it’s truly relevant to the argument–but the fact that it happened at all bugs me.

2) A person on the other side commented that ze typically would asked people if they knew a child with autism before getting into the conversation, saying that ze wasn’t interested if you didn’t have ‘intimate knowledge’ of the condition. While I will acknowledge that this person is more familiar with it than most people, it was the term ‘intimate’ that bugged me. I’m on the spectrum–I live with it in a way more intimate than this person possibly can, and it felt like ze was appropriating an experience that isn’t truly hirs. And it struck me as one of the ways that autistic people, particularly adults, are frequently de-centralised from conversations about autism. There’s a lot of stories from the perspectives of parents and caregivers talking about the struggles they’ve dealt with, how hard it is to have a family member with autism, and I don’t want to discount that it does profoundly affect their lives. But there are far fewer stories that look at what it’s like to be autistic, and when someone does try to get inside of that experience it tends to be in a fairly clinical way, not from a perspective of personal experience. It’s largely the families of autistics who drive the conversation, making autistics themselves secondary characters to the stories of their own lives.

I also noted that the person used the word ‘child’, not ‘person’. Since the conversation tends to be driven by parents, it tends to be centered on issues about how to help children, since that’s their particular concern–sadly, this isn’t confined to the autism community but extends other disability communities as well. While there’s been some advances in developing programs to help children transition into adulthood, there really isn’t much out there once you’re past school age, and those transitional programs aren’t helpful if you’re already an adult when you get diagnosed. Being diagnosed has been helpful in connecting me to a community about people like me, and I try to contribute by relating my experiences, hoping to help improve the lives of those behind me. It doesn’t feel like much, and I often wish I could do more. It’s hard to feel too guilty about doing so little, though, because the truth is that the community offers me even less in return. Autistic children tend to get de-centralised from the conversation, but autistic adults are almost entirely invisible.

If I can’t fit in in spaces that concern people like myself, where can I belong?

Selfishness, Survival and the Sith Empire

Note: While this post uses a question of personal theology as a jumping off point, at its core it is not a theological post and I hope that everyone will find it worth reading regardless of their personal belief system.

I’ve been thinking a bit about God’s plan for humanity lately. I firmly believe that our purpose here on Earth is self-improvement, both as individuals and as a species. That belief does raise something of a question, though, in that, is there another path towards perfection? Could a species develop along individualist lines, rather than communal ones, and attain the same goal? The more I think about it, the less I think that’s possible, and my primary example of why comes from Star Wars.

There’s something of a truism in fiction that good is hampered by its need to be good, while evil can exist without the restraints of needing to worry about collateral damage. This is a trope frequently found in superhero fiction, where the villain will often set up a situations where the hero must choose between saving innocents and catching the villain. Usually this ends with the hero choosing the former, leaving the villain free to raise havoc another day and provide the writers loose ends to write new narratives with. But that’s a very individual narrative–a single or small group of villains versus a single or small group of heroes. The Sith Empire of the Star Wars extended universe provides something of a different tale. The Sith creed is based on personal pursuit of power, selfishness, and the idea that the strong survive. And in terms of pure power, the Empire is probably much stronger than the Republic. If they ever brought the full force of their military might against the Republic, they’d most likely win quite easily.

The problem is that the siths’ strength as individuals is their weakness as a collective. Much of their strategy and power is turned not against their enemies but each other, as various sith jockey for power and position. A lack of ability to work together is the least of their problems–much time and care needs to be taken to both shore up one’s own position as well as to undermine the position of others, much to the chagrin of the regular military who see their strength wasted, weakened, or outright destroyed as a result of the political machinations of the sith. The weak suffer under this system, being lucky to simply survive, but the strong are hampered as well. A dishonest individual in a group of honest ones can easily work things to hir advantage, but a group of dishonest individuals act as checks on each other, holding both individuals and the group back as effort that could be used in constructive ways is redirected against other members of the group.

I’ve written about my issues with the ‘rugged individualist’ philosophy before. A large part of my problems with it comes from how it ignores those without power, hurting most those who can do the least about it. But it also holds us back collectively. While the Sith Empire is something of an extreme example, with individuals constantly undermining each other, even passively not working together is a hindrance. When security is not assured, one must spend extra effort to provide it for oneself. Instead of building structures that help everyone rise to their potential, individuals are forced to put in extra effort to build the supports that are lacking, without those supports even being available to the next person. Social supports help individuals, but it also helps society by shifting focus away from avoiding the worst to attaining the best.

Pride goeth…

Today I had one of those “No wonder I’m depressed” moments. I was reading through a podcast transcript on Imposter Syndrome, and there’s a short aside about telling people they’re smart versus telling them they worked hard, and I came across this gem.

Chuck: My mom basically told me whenever I’d come home complaining about the other kids at school, that they were jealous of me because I was smarter than them. And that that’s why I was being picked on. So, I not only got the, “You’re smart” reinforcement, but then I got the “And it’s causing you problems” reinforcement. So, I didn’t really know which way to go with it, because I wanted to be smart and I identified with being smart, but then I wanted to be accepted too. And being accepted and being smart were mutually exclusive.

I can so relate.

I’ve said before that I’ve always struggled with social issues, but the severity of that struggle has varied over time. Fourth grade was when things really hit the fan for me and I went from passively unpopular to actively bullied. And of course, this was one of the things I was told to try and cheer me up, that the other children were just jealous of me. Like pretty much everything I was told on this subject, I never believed it (which is probably a good thing–much of the advice I got was rather depressing if you think about it very much). There’s two negative aspects to this kind of advice–first, it makes it the victim’s fault that they’re being bullied. There’s a lot of advice of this stripe going around, and all of it misses the point that someone else is choosing to be a bully. The other negative aspect, specific to this variant, is that it takes one of a person’s good qualities, something most of us aspire to, and turns it into something bad.

While I never believed that the people actively picking on me were jealous, that doesn’t mean no one was though, and my last few years of high school proved this. Because I wasn’t just one of the smart kids. I was the smart kid who didn’t study and finished her work in half the time the other kids at the top of the class got while pulling down the same grades. That didn’t win me any friends, and some people were sure to point this out, asking me how I managed it (not that I had a real answer). At that point in my life I didn’t have a lot going for me, and my grades were pretty much the single objective proof that I had any redeeming qualities. And I learned to downplay them. One of the only things I had that I could take pride in, to reassure myself that I wasn’t a total loser, I couldn’t take pride in. Not publicly, anyways. Sure, I got affirmation from the adults in my life, but from my peers? One of the few good things I had was a source of solely negative attention from them. And that’s just plain messed up.

Women, video games, and sexism. Again.

I really admire Anita Sarkeesian, if for no other reason than that she continues to do what she does after all the crap that gets heaped on her by the gaming community. In today’s episode of Let’s Be Entitled Because We’re Male And Women Don’t Game, Anita posted a tweet noting that every Xbox One game shown off at E3 featured a male protagonist. The reaction was sadly predictable, from calling Anita a cunt and a bitch to asserting that men are the largest demographic (true, but less so than people like this tend to make it sound) to asking if we were expecting games about stereotypically feminine stuff. I’m going to skip over the early ones she posted because they’re mostly just generic sexist name calling and highlight some of the later examples which try to be intelligent but manage to miss the point oh so badly.

#31–Didn’t realise you were entitled to games w/ a female protag. They can make whatever they want. Check your fucking privilege Anita

A man, telling a woman who is noting the lack of female leads in video games, to check her privilege? The irony is so deep you could drown in it. And yes, they can make whatever they want. But generally, what they want is to please gamers so we keep buying their products, making what they want what we want. And some of us want more female leads.

#32–Yeah, the gender of the protagonist really makes or breaks the quality of a video game. Said no one outside of victim culture ever

Oh fun, the victim culture card! I think I just got bingo.

To be fair, he’s right, it doesn’t make or break the experience. But it can make it better or worse. And as a female gamer, playing games that realize I exist is a better experience than playing one clearly aimed at a purely male audience.

#37–Calm your tits! There will be a new Tomb Raider eventually, and a Mass Effect with FemShep. You women are nuts!

Gratuitous reference to female anatomy. Nice touch there. Also a nice touch noting two major franchises that ‘feature’ a female protagonist (I use quotes because Mass Effect gives the option, but you can also play as male). But there aren’t a lot of those around, especially if you’re looking at games that have a set lead, rather than a gender toggle. I doubt this guy would be happy if I told him “Don’t worry, there will be a new Halo game and Saint’s Row with a MaleBoss soon” if the situation was reversed. Women deserve better than a few token options.

#39–Stop being sexist. Dictating to people that a game should have a particular gender lead role is childish. It’s whatever fits the game

Forget bingo, I think I’m going for a blackout. Also, isn’t it interesting how ‘whatever fits the game’ is almost universally male, especially when we’re talking about big titles from major developers? It’s almost like there’s some sort of bias against women going on…

#40–It’s roleplaying, ho cares about the gender of the character who cares about the gender of the character you play as?

Apparently someone does, given how many people flip out when it’s suggested that there be more female leads.

#47–Get over yourself. Women make up a small part of their demographic. Your tastes are obscure and unprofitable. Nothing else to it.

1) We’re not that small of a demographic.

2) Given how most games are designed and marketed with men in mind, it’s not like they’re inviting us to buy their stuff.

3) Unprofitable? See Tomb Raider above.

#48–Almost like they wanted relatable main characters

I want that too. You know what would make them more relatable? If their gender matched mine once in a while.

“Better” requires a “worse”

Some people don’t seem to think through the implications of what they’re saying. Take Maggie Gallagher. Now I understand why she’s saying what she’s saying–anti-marriage-equality folks are trying to make their message more palatable by showing that they don’t have anything against same-sex couples, just that they think their way is better.

Ultimately, though, they can’t.

“It is possible to affirm an ideal without stigmatizing the alternatives — to affirm in the positive without pushing the negative.”

The problem with the new spin people like Gallagher are trying to put on being pro-“traditional”-marriage is that it always comes down to placing opposite-sex relationships as being better than same-sex relationships. It’s relational–the idea isn’t that same-sex relationships are bad, just that opposite-sex ones are better. And when you’re making it relational, there’s no way to push the positive of one without putting a negative connotation on the other. If “traditional” marriage is better, than “non-traditional” marriage has to be, if not bad, at least worse. This is implicit in the messaging, and they can push the positive aspects all they want but they will never be able to avoid the negative messages about non-straight couples and the stigma they create because it’s inherent to the message.

It would be one thing if they were simply trying to say that they thought opposite-sex relationships were good–being in one myself, there’s no way I could argue–because it doesn’t carry the implicit meaning that same-sex relationships are bad (though, to be fair, most people who bother with saying the former DO mean the latter). It’s possible for multiple options to be good. But once you start using words like “ideal” you’ve created a scenario where anything else is at least somewhat negative, and human beings tend to be bad at understanding that “not ideal” isn’t the same as “bad”. So no, Gallagher, you cannot affirm the positive without pushing the negative, because as long as you’re placing one thing as “better” you will equally be saying that any alternative is “worse”. And it’s that last part that people are upset about.

Depression isn’t really about being depressed

I ran across a post on Hyperbole and a Half talking about her history dealing with depression. My own story diverges from hers a lot in some ways–I never hit quite such a low point (though how I managed that I can only attribute to sheer stubbornness) and things were such a slow, mild descent that people didn’t really seem to notice that anything was wrong (my mother’s initial response was that I didn’t seem depressed) so I didn’t deal with efforts to ‘cheer me up’. It took flunking school and a teacher telling me “you need help” for me to finally admit that the signs I’d been noticing for years were indicative of a larger problem that needed to be addressed, not just ignored and pushed through.

Her description of depression though, no longer being able to enjoy anything, was spot on with my own experience. To put in in my own words, think of the one thing that makes you happy, that more than anything else brings joy to your life, that you can count on to pick you up when you’re feeling down. Now imagine that thing no longer having any effect on you. That was me at my worst.

People generally aren’t great at understanding mental illness. That’s not surprising, as in some ways the difference between normal variation and actual issues in need of professional attention come down to how much of a problem they’re causing. So it doesn’t surprise me that some people seem to think of depression as simply being sad, but IME that doesn’t really encompass what it is. I’ve struggled with social issues my whole life, so in some ways I’ve always been depressed, but the difference between that and having a clinical diagnosis of depression is kind of like being wet versus being underwater. I wasn’t just unhappy, I was unable to be happy. The enjoyment had been sucked out of everything in my life, to the point where I wasn’t doing much more than simply existing because I couldn’t be bothered to do anything more. And it’s something of a self-reinforcing cycle–a common piece of advice is to keep busy (which DOES help), but if nothing is enjoyable then it’s hard to motivate yourself into any sort of activity.

One other thing that stuck out to me was a comment about always wanting to not care anymore, and finally getting there. I think that’s a state we’d all like to be in, to feel secure enough in ourselves and care little enough about other people to be able to brush stuff off, a Hyde-like ‘zen’. What I got wasn’t that. It was a lack of caring brought upon by despair, from feeling like nothing I did made any real difference so what did it matter anyways? That’s a pit of its own, and in no way a good place to be.

Although things are a lot better for me now, I’m still dealing with these things in lesser amounts, and I always will. Even with treatment I need to actively work at times to keep from falling back into depressed moods where I no longer care. While happiness is again a possibility for me, the darkness still lurks and is still capable of dragging me into places I don’t want to be in the right circumstances. I want people to understand that depression–clinical depression–isn’t just about feeling sad. It’s about feeling hopeless, and that’s far harder to shake than simply being down. If you know someone like this, don’t try and get them to ‘snap out of it’–if anything that’ll just make them feel worse when they inevitably are unable to do so. Encourage them to seek the professional help they need. I know a lot of people see this as a sign of weakness, especially in our individualistic society that puts self-reliance on a pedestal, but this is too big a problem for anyone to deal with on their own, and too important to try and deal with without trained support. This goes for any mental illness, really. Be supportive of people getting the help they need to feel better, because no matter what they deserve that.