“You should care about this thing I don’t.”

The politics of the last year have clarified a lot of things for a lot of people. For me, it’s the futility of the argument that comes of the form “you should care about this thing I don’t. I can see why it feels like a winner. It looks like a slam-dunk! By my values, this person or thing is bad for x reasons–and by your values, this person or thing is bad for y reasons–and therefore even though we do not agree, we should both oppose this person or thing! Yay! Logic prevails and everyone emerges better off!

Here’s where this goes wrong: 1) Making an argument that something you don’t care about should be important to someone else is hardly ever convincing. Quite often you don’t understand the nuances of what it is they care about fully since it’s not your thing. Even when you do, it’s hard to put your back into the argument since it’s not your thing. “But you said!” does not sound sharp and politically savvy, it sounds like you are 6 years old and trying to get another 10 minutes before bedtime. “But you said you believed in family values, you said!” Even if they did say. Being technically correct that they did say does not change the other person’s position.

2) Let’s say you win! “You’re right!” says the other person. “I will bump this thing you don’t value up my priority queue for decision-making in future!” Oh…good…now you’ve reinforced that people should not be allowed to flee abusive marriages, or that we should all spend a lot of time angry about what color the president’s suit is, or any of a number of other things that you don’t believe.

I’ve seen people do this across the political spectrum, and it basically never works. When people say “find common ground,” this is not actually what they mean. They mean the points where you can honestly mean it when you say, “I think we can agree that this is important. I think this deserves your attention.”

When I was taking my first high school debate class, my debate coach (who was otherwise great) got really excited about gotcha questions, “when did you stop beating your wife” questions. He acted like they would be a key skill. But gotcha questions in debates were pretty rare, and they were only as good as your opponent’s willingness to run with them, which was usually pretty minimal. In real life they’re even less useful, because literally nothing forces any human brain–including mine, including yours–to be internally consistent. I suspect that this is what we find so appealing about the stories where robots and computers can be done in with a logical paradox: it’s because we can’t. Finding a gotcha where your sibling, your next-door neighbor, your co-worker has said they believe in one thing politically and then are supporting someone who does another thing–or are even doing another thing themselves–does not force them to say, “You’re right, I will change my position on one of these two things.” Let’s find things we really do value in common–or find ways to maneuver around the people who don’t. Because “you ought to react this way” has never once gotten a person to react in the specified way.

The first question

I have a favor to ask. There are a lot of difficult conversations in this world right now, and I would like to ask you to pay attention to the first question you ask in those difficult conversations. Because it often gives a sense of your priorities–and sometimes it gives a sense of your priorities that is not the one you want.

Let me give you a couple of examples. When we’re talking about sexual harassment at conventions, if your first question is, “What do we do about the false reports?”, that tells me something very different than if your first question is, “How do we make sure that people trust us enough to report?” or “How do we keep clear records so that all the information we need is preserved?” And do I think, “I bet it’s because the people who are asking about false reports already have thorough answers to those other questions”? HAHAHA YEAH SURE I DO.

Similarly, disability and accessibility. If your first question is, “What about the times when accessibility needs conflict?”–and oh Lordy, that is so often the first question–that tells me so very very much about your priorities. And what it tells me is not great, frankly. Because again, I promise: the people and organizations who have this as their first question about disability and accessibility are not people and organizations who have smoothly and effortlessly handled all the first-tier, obvious accessibility needs and are now moving on to the hard ones.

Yeah, I know, sometimes the first thing that pops out of your head is something trivial, something random. I don’t think these examples are that. They’re too consistent to be random, and if you think they represent something trivial, you’ve probably never been on the wrong end of them.

Try to make sure your first question is not, “How do I put this problem back on the people who have been bearing the brunt of it all along?”, actually. That’s pretty important.

Oh, and if your stunningly insightful political question that “no one” is asking boils down to, “What if this group of people is actually just inferior? what if they just suck?”–guess what? It turns out people have asked that before. It turns out people ask that a lot. You are not new, you are not insightful, you are not hard-hitting. You’re just being an asshole. Social scientists have done a lot of research into whether one gender, one race, one ethnicity, etc. etc. etc. is inherently inferior to others, and it turns out that the scientific answer is, NO, AND ALSO STOP BEING SUCH AN ASSHOLE.

“This is so topical!” and chasing trends

I have seen several people on Twitter trying to keep tabs on everything President Trump has done in a given week. This really, really highlights the problem with trying to chase trends and write to be topical: by the time your sharp, satirical story is available to the public–even if you self-publish on the spot with minimal revisions, the more so if you revise and find a traditional publisher–there will be three, four, ten fresher outrages. What was the scandal or gaffe in the Trump presidential campaign a year ago? Too late now, onward.

Which is not to say that there’s no room for political comment, but the more specific it is, the worse it will age. There are times when things start to look specific in context–I trunked a partial story that depended on the villainy of deporting ethnic and religious minorities. I still feel that that’s pretty villainous, but the rest of the shape of this story was not meant to comment on the current regime, and there’s no way it won’t look like it was trying under the current circumstances. And with a story I did sell, the editor and I worked on it to make sure that incidental things I came up with in January 2016 did not look like heavy-handed references to the current day. Instead they are light-handed references to the current day! Much better. Seriously. Much.

I guess what I’m saying is: big ideas weather better than small details. Principles weather better than current events in-jokes. “I am really mad at this current problem” is not the same thing as “I will cash in on this current craze”…except they lead to a lot of the same pitfalls, so tread warily.

Preexisting

I’m pretty sure I’m preaching to the choir with this, but the thing about preaching to the choir is that sometimes you get at an angle of analysis the choir hasn’t been using. I have heard a lot of “depriving people of health care is bad” arguments that are absolutely true, but not a lot of the following.

So let’s talk about preexisting conditions.

You know those commercials that tell you to tell your doctor if you’re suffering from dropsy, the vapors, or a dozen other conditions that make you think, “Shouldn’t my doctor know that already”? Under the current system, where people can’t be dropped from all insurance possibilities based on a preexisting condition, those notifications are necessary because record-keeping and institutional memory are imperfect. Your doctor should know that already, but they may now, so: probably mention it, huh.

But if you can be dropped based on a preexisting condition, it takes on a whole new meaning. “Tell your doctor if you have a history of respiratory infections”: right, so your doctor can write down “history of respiratory infections” in the course of figuring out what drug to give you for something different, and boom, there you are with that tag on you, and who knows what the consequences will be. Your doctor needs to know this stuff to figure out how to treat you–sometimes to figure out a subtle cause or contributing factor to what you have right now–but you suddenly have incentive not to tell them. Healthy as an ox, me, just this sprained ankle to deal with! Something very temporary! Oh please don’t tell them I have anything non-temporary. Please ignore the anemia. Do not test my thyroid. Forget the anxiety. I just won’t get treated for the life-altering allergies. Only deal with the condition I tell you I’m in here for. For heaven’s sake don’t run any tests because you caught a murmur listening to my heart or my blood pressure is behaving funny. That’s all the sprained ankle. Has to be. And let’s wait until whatever else there is has caused permanent damage, because that’s the point at which it’s too bad to ignore.

I’m not saying this hasn’t happened under the current system. It does. Of course it does. We should be moving away from it, not towards more.

And this is all bad enough when we’re talking about a heart condition, or depression, or, well, any of a number of things. But when we’re talking about something contagious, all of a sudden it’s more than a dangerous calculation for one person–it’s a dangerous calculation for the people around them, too. Is what you have bad enough to disclose and get treatment, or should you just cope with it and keep passing it along to others? I should not have to say that this is not a good system. This attitude often gets billed as “be a smart consumer of health care,” but in this case a stingy consumer of health care is the opposite of a smart one.

But that’s not the only thing pushing people toward dangerous medical dishonesty in the current political climate. There are lawsuits wending their way through the courts claiming that doctors should not have to treat people who have certain sexual orientations. So not only the questions that pertain to your sexual health but also the ones about the rest of your life health–“Do you feel safe in your relationships?” is one of my favorites–are now extremely dangerous. Not just for getting dumped from insurance, although let’s not underestimate the impact of that. But for being rejected for emergency treatment even if you pay the entire gigantic bill out of pocket.

Last week a family member made a Facebook post of a meme saying that while other people freaked out in favor of or against Donald Trump, he was just going to keep doing what he always did. The people who connect me to that family member each have quite large preexisting conditions that can no longer be hidden–one of them was treated on an emergent basis, both of them are in the records. And of course there’s me and my giant flashing neon sign that reads “preexisting condition.” So…”keep doing what I always do” is not actually a functional mode here for his own family. It’s certainly not a functional mode for the country.

Self-care and social media

Last weekend I was at ConFusion in Detroit, which I told you I would be. And it was lovely and I had a great time, hurrah. I will probably want to talk about some things inspired by the panels I was on or witnessed, but that’s in a little bit. Right now I wanted to say: I do not have the passwords to my social media accounts on my laptop, and on my phone I only have the password to my Twitter.

This is deliberate, and I wanted to talk about it this week especially. Not being on Facebook for the weekend of the inauguration was definitely what is known in technical terms as a really great thing. But even if it hadn’t been the inauguration specifically, I find that taking breaks from social media periodically is a good idea. It helps me to see what I might be taking for granted otherwise. It gives me mental space. When I’m traveling, I can’t default to doing the laundry/unloading the dishwasher/checking Slack/taking out the recycling/checking Facebook/etc. I have some separation from all of that. I try to be sparing in my use of Twitter at those times.

This is hard for people in my life to remember. “Did you see the picture of–” No. I didn’t. Because I’m not on social media when I’m traveling. “I really loved X’s post about Y, did you–” No. Not on social media. It’s not up to other people to keep track of my computer quirks. But what their comments do is remind me of how submerged in social media I can be on a regular day. How obvious it is that someone will have seen the picture of and read the post about. Because that’s what we do.

It’s not wrong that that’s what we do. Social media is not bad. But taking it for granted, never taking a moment to asses its role in our lives–well, I can’t think of anything that’s a good plan for.

Maybe if I had kept reading social media all weekend, the sheer volume of political speech going on at the moment would have crept up on me. I’m part of that; I have been more overtly political in public social media in the last year than ever before. But suddenly the Twitter feed that used to be book release/politics/cute dogs/science news/personal yammering is politics/books maybe/politics/politics/politics/oh please give me some cute dogs/politics. Should I curate it differently? Spend less time on it? I don’t know. But whatever the answer is, I should be aware of the shift in balance. I should arrive an answer that is conscious of where and how political energy/focus is expended and not confuse it for happy fluffy things or interactions with friends just because it’s coming through the same channel those used to (and may again).

Occasional breaks help me do that. And for me it helps that they are coincidental: not me sitting down with a schedule and saying, “This is the right time and the right duration,” but chance handing me the opportunity to reevaluate. Maybe it’ll work that way for you. Maybe it won’t. But I think we have a strong cultural bias at the moment that staying up to the minute on news is what smart, engaged people do, and I don’t think it has to be like that for every single minute. Sometimes rest, perspective, and a chance to look for depth are called for.

The work of optimism

My friend Fran Wilde said this week, “Do not hesitate to speak up for the reality you wish to live in. Don’t live in silence or fear. Those are really crappy universes.”

They are.

Having an optimistic imagination as a professional skill is hard work right now. It’s never actually trivial, but when the people around you are all muttering, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” and you know exactly what they mean, it’s hard to turn from that to creating entire worlds from scratch with hope as a major component.

Hard, but important.

Hard, but necessary.

But hard. Did I mention hard?

I’m working on three things at the moment, two of which have other people involved in one role or another, so that’s taking up a lot of my time and energy. And rightly so. But every day this week I have made sure to write some number of words on the third project, which is an optimistic science fiction novel.

That’s not to say that it’s teddy bear picnic science fiction. Lots of dreadful things happen. Some of the characters are–brace yourselves–not all that cuddly. But many of them–most of them–are making at least some effort to solve problems and treat each other decently. Even if they don’t always agree on what’s a problem and what’s a solution. Even if they don’t always agree on what decent treatment would entail. It is science fiction about people who are trying. It is science fiction for adults. About people who are trying.

Did I mention that this is hard work? because it is. And combining the difficulty of it with the other projects I have going on means that I’m not writing reams at a time on this thing. A couple hundred words a day is all I’m getting for now. But I can see the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel with the other projects. I’m getting them toward a point where I can pass them back to the other professionals involved, and my main project focus can be optimistic science fiction novel for awhile.

And you know what? I think it’s good for me. I think that making this effort, doing this hard work–putting in the energy to imagine doing some good, putting in the energy to imagine doing better–is a bit like working out. You get better at it. You find more capacity in yourself the more you do of it. And you find more challenges, places where your previous skillset would have been insufficient, but now you can manage, you can just barely manage.

I know that some people find that writing about terrible universes is their way of trying to avoid living in one. And that’s fair. Saying, “OH GOD NOT LIKE THIS” is valid both as art form and as approach to improving the world, to the extent that the two are separable. It’s just that it’s not the only valid approach. And honestly right now I think it’s the easy way out, and if we’re going to have some balance, some of us are going to have to take the hard way. Some of us are going to have to imagine realities we would rather live in, and then speak up for them.

A little bit a day will do.

In a good cause: choices for Aleppo

Some of the most annoying words in the language are, “You know what you should have done….” Or, “You should just….” “Just.” There are some situations where “only” and “just” should be stricken from the conversation.

The crisis in Syria is on that list. The people who are on the ground there know what factors they have to deal with–their health, their resources, people who cannot be abandoned and need care–and the last thing they need is for me to sit here comfortably in my non-threatened home and tell them how things would be fine if only they’d chosen what I imagine I would choose.

Which is one reason I like the Karam Foundation’s Emergency Aid for Children of Syria. They have options to support the families who are leaving Syria as refugees and options to support the families who are staying under the airstrikes, where schools and hospitals are getting hit as well as homes and other institutions. Individuals and families don’t all have to make the same choice–they don’t all have the same choices. Stay or go, the situation is grim, and they need help.

The International Rescue Committee is also providing aid, and they give some really grim statistics about who has gotten out, who is still trying to, where the funds are. I just found out this morning that there is a friend-of-a-friend connection to this organization, and it looks like they do really good work.

One of the strangely hard things about writing these charity posts is that lecturing you about how bad things are is not my goal, and yet holy crud are they bad. This has all been understated, but it has to be; the situation is hard to overstate. So I’m choosing to focus on the organizations as much as I can: here, here’s a good bit, here’s a thing that will make a difference for somebody. It’s what I’ve got right now.

In a good cause: for science!

I suspect that everyone who reads this blog knows that science is a strong and passionate interest of mine. Science! Because it works! Science! Because it’s built to incorporate new information when new information is available, and to provide tools for making it available! Science! Well. I don’t think you’re the people who need convincing.

But there are people who need convincing, because our president-elect has just been making noise about “nobody knows” whether climate change is real. Oh, sure, nobody except a vast consensus of scientists and a still more vast consensus of scientists whose fields are relevant to it. And the people who listen to them and read their papers and look at data. But other than that, nobody.

It’s a really good time to support science with a public face. Science playing a role in civic affairs. Science trying to shake us all by the shoulders and say “LISTEN UP BUDDY THIS IS SERIOUS.” This is why this week’s charity Union of Concerned Scientists. http://www.ucsusa.org/ Tons of scientists doing tons of work in a democratic society, towards a democratic society. Worth the time and attention. Go. Support. For science.

In a good cause: autism resources

A lot of charities for health variants assume that those health variants are illnesses or disabilities. And a lot of them are. And some of them aren’t. One of my metrics for whether I’m willing to support a group that’s “about” autism is whether they automatically assume that it’s a disease, a disability, a flaw. I’m a non-autistic/neurotypical person, but I have several autistic people dear to my heart, and they’re different from me, not flawed in the way that my balance disorder is a flaw. They process differently than I do. I’m really glad to see the word “neurodiversity” in the world, because I think having different modes of thought, different perspectives, is a positive good, and some of those are about brain wiring, not just philosophy. Sometimes we’re using a metaphor when we say that someone sees the world differently. Sometimes if you’re measuring, for example, discrimination between number of fine lines per inch, it’s really quite literal and you can poke it. And seeing the world in more than one way helps all of us.

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) is one of my favorite resources for this philosophy. With the motto “nothing about us without us,” they form a solid opposition to the kind of rhetoric that treats autistic people as objects, and inconvenient objects at that. Website is http://autisticadvocacy.org/

(I am putting websites in text right now because WordPress ate my link yesterday. Sigh.)

Autism Housing Network definitely inclines toward the portions of the autism spectrum that are more clearly disabilities, or at least are disabilities under our current society. But people with those types of autism do need choices for where and how to live as adults. http://www.autismhousingnetwork.org/ has been recommended to me as a good resource for people struggling with those choices.

I would be glad to hear about other organizations that support neurodiversity in our broader culture, with a clear focus on not treating difference as a problem to be eliminated or solved. Or, as always, any other charities near and dear to your heart can go in the comments section, too.

In a good cause: NoDAPL and other Native Rights

Sometimes the obvious thing is the right thing. The NoDAPL movement–opposing the Dakota Access Pipeline–is something a lot of my friends are thinking about, talking about, wondering how to help with. So it may seem a little obvious. But obvious is sometimes right. And I think that–for example–the difficulties of reservation law enforcement in dealing with white people who commit crimes on the reservation are not necessarily obvious to people who don’t want to think about it. They’re only well-known in certain circles. So: Native rights, justice for Native people both at Standing Rock and elsewhere: generally a good cause.

Let’s start with Native American Rights Fund. They support a broad range of causes–government accountability, preservation of resources, individual rights and justice–with an ongoing umbrella organization that will not only help the people at Standing Rock, they’ll help the people at the next Standing Rock. And try to prevent the next one from happening in the first place.

Last week for Thanksgiving there were several round-up posts about what you can do, if you don’t want to go from site to site. Here’s one. And another. Please remember that if you’re going to go participate in the protests yourself, you want it to be about what the people there need, not about your own spiritual journey. (Actually that’s a good focus for any charitable/volunteer work.)

There are also individual camps taking donations, so you can take your pick: Oceti Sakowin camp; Sacred Stone Camp; Standing Rock Rosebud Camp; Red Warrior Camp. And hey. This pipeline was judged not safe enough to go through the predominantly white areas–that is, not safe enough for my cousins. So why is it safe enough for someone else’s? It isn’t. This pipeline is being built by people with some of the worst oil pipeline leak records in the country. The other question to ask is: what have I done, actively, to be a good neighbor to my Indian/Native American/First Nations neighbors? Because we are long past the point where “I didn’t personally go kick them in the shins” is enough.