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“They tell you to be yourself & then they judge you”

March 21, 2012

One I couldn’t resist sharing, partly because it ties in a little too well with a recent post. Via James Overheul, on G+:

They tell you to be yourself & then they judge you

Description: A person stands with arms held up in front of them, reaching toward the camera, hands crossed defensively. Focus is on the hands, which fill much of the frame. Text written on the palm of one hand, in all caps: "They tell you to be yourself & then they judge you"

I will add that the hackneyed advice to “be yourself” always confused me. (Beyond some of the reactions to my difficulties even pretending otherwise, yeah.) It only makes sense within certain–AFAICT, more instrumental-modeled–social settings. Who else are you going to be?! It kind of assumes layers of masks, and the kind of instrumental view of relationships with other people and world at large that came up in a recent post. The same with “finding yourself”; without the pressure to use masks to achieve each particular goal, you’re unlikely to get “lost” like that in the first place.

Booger mask. "mask dated 1900/North Carolina Museum of History Access 1916.55.1"

Source: The Cherokee Booger Dance, at A little more context:  from  the University of Pennsylvania Museum Archives blog. You may as well take some of the sting out with humor, and a lot of disruptive forces really don’t like getting laughed at.

It also ties in with another observation from Robert K. Thomas, which I could identify with (substituting some problems with verbal communication and getting understood for speaking a different language at home, even):

When I was a little kid I went to school. After a couple of years I could understand the language of my white teacher. One day she said to me, “What are you going to be when you grow up, Bobby?” I didn’t know what she meant. I mean, what’s there to be? Bigger? Well, of course, that wasn’t what she was really asking me. She was asking me what occupational goal are you going to choose after which to model and create your self. Later she said, “Bobby, you are an awfull~bright boy, but you will never be able to better yourself here in eastern Oklahoma. You will have to leave here.” I studied what that might mean. I thought, perhaps, that it might mean that my kinfolk, and thus my own self, weren’t any good. Why else would I have to leave? “Because, she said, “there’s no opportunity here.” Not the opportunity for what? Well, to “better” myself by working toward that occupational goal!

In tribal groups not only is the human being seen as fixed, but a child has an innate feeling of self-worth, just by virtue of those kin circumstances…

[Interesting observations about stages of socialization, and how that idea–or the idea of that process ever ending–doesn’t necessarily make sense in this context. Which carries a lot of implications for universalist approaches in psychology, among other things,]

That “bettering yourself” idea is also sometimes phrased as “being somebody”. And, with the “might mean that my kinfolk, and thus my own self, weren’t any good” bit, once you get into that model of “being somebody” or “making something of yourself”–if they are not doing/”being” what is considered to be “bettering”/”Somebody”, they are not any good. They are viewed as actively making themselves into something Bad. I had to learn that one the hard way, yeah. (I personally got some not-so-subtle messages that in order to Be Somebody and Better Myself, I needed to throw off the scurf of my whole substandard background and origins. Yeah, ouch.)

You can maybe see how this applies across contexts, including the idea that if someone is not following the culturally mandated One True Life Trajectory–doing “legitimate” paid work, heterosexual marriage, having kids, etc.–they must have a Bad Quality of Life (and deserve whatever pressure/”behavioral interventions” it takes to create the illusion of bringing them into line, For Their Own Good). And they might not even really be people deserving the same kind of respect as the ones who do come closer to following this prescribed trajectory.

That can happen when you confuse/conflate “being” and “doing”, throw in some created hierarchies, and get prescriptive and judgmental with it.

Given a sufficiently tightly defined ideal life trajectory, and the number of actions each of us takes, there is an astounding potential for perceived “deviancy” and abusing people over red dust* (in closer to the”sound and fury, signifying nothing”# sense).

This also goes back to the related  post, and the gender-related direction it ended up taking. What I am trying to write about here has an awful lot to do with my dissatisfaction with the need for so many labels which are largely based on Doing. And the whole idea that our identities are necessarily based–and to some extent, should be based–on some kind of constant performance which frankly still sounds exhausting to me. (Enter prescriptive versions of the gender binary, and all the freaking policing that goes on. Even in some communities which try to reject the prescriptivism. *sigh*) Even though a lot of people who don’t match up with the prescribed gender/sexuality trajectories there are purposely making distinctions between core identity and performance, common conceptions of how this all works are necessarily based on/in reaction to some of the same assumptions that confuse/conflate Being and Doing. And the basic idea that who you are is, in part, a product of external presentation and behavior–in a way that still too often leaves very little room for things to be unmarked or neutral. I’m having a hard time wrapping words around the ideas here in a way that satisfies me, but I hope this makes some sense. Hopefully, I will be able to explain what I’m thinking more coherently and in greater detail in another post.

Most of those dynamics do not apply just to gender/sexuality, BTW, but are particularly obvious there with the “brick wall” importance placed on these constructions.

But, indeed, this also raises the problem (IMO) of people feeling a need to set up aspects of their identities in direct binary opposition to what other people are Doing, usually complete with vilification used to bolster this fragile sense of identity. I was gobsmacked when I figured out that a lot of people really are doing this, and often just think it’s “natural”/inevitable. No wonder it’s hard for some people to “find themselves”.

With any luck, I will also soon resurrect a mothballed draft which touches on the kinds of bloody messes, on a practical level, that can result when authoritarian brands of religion get thrown into this and used to support the same old “uniformly dystopian results, particularly from the point of view of those on the receiving end.”# (Also touching on why I do not/cannot identify with some strains of Western atheism which rely on the same philosophical underpinnings.)

Also, I think this approach to being/doing leads directly to the problem of “Impostor Syndrome”. From my commentary on a couple of links I shared about this pretty recently (which are well worth checking out):

I have had a lot of problems with this, and think there’s a lot of truth to what she says here. Especially when you have gotten the clear message that you need to fake relating to the world in ways which are just not natural to you–and, yeah, you may never “make it” in those respects, no matter how much success you have otherwise. I think this instilled doubt can transfer so that you feel like an impostor in other areas where you have been successful.

This can also be amplified by disability and/or different learning styles serving to undermine confidence in one’s most basic abilities, as is touched on here:

I have never worked in tech, having been roundly discouraged earlier (thanks to dyscalculia, which does not actually interfere). But, I could still relate to a lot of what she had to say.

IOW: the expectation of passing, in whatever way–in this case, to be seen doing the things that Real People do/”Being Somebody”–can cause major distress. And while some come closer to fitting the ideal that has been set up there, nobody can. It is impossible; that’s built in, like with other applications of that sort of ideal, such as beauty standards. Lots of room for feeling like an impostor, even in the role of Competent Adult Human Being Worth Listening To. (Yes, I have major problems with that one at times, and no wonder.)

And, part of the Thomas quote used in the  post, from the same paper:

But tribal groups don’t have that kind of self-doubt. For one thing, no tribal is creating their own self. You just are; you are finished and complete and whole and there you are. This is especially true of relatively unacculturated, “old times” tribal groups.

A lot of room for cognitive dissonance here, yes, with such different versions of the “Make-a-Human-Being-Kit”.

And, looking for a good link for that term, I ran across some related musings on “extelligence” and cultural change–with resulting dissonance–that I didn’t actually remember from The Science of Discworld (in this case, on one dodgy Russian e-book site). In part:

Extelligence has become so powerful and so influential that nowadays one generation’s culture may be radically different from the previous generation’s culture. Second-generation immigrants often have an even worse problem, a culture clash. They’ve grown up in the ‘new’ country, and they’ve absorbed how that country works. They speak the language far more fluently than their parents ever can, but they’ve still got to please their parents. When they’re at home, they have to behave in the manner of their original culture. But when they’re at school, they have to live in the new culture. This makes them feel distinctly uncomfortable, and that can break the cultural feedback loop. Once the loop is broken, parts of the cul­ture cease to be transmitted to the next generation: they drop out of the Make-a-Human-Being-Kit.

In this sense, extelligence is out of our control. It escaped our control when it became reproductive: extelligence being used to copy (bits of) extelligence.

This is a bit of a tangent, but it was too appropriate not to include. The main problem I have with the way this is presented, though, goes back around to the topic at hand: this does not happen totally coincidentally, with no human players involved. (Much like physical depopulation through epidemics, indeed.)

And it is also no accident that certain versions of a “Make-a-Human-Being-Kit” are influencing people all over the world, and it is hard to resist replacing other variations with this particular “extelligence”. Prescriptivism, universalism, Utopian thinking based around ideals, and a firm base of authoritarianism: close to the the heart of wétikoAll memes–and which types are most likely to propagate successfully? 😦

On the subject of the authoritarian tendencies which help prop this kind of mess up, there’s a thought-provoking comment from Woozle on G+, in response to a link I posted there to the  post. I still feel bad about not having gotten around to replying properly there, for a variety of mostly spoon-related reasons, but it brings up some interesting points.

Ooh, some interesting thoughts spinning off of this…

1. ‘ “as long as it isn’t socially destructive” can also be phrased as “if it isn’t hurting anyone”.’ — versus the idea that deviant behavior (violating one’s role) is inherently harmful

I find it interesting that when we examine moralistic ideas, we ultimately come down to discussing them in terms of whether they are harmful, whether they prevent harm, etc. This seems correct to me — morals should only exist as a kind of “ethical first-aid” (Dan Dennett’s phrase), a quick-and-dirty way to judge the appropriateness of an action in situations where you don’t have the resources to attempt a more complete cost-benefit analysis.

Even defenders of morality-based thinking will ultimately phrase their defenses of “moral” positions in terms of harm — “abortion is taking an innocent life”, “gay marriage will destroy the family”, and so on — but what I don’t know for sure is which of the following theories is true:

(a) the cost-benefit argument is inherent to human thought, while moralitarianism is an artificial layer imposed by culture
(b) the cost-benefit argument is window-dressing, an attempt to convince non-moralitarians in terms that the latter understands; the moralitarian themself does not actually care as much about cost-benefit as they do about following the rules.

The existence of these tribal cultures tends to support (b), I should think — although it’s also possible that perhaps people of European origin tend to be “wired” differently from American indigenous people…

2. Roles — using phrases like “the mother” or “the father” does rather imply that there had better be someone filling each of those roles or else something bad will happen, doesn’t it… which makes absolutely no allowance for human flexibility. When I use those phrases, it’s more like there’s a little footnote in my head that says something like “assuming that’s how this particular family operates”, but the cultural universality of the assumption does rather tend to squeeze out the idea that it could be any other way.

3. I like what you said about “person-first language”. We first ran into this phenomenon a few years ago while trying to get services for Harena’s profoundly autistic son — and for all the effort that went into making sure care plans were phrased and titled correctly, it never seemed like anything but a tool to distract us from how nearly nonexistent the mental health care system is.

In a way, the “idea that deviant behavior (violating one’s role) is inherently harmful” observation also inspired some of this post. Because that really is a major difference in ways of thinking–which very directly affects how you relate to other people and the world around you–which does not seem to get nearly the direct attention it deserves. I am usually stumped, trying to figure out how to bridge that particular gap and even get effective communication going. We really are not even thinking in the same terms, and one party forms part of their actual identity around being “firm” and “standing by their convictions”. This would not be nearly as challenging or pressing to deal with, if the moralitarianism did not include a responsibility to lay these “convictions” on everyone else.

Is it even possible, at a very basic level, for moralitarians to “turn to peace” when the very idea of that kind of progressive pragmatism is so very alien?

To bring this into contemporary thinking, if you say, “We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” you have taken away your own power. You have to negotiate with them; they are the people who are trying to kill you! But to negotiate with them, you have to acknowledge that they’re human. Acknowledging that they are human means acknowledging that they have failings, but you don’t concentrate on the failings. You concentrate on their humanity. You have to address their humanity if you’re going to have any hope of stopping the blood feud.

When the moralitarian outlook itself casts others who do not adhere to the exact same views and standards of behavior as not fully human–and insists that compromise is wrong–how is this even going to work? “Both idealism–the idea that God is on someone’s side–and vilification–the idea that one side is evil or fundamentally in the wrong–are barred from this process.” But, when large numbers of people seem to be basing much of their identities around these ideas… 😐

As for the ‘tend to be “wired” differently’ possibility raised, this kind of thing is something I have been thinking about, trying to figure out how to tackle post(s) on xenophobia as a learned thing. Neuroplasticity ties in there, and the horrible-to-me realization that it is extremely plausible that people can think their brains into ruts that are very hard to get out of, and this might explain way too much about why some harmful ways of thinking are so entrenched. Because certain ways of thinking which encourage rigid, low-on-complexity approaches (like the moralitarianism) may actually make it difficult to process complex/conflicting information without sending it through certain reductive paths on an actual neural level. And that helps turn it self-replicating, in a GIGO kind of way. This is only amplified by the tendencies in some strains of this to “protect” children from information which might “confuse” them, as part of moralitarian education.

Part of the reason I’ve held off is that I do not know enough neuroscience to talk on anything but very vague terms. But, yeah, trying to piece together some semi-coherent patterns from decent research. (Part of this line of thought was inspired by Cordelia Fine; the amount of gender-related neurononsense out there really is staggering.) Of course, I may be totally off-base.

That set of differences in basic orientation to the world is also pretty much central to the religion and “moralism used to justify some pretty amazing behavior” draft I mentioned earlier. Maybe I will have the spoons available to work more on it tonight.

And, on that note, another I recently reshared elsewhere, with some commentary: FOCUS: The Santorum Strategy (“The Republican presidential campaign is about a lot more than the campaign for the presidency. It is about guaranteeing a radical conservative future for America”)

I think there is way too much truth to this. There’s been a decent bit of discussion of how political discourse is increasingly being framed by neocons, so that everyone else spends an awful lot of time and energy having to counter what seem to be totally wacky assertions, and unintentionally giving some ideas credence through having to debate on these terms.

It’s irritating, but I had been attributing more to basic philosophical differences and resistance to change– rather than thinking in terms of repetition with the goal of cementing certain ideas in people’s minds. Which makes entirely too much sense, and is even more frightening once you throw in the burgeoning Dominionist angle. ( — excellent linked article, which helped a lot of things fall into place for me)

Though, for “conservative brain circuitry” I would substitute “authoritarian tendencies”. But, yeah, in some cases, neuroplasticity may not be our friend, in a too-Orwellian way.

To “unintentionally giving some ideas credence through having to debate on these terms”, I will explicitly add forcing other people to bend their brains around moralitarian thinking. And that wétiko, it is highly contagious. I honestly think that some of the religious extremist neocons are both very aware of this, and hoping to “infect” more of the population this way.


* Common Taoist imagery, which can also only really be talked around without creating a lot more dust. 😉

But, for the unfamiliar, here’s a go with a couple of hastily-found quotes.

The affairs of the world are often euphemistically referred to as red dust. This is the involvement of the world that is hard to brush away and yet equally hard to hold on to. #


Dust in water is the traditional image.  When stirred up the water goes cloudy and nothing can be seen in it.  When allowed to go calm the dust comes together and settles at the bottom, leaving the water clear.  Our hearts and minds are the same, when stirred up our emotions and thoughts make everything cloudy and we cannot see things as they are.  As we calm and still the water of our heart-minds our thoughts and emotions go quiet and we are able to see clearly and so respond appropriately to the changing situation. #

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