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The episode description from the Clearer Thinking Podcast page (linked above):
Episode 085: The clash between social justice and anti-wokeness (with Amber Dawn and Holly Elmore)
December 23, 2021
Is it okay for anyone to have opinions about marginalized communities even if they’re not a part of those communities? Do people in marginalized groups have special knowledge (especially tacit knowledge) about their groups that can’t be known or experienced from the outside? To what extent can we know and empathize with others’ experiences regardless of differences in race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, etc.? Do oppression and discrimination tend to be caused more by active bigotry or by mere lack of care and awareness? What information (if any) does intersectionality fail to capture about people? Is describing someone intersectionally an end in itself, or is it just a way of correcting (or over-correcting) for the suppression of marginalized voices? Should ideas be discussed absent their context or implications (see: decoupling norms vs. contextualizing norms)? To what extent should we focus on individuals versus groups when attempting to fix inequities? Are individuals or groups responsible for redressing the atrocities of their ancestors? Should people be “cancelled” for their views (including their past views, even if their current views are different)? To what extent is the shifting of moral ground around social justice issues unpredictable and/or disorienting? How can democratic societies balance the need to debate difficult ideas with the risk of giving reprehensible ideas a platform? Should rules about offensiveness be enforced from the top down (e.g., from a government, a school administration, a company’s board of directors, or even parents)? Is offense only “in the eye of the beholder”?
Amber Dawn is an itinerant UChicago PhD student working on Plato and Lucretius. She is interested in philosophy, emotions, mental health and therapy, effective altruism, ethics, gender, sex, anarchism, and social justice. You can find more about Amber on Facebook, Twitter, or Medium, or you can email her at email@example.com.
Holly Elmore is an effective altruist with a background in evolutionary biology. After organizing EA groups at Harvard throughout her PhD, she left academia and conducts EA-style wild animal welfare research. She witnessed the rise of wokism from within American universities, and has followed developments in social justice culture both as an adversary and an interested amateur sociologist. You can find more about her at her (this!) blog.
Amber and Holly would like for us to remind you that the views they express in this conversation are their own and do not reflect the views held by their employers.
In my acceptance trap, being less than fully endorsed on any level was being rejected on the deepest level. I was basically insisting to myself and those closest to me that I was incapable of change or improvement. In a shallow way, that was “accepting” myself, but at the price of actually liking or believing in myself. In reality, what I was practicing was radical resignation to a diminished version of who could I be.
My general MO is taking principles very seriously and only lightening up when I’ve seen them break for myself. And then sharing the story on this blog. Please enjoy the latest dispatch.
I got into radical acceptance around the time I got sick 4 years ago. The idea of not needing to resist the reality of the moment is still very powerful to me, but my implementation of this insight very quickly got perverse. I had built myself an acceptance trap.
A comfort trap is when seeking comfort causes you to be miserable, usually because you’re avoiding temporary pain required for greater well-being. A happiness trap is when seeking happiness causes you to be miserable, usually because you avoid negative feelings that come with doing what is meaningful to you. I’m defining an acceptance trap as when accepting yourself or requiring acceptance from others leads you to in fact accept yourself less and be accepted by others less, usually because you’re allergic to anything resembling rejection.
My acceptance trap completely conflated feedback on my behavior with evaluation of my innate worthiness. Being less than fully endorsed on any level was being rejected on the deepest level.* I was basically insisting to myself and those closest to me that I was incapable of change or improvement. In a shallow way, that was “accepting” myself, but at the price of actually liking or believing in myself. In reality, what I was practicing was radical resignation to a diminished version of who I could be. Requiring complete upfront acceptance meant that I couldn’t be held accountable for my behavior, like coldness or moodiness, because criticizing my conduct was criticizing me. If you didn’t accept me at my moodiest, you would never accept me at all, so what was the point? Push to leave the acceptance zone deflected; +1 misery.
Feelings, desires, and beliefs that were at odds with full self-acceptance were, ironically, suppressed. The only thing I could do to avoid misery is try tothink the right way about my unchangeable self and situation– to have unconditional self-acceptance. I wasn’t allowed to dislike things that I did or impose higher standards, because that wouldn’t be accepting myself. I also had to accept bad behavior from others (as long as I didn’t see it as a threat to my health) because otherwise I would be a hypocrite and indirectly rejecting myself, who also behaved badly sometimes. Similarly, ambition became a form of self-rejection to be avoided, because aspiring to be more meant finding the person I was then lacking, which would not be accepting myself.
Ultimately, my acceptance trap became a hideyhole— a reason to avoid the world. There was no point, because hardly anyone fully accepted the way I was, and if they didn’t accept me now, then changing could at best get me conditional acceptance. If I changed to be accepted, I wouldn’t be accepting myself. Treating myself like I needed complete acceptance from others made me feel less than those who didn’t need as much understanding, and I had to avoid the risk of accepting myself less that came from exposing myself to those feelings of inferiority. Bit by bit I withdrew myself from the kinds of activities and relationships that would help me grow and give me something to enthusiastically accept (embrace!) about life. The only way I was allowed to feel better was to accept my current feelings more, but the more I “accepted” myself, the more trapped I got.
The problem with my acceptance trap reasoning is that we don’t embrace ourselves or anyone else the way I longed for for free. There’s a kind of general acceptance that I offer other human beings unconditionally, but that’s not the kind of acceptance and regard I want for myself. I don’t think the “you’re a human being with fundamental goodness” that I can extend to others sight unseen is substantial enough to satisfy a human being’s need to belong. So even though I think we’re all fundamentally worthy of acceptance, it doesn’t follow from that that we are owed all the enthusiastic social acceptance that we need to thrive. Not only is it okay to want acceptance that has to be earned– I don’t think we really want unconditional acceptance. We want a unique, personal acceptance, not of humanity in general, but of us as individuals. We want to be seen, and a blanket acceptance that has nothing to do with who we are or what we’ve done, i.e. that we would recieve regardless, unconditionally, isn’t going to cut it.
More importantly, I wanted myself to see not just who I was– with the stomach to take in the good, the bad, and the ugly– but who I could be. I wanted to grow!** I was not content with things as they are– I wanted to change the world and myself. I got out of my acceptance trap by daring to hope, and act, for more.
*As usual, I’m writing about my own experience here, and it may not generalize. A big reinforcer of my acceptance trap was a OCD-like conviction that I was doing metaphysical harm if I rejected myself and that there was a mystical healing power to acceptance. On some level, I believed that something would click into place and my whole relationship to the world would change if only I could fully accept myself. While I certainly know others with this misapprehension (especially Western Buddhists), I think I am particularly prone to this kind of superstitious mental bargaining.
**I could frame my realizations in the language of healthy acceptance if I wanted to be charitable. For example, I could say I accepted the part of me that wants to grow and change. But I chose not to because I don’t like the ring of the word “acceptance” anymore.
I don’t like to make a big thing out of identifying with my generation, but millenials have one thing right: avocado toast is the perfect breakfast food. This is my very simple and quick recipe, which, yes, I did invent.
Recipe time: ~5 minutes
Yields: 4 slices
4 slices of bread for toasting (I like a thick wholewheat)
1 ripe Hass avocado
1-2 cloves raw garlic, minced*
4-5 dashes of smoked paprika (substitute regular paprika)
Salt to taste (I use ~1/4 tsp total, but I really like salt)
Toast the bread however you like it.
Bisect the avocado and remove the pit. Score the avocado flesh with a knife, being careful not to cut the shell. Divide the minced garlic, salt, and paprika between the halves of the avocado.
Mix and mash the contents of each avocado shell with a fork.
Divide evenly among the pieces of toast and spread with fork.
Aaaand, you’re eating your nutritious, savory breakfast after just 5 minutes!
*The raw garlic does not burn because of the fattiness of the avocado. You might want to mouthwash after eating though if you have someone to see, though.
The plain fact is that there are no obvious moral consequences to how people entertain themselves in their leisure time. The conviction that artists and connoisseurs are morally advanced is a cognitive illusion, arising from the fact that our circuitry for morality is cross-wired for with our circuitry for status.
— Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate
Mediocrity is kind of the best. Trying to be the best is a prison. Living in fear of mediocrity is like being ceaselessly chased by the monster from your nightmares. You will always be running and never be able to rest in your nature. It’s just not possible to be true to yourself without being middling or worse in some areas. And being true to yourself is what actually satisfies you– the best outcome.
One of the biggest wastes of life– miles and miles of running in circles trying to escape the mediocrity monster– is trying to have “good taste.” It’s worth exploring lots of things and investing effort into food, entertainment, decor, etc. that offer delayed gratification. That effort is ultimately grounded in your desirable experience. It is not worth giving a damn what is erudite or impressive to like. Just take the C in the court of public opinion and get back to actually enjoying yourself.
One of my 2020 resolutions was:
Embrace whatever makes my heart sing, even though loving and delighting in something makes me feel vulnerable. These are my genuine and beautiful feelings, and it’s always okay to be me.
In other words, if what I truly like is lame and the level of effort I’m comfortable with/skill I’m capable of when I’m happy is mediocre, then call me Mrs. Mediocrity!
Boy, has my intention manifested! Since I defended my dissertation and the lockdown started, I’ve been free to simply like what I like and do what I do. Not only have I had time, but, crucially, I’ve been free of the constant reminders of everyone else’s accomplishments and erudition. Which is necessary, because the things I really like don’t tend to be very highbrow or impressive.
I opened with the general point, but I do have a specific example in mind: I LOVE fan fiction. Fan fiction was always a guilty pleasure in high school and college. Writing a different ending than the original author… is this even allowed?! But until I defended I was too embarrassed as a grown-up graduate student (not to mention felt too guilty about doing anything besides writing my dissertation) to engage with fan fiction even in the privacy of my own home. I felt the eyes of more moral people who enjoyed quality things like wine and talking about diversity in STEM on me all of the time. The vulnerability of loving something public and being part of a community that shared their humble, sincere creative efforts was too much for me when I was worried about being good enough at Harvard. When I feel insecure, I am a snob about originality, and I sort of viewed people who loved someone else’s creation and let it capture their imagination as losers. What a sad, zero-sum way to view people enjoying the enthusiasm, creativity, and connection I so desperately needed.
It wasn’t just that it’s fan fiction or high art vs. low art. It was also that fan fiction is so unapologetically feminine in it’s preoccupations. The feminine themes are what I love, but that love makes me feel very bashful. Romance novel-style smut (but about characters that have been well-established in a non-romance novel plot canon!– truly the greatest form of free porn), angst, slow burn, being utterly adored by men because of who you are (while you are, of course, also beautiful to the rest of the world), men who are redeemed by the purity of their love for you, soul intimacy, negotiating unplanned pregnancy and young family life despite adversity, cavity-inducing moments of domestic cuteness, etc. Smart, empowered women are supposed to consider most of these regressive tropes. Being in male- and feminist-dominated professional and ideological spaces since college, and finding that unfemme psychology mostly agreeable in addition to being much higher status, I had lost touch with these more feminine primal themes that really enliven me. Just as I feel like I’m getting away with something when I fantasize positively about being pregnant, it seems too-good-to-be-true that I can just participate in comment discussions on Archive of Our Own about what if Rey and Kylo Ren had a baby? like I’m Sara Crew, unafraid to imagine the things that would make me happy.
Writing fan fiction is the purest artistic endeavor I have undertaken since my sister and I stopped playing our doll epic, Babytown. And that’s precisely because no one I know considers it real art. I write under a pseudonym, elaborating on the backstories and emotional lives of characters from an old videogame, for an audience of pseudonyms who simply want to read stories about their favorite characters and otps. There’s a kind of status in getting kudos and comments, but the real reward is writing it. For so many years I’ve felt that I had to validate my creativity by getting some kind of external approval. Tragically, being creative became a chore at best and a high-stakes test at worst. Fan fiction, though, is just for me. I needed something like this to feel safe letting loose creatively. Even in this no-stakes scenario– writing about a niche ship with few readers in a way that can never be traced to me– I’ve had to work through a lot of fear of expressing myself. I’m still mediocre even for a fan fiction writer (some of them are really talented). It’s humbling to put in a lot of time at writing, something I’m generally told I’m great at, and still see so much room for improvement. But it’s also awesome to want to improve for the sake of making something better instead of just seeing faults as a liability, like I did in my dissertation. More than skill of execution, though, it’s vulnerable to put out there what I really like, think is cool, find sexy, find romantic, and consider a happily ever after. Writing fan fiction showed me how afraid I was to look at these more feminine desires and gave me the means to reconnect with my chick lit side. I wouldn’t have pushed through all these fears to get to this awesome play space if I hadn’t been doing something so intrisically fun and rewarding.
I feel really creative again for the first time since high school. And I owe it all to this most popular of popular art forms, the kind you make as a fan of someone else’s intellectual property. I owe it to embracing the truth of my humanity– what actually, really elicits joy from me apart from external validation– and letting myself be mediocre. Mediocre and happy 😃
Disclaimer: I’m going to say this once. Obviously, I am not happy about the coronavirus’s threat to public health or the economic toll it’s taking. I do not think the existence of this pandemic is good. Just so happens that social distancing and remote work suits me.
I am truly an introvert, and this whole coronavirus quarantine experience has allowed me to embrace that again. There’s something about everybody having to do it that gave me permission to enjoy being at home, not having to perform for strangers and acquaintances, not having to hustle every day and seek fulfillment in frantic activity and socializing, which I can only really enjoy in small doses. Coronavirus quarantine has taken away the worst parts of my day– stress about waking up on time, getting places on time, about how presentable I am, worrying I’m not prepared or didn’t do something I was supposed to, about whether I’m the right mood to deal with people, dealing with hundreds of strangers and acquaintances, feeling “off” in dealing with the people I do know, obligations that rob me of my time and peace– and hasn’t taken away anything I can’t do without for another month or two.
I like life being focused on home and family. It’s been really nice to have the primacy of my marriage affirmed by external events. (And, as a friend of mine pointed out, I’m lucky to be quarantined with a sexual partner 😉 ) I like cooking at home instead of going out. I was always this way as a kid. When given the choice, I just wanted to stay home. Over the years, I began to feel I should have more things to do in the world, and so I started filling up my time, and eventually I became so stressed and distracted that I forgot what it felt like at my center. I’ll always be weirdly grateful to the virus for clearing me the space to rest in my own nature.
I leave the house for max one outing a day, and that’s for a nice, socially distant walk or to go to the grocery store. (I wear a bandana now, which, by hiding my face, has shown me how draining it is for me to constantly make friendly expressions when outside to reassure everyone who walks past me.) I love how simple and quiet my life is right now. I feel more myself than I have in ages. I had been in a state of constant anxiety and agitation for years now. As a kid, I would get this way during the end of the semester and then come down over the ensuing break. Before my senior year of high school was the first time summer wasn’t long enough for me to unwind. The anxious buzzing would calm down with space and solitude, but it never fully stopped like it used to. For the last decade, I have been more and less stressed but never truly felt relaxed. It was so unrelenting that, when I spent a few nights in the hospital a couple years ago, and I remember feeling relieved and elated that I would have no responsibilities or expectations other than treatment while I was there.
Well, it might be finishing my PhD or the quarantine (or most likely both and). But whatever it is, I feel relaxed! I do not feel done with my period of unwinding, but (un)fortunately the world is colluding with me to give me the conditions I like for a while longer.
I feel a little more free with the quarantine contraints. I like feeling like I don’t have to be perfectly satisfied because my options are limited. I like feeling no pressure to make anything of the day. The constraints I hate are having to get up to an alarm and look presentable to go to a meeting. Having to perform. Having to “make the most of my opportunities.” Clearly, there’s a disconnect between what I consider “making the most of” my life and the life I actually like. Quarantine has reduced the pressure on me to perform for myself, and I’d like to quit performative busyness altogether. I want to create and embrace the conditions under which I actually thrive. Weirdly, coronavirus quarantine has given me external support in this process of self-realization. I only hope I have the courage and awareness to protect my introverted preferences once society has returned to its bustling.
When you get married, you are creating a family. One way to reinforce that is to have the same name. But whose name do you pick? Do you hyphenate? Do you not hyphenate, and never have a simple time filling out a form again (like my friends the Rabideau Childerses)? Do you make a new portmanteau of your “maiden” names (like my friends the Baker + Lee = Bakerlees)? Do you select a completely new name (like Will MacAskill nee Crouch)?
I submit a new alternative, one I think is by far the simplest– just use your spouse’s name socially and keep your legal name. Many women (and some men) go to the trouble of changing their names legally only to go by their former names socially. Why? If there are two names you wish to use in different situations, one of which is already your legal name and the set of sounds that have been used to address you your entire life, and you have to chose one to be your official name and the other to use fictively in social situations, why not simply keep your maiden name as it is and use your spouse’s name only in the social situations where that’s desirable?
It’s not as if our legal names are our one and only true names. Legal names serve an important purpose as our identifiers in a large system. But names are rich sources of social meaning in many contexts, not just legal, and we needn’t restrict our use of socially meaningful names and titles to the identifier we give at the DMV. From birth, my legal name has been Martha Hollingsworth Elmore, but my first name is also Holly, because that’s the name my parents called me. “Martha” and “Holly” are both my name, just in different contexts. “Martha” on official communications and school rosters, “Holly” for those who know me personally. “Holly” would be my one true name, if I had just one, and it’s not my legal name.
I personally always thought I would take my husband’s last name (legally) when I got married. I would be sad to see mine go, I thought, but (1) I wanted the family unity, (2) not every ancestor can be memorialized anyway, and (3) I agree with the patrilineal system for naming children. (It gives men a little pride in household and family as well as some assurance of paternity. Why not throw them a bone? There’s no doubt who the mother is.) But then I got married at 21, and I just wasn’t ready to change the very words by which I refer to myself. So I stayed Holly Elmore.
But I still want my children to share my name, and our family unit to have a short and distinct designation. Changing my legal name at this point is really not appealing. I wouldn’t have the momentum of a wedding behind the change, I have publications (including this blog) under Elmore, I have networks that know me as Holly Elmore, and I simply like my name as it is. If I legally changed my last name to Todd, I’d have to figure out what to do about my middle name, “Hollingsworth,” from which my parents derived “Holly.” I wouldn’t want to lose that link between my social and legal names or things could get confusing. I would have to go through all the legal rigmarole of changing my last name to Todd, possibly having to change Martha or Hollingsworth in the process, only to use Elmore socially, like, more than half the time. And, frankly, to have to erase Elmore to be able to adopt Todd would feel like an erasure of my identity. Why does becoming part of something bigger, a marriage, have to supersede my individual identity?
So it hit me. Why not simply use “Todd” socially in family and children situations? Todd doesn’t have to replace Elmore– they can both be in my repertoire. All I really want is a sense of family unity. I don’t want a wholesale replacement of my identity in every context, and it’s just not necessary. Changing your name to your husband’s family name was most sensible when you moved upon marriage to live with his family. You were now of that House. Why not treat marriage the same way today, as gaining a new title instead of erasing your base name? I am Holly, Martha, Dr. Elmore, Lady Todd, Mrs. Todd to my future children’s friends… I can be all these things! And, should Hudson ever want to use my name socially, he is free to do so as well. (“Hudson [Elmore] Todd” could solve the “Todd Hudson” error he has faced every day of his life.) Why is this not already the most popular option?
Changing your legal name to reflect a social change, marriage, also frustrates the whole purpose of legally documented names– to identify the same individual over space and time. Filing name change paperwork and updating every legal form of identification is a hassle for us, and it still doesn’t do that good of a job linking up documents with different names. Chalk this up to my time building a database, but I don’t think the identifier should change every time an alias is added.
I believe I will also give my kids the name “Elmore” socially, without creating legal headaches. “First name” “Middle name” [Elmore] Todd. Possessing my name legally isn’t really what matters to me– what I want is the sense of bequeathing them my legacy as an individual and not just a member of team Todd. I’ll do that regardless, but the name I’ve answered to most of my life is a particularly potent symbol. I’m not having kids yet, so who knows how I’ll feel then, but for now the idea of giving my children my name extralegally meets my needs. Let their legal name and the name they pass down to their children be Todd, but, hell, if my grandchildren want to use Elmore socially, I say why not? As long as they consistently put down their legal name on forms and don’t try to mislead people about their identity, why shouldn’t my descendants use as many of their ancestor’s names as they like?
If we allow legal names to serve their functions– clearly identifying the same individual over time– and social names to serve their functions– honoring ancestors, reflecting relationships and group membership, reflecting our preferences– then the messy issue of changing and assigning names in the making of a family suddenly gets a lot easier. If we don’t limit ourselves to one name to serve every function, I think we can have it all.
Being smart is rad. As a tool, it mostly lives up to the hype. But it can never define the real you. Or fill the hole in your heart… The more I’ve given to being smart the emptier it feels. I thought being smart would allow me to be secure in myself, finally sure that I wasn’t making a mistake by loving myself.
I remember the day that being smart became central to my identity. I was 8 years old, sitting in my fourth grade classroom, and I remember the lights were low. We were doing some kind of interactive activity with the TV. If I recall correctly, the TV asked a question that was a bit advanced for fourth graders. Nobody spoke but all the heads I could see turned toward me. In my memory their faces were all full of the same sort of innocent admiration. I don’t remember if I had the answer or not. I just remember realizing “they all think I’m smart.”
It’s not that I hadn’t been told I was smart before that. Since I could talk, adults would fawn over my vocabulary. Standardized testing that threatened to send my classmates to repeat a grade was always a breeze for me, even kind of fun. I was already the star writer in that same class. But that incident was different, because I realized it was common knowledge that I was smart. I might have been the smartest kid in that class. It was a real opportunity to be special.
You see, though I had always aspired to be special, I hadn’t always aspired to be smart. The earliest aspiration I remember was to be beautiful and have a great romance with a great man that would prove what a beautiful, good girl I was. What can I say? I watched princess movies and I was (am) drawn to beauty. I wanted what they had. I wanted to know I was good and important.
When I was a little older, alongside beauty, I started to value wisdom. Again, there were always wise sages in these princess movies, and they usually had magical powers through their wisdom. I wanted secret knowledge that gave me the ability to heal and predict the future. (I was sad that I wasn’t part of an indigenous culture that had a direct line to nature’s wisdom, as my movies had taught me indigenous people have. Also felt ashamed of being from the boring styrofoam white conquering race, but that’s a whole other post.) And beautiful women have to have some kind of retirement plan.
I always had other things going on. I had creative things like choir singing and having a visual arts major in middle and high school. Runner-up for defining my identity was moral superiority, what with my precocious vegetarianism and ramrod follow-the-rules rectitude. (Interestingly, this one took the foreground once I was at Harvard.) But being smart just always ended up being my comparative advantage. It was the worthiness hustle that presented itself.
It’s true that I am pretty smart. But I worry that seeing myself as my intellect has directed my life choices too much. Taking a bunch of advanced classes and reading mindblowing books was genuinely what I most wanted to do in high school. I love being spoonfed knowledge at a rapid pace, and I also love to be tested on that knowledge. But pursuing a PhD, and especially pushing myself into more and more quantitative subjects, was unduly influenced by the need to excel at the role of smart person. (To be fair, those decisions also owed to an illusion I had that being a scientist would give me this special deep insight into the nature of things. Fwiw, I’ve gotten more of that from reading textbooks than actually being a scientist.)
More damaging are the everyday choices that my smart ego leads me to make, like always needing to know everything and have a well-informed and original take. Like not having the patience and self-esteem to easily endure a real intellectual challenge. Like, tragically, taking what used to be my favorite things, learning and knowledge, and turning them into just an opportunity to affirm my smart identity.
The more I’ve given to being smart the emptier it feels. I thought being smart would allow me to be secure in myself, finally sure that I wasn’t making a mistake by loving myself. I’m gradually returning to a time before my fourth grade classmates turned their adoring faces expectantly towards my superior intellect. A time before I was smart and smart was me. It’s no coincidence that I’m coming back to finish this post two days before I defend my PhD dissertation, my defense slides visible in the other window in Powerpoint. Completing this degree symbolizes many things for me (most of all a triumph over major adversity and intense psychological struggle), and among them is closing the book on the Holly that strives to be smart rather than be herself. I’m getting a PhD from Harvard. I’m getting the proof of my intelligence that I always wanted, and I know now for a fact that being smart will not give me what I really want. To feel good and important is to believe that my worthiness is innate, not conditional, and not the product of working on myself.
Being smart is rad. As a tool, it mostly lives up to the hype. But it can never define the real you. Or fill the hole in your heart.
You can’t micromanage flow. It’s when your thoughts, feelings, and insights are flowing. If you try to slow down a river and tell every water molecule exactly where it goes, what you’ll have is a block of ice.