Sunday, 12 August 2012
When I was at school, we had a debating society. Whenever the motion was "x should not be compulsory", I would be in favour. And whenever I spoke in one of these debates, I would lose. Combined Cadet Force should not be compulsory? Nah, why not? You get to fly planes and shit. It's cool. Therefore everyone should be forced to do it. Sports lessons should not be compulsory? Nah, why not? You get to play hockey, and I like hockey. Therefore everyone should be forced to do it.
I always made the same points: something not being compulsory didn't mean that you wouldn't be able to do it if you enjoyed it; some people don't enjoy it and they should be spared that pain. And the debate always played out the same way: an audience where the majority enjoyed the activity under discussion sat, listened, and gave a collective "meh" of approval for dictatorship.
In my post reviewing three works of trans* literature, I touched on Julia Serano's theory of "gender entitlement" - the tendency (in trans* as well as cis people) to assume that everyone's experience of gender is the same as yours. I'm starting to wonder whether a lot of prejudiced behaviour in other contexts stems from a similar tendency to project one's own experiences onto everyone else - a sort of "mindset entitlement", if you will.
The most common examples of this tendency are relatively harmless. If, say, somebody really hates the idea of having to sing, and has gone along with some friends to a karaoke bar to be companionable and watch and drink and chat, it's really not fair for eir friends to start trying to coax em into doing a song. And because their mindset entitlement tells them that karaoke is fun, singing's not a big deal, they might compound eir discomfort by repeatedly trying to persuade em, or by incredulously asking em why ey doesn't want to join in, or - cardinal sin - by just ignoring eir protests and putting in a song request on eir behalf.
It's easy to fall into this trap of mindset entitlement - to kid ourselves that the odd-person-out wants to join in really, or that ey'll enjoy it when ey finally tries it (asexual people get that one a lot!), or that the enjoyment we feel from being part of a big group with everyone joining in with what we love has greater priority than the discomfort ey feels from being made to join in. And if ey points out to us how upset we've made em feel, it can come as a real shock.
It's understandable, it's only human, to feel shocked when we realise we've unintentionally been hurtful or disrespectful. Having one's mindset entitlement challenged can provoke painful cognitive dissonance - if everyone doesn't see things in the same way as we do, then perhaps we're the ones who are "wrong", or "crazy", or "mean". We set up powerful buffers of denial in our heads to try to avoid confronting these horrible possibilities; this usually results in us making matters worse by trying to protest our innocence (which, in these matters, implicitly means protesting the injured party's guilt), or by deciding that everyone is so damn over-sensitive and "politically correct" these days that it's hard to say or do anything without being lambasted for it, so we might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. (And thus a troll is born.)
Okay, it's hard to say sorry, and it's even harder to admit - to ourselves - that we might have done something wrong. But where mindset entitlement is coupled with privilege, it can have horrendous effects on the people who are further down the privilege scale.
Take "invisible disabilities". Someone who doesn't suffer from depression, Asperger's or chronic fatigue (for example) can't possibly understand what it's like to feel so down that ey literally can't get out of bed, or to find public spaces so overwhelming with stimulus that eir system basically shuts down, or to be able to walk for 200 metres but then be so exhausted by the effort that ey later on collapses immobile and sleeps for 16 hours straight. But there are two possible responses to not being able to understand something like that. You can accept that, although it's totally outside your experience, it's true for some people. Or you can let mindset entitlement instinctively kick in, decide that these people must be "faking it", and (egged on by the current Tory climate of "burn the benefit cheats") contribute to the massive rise in scapegoating and harassment of disabled people.
It's bad enough when this "entitled" view of other people's mental states just leads to ableism from the general populace, but when entitled people are put in charge of official bodies, that's when the issue becomes one of accessibility. Mindset entitlement creates accessibility problems when, for example, the people in charge of making forms, or arranging toilet facilities, have no idea of how much it hurts some people to be forced to choose a binary gender box. Everyone makes mistakes and it's hard to remember to consider every possible accessibility barrier all of the time; if somebody doesn't think to set up a ramp at a venue and a wheelchair user complains, you'd expect em at the very least to apologise and ensure that the (obvious, visible) mistake was rectified. But when a person's accessibility difficulties are not apparently physical or visible, it's easy to let mindset entitlement prompt you to tell em to just "deal with it" or "get over it". Like, for example, if ey requests that you use trigger warnings in things you post or share.
As with all the other examples, mindset entitlement leads people to think they can guess what it's like. When told that mention of certain distressing topics can "trigger" certain people, they imagine that being "triggered" is just like being offended or being nauseated or being scared - feelings that they've manfully (I use the term advisedly) learnt to sit through or push down, because nobody likes a crybaby, and it's just making a fuss over nothing, isn't it? They don't for one second imagine that being triggered can involve a full-blown episode of post-traumatic stress disorder.
It's natural, when attempting to understand someone's feelings, to look for a probable analogue in feelings one has had oneself. But sometimes you just can't understand... and people who behave with mindset entitlement would much rather make false assumptions, and be offensive and disrespectful and dismissive and hurtful and mocking, than admit that there is something in the world that they can't understand. Sometimes you just have to look at a reported experience, and go "Huh, I can't even begin to imagine what that must be like," and take the reporter on trust, and support em when ey says that certain things, certain little things that you take for granted your ability to overcome, hurt em deeply.
And sometimes - often, in fact - that involves admitting you're wrong, and realising you've been an arse, and feeling like shit. Sometimes you'll be tempted to duck out of those painful responsibilities, and write it off as "just a little thing", you "didn't mean to", the other person "shouldn't have taken it so seriously". But remember that if you let yourself be guided by your mindset entitlement in the little matters, the seemingly harmless matters, you run the risk of behaving in an immature, entitled, privileged, prejudiced way where the bigger matters are concerned. Accessibility, ableism and acceptance shouldn't be treated like motions in a school debating society. We are old enough and mature enough to start trying to accept the mind-boggling truth: other people's perspectives can be different from ours, and just as valid.