The Ceiling (Part 2)

So we know that people aren’t 100% amenable to reason.  The question then becomes “how do we deal with that?”.

The question arises when we feel hard done by and someone plays the “feelings” card.  For example, I have found that, if someone is not attracted to me, then they are not attracted to me, and no amount of trying to persuade them otherwise will work.  The most I would gain from such an attempt would be to make them feel guilty about their feelings so that they went out with me because they felt bad.

But I don’t want to have to do that.  I don’t want to be manipulative.  I want someone – be they a friend or a lover – to see me because they want to see me.  If meeting up with me is a chore that they want to get out of then I’d rather they didn’t bother.  It sucks, but it’s the lesser of two evils.

Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that we are always reasonable, it’s a hard fact of life that some people in this world literally do not care about whether they have treated you fairly and they may not suffer any consequences for their actions.  If you’re not religious and you don’t believe in karma then you can’t take comfort in faith that everything will work out in the end.  So to what – or whom – do you turn?

One alternative is stoic philosophy.  This was invented by the Greeks and adopted (and adapted) by the Romans.  I won’t pretend to be well-versed in the literature – almost all I know about it is from an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast that featured a stoic philosopher as a guest.  There are obviously different schools of thought within it (particularly in terms of Greek vs Roman) but the core guiding principle is that you shouldn’t waste time and energy getting in a flap about things you can’t control and you should instead focus your attention on appreciation of what you have and what you can control.  I’ve come across this point many times before, though not under the label of stoicism per se.

Think about the sorority group from the Boston Legal episode I referred to in my previous post.  Suppose you had been the girl who wasn’t allowed to join because she wasn’t good looking enough.  Would you really want to associate with these people anyway after that experience?  What would you think they had to offer you?  Wouldn’t you be like a black person getting upset that you couldn’t join a white supremacist group?

I’ve been trying to adopt a more stoic attitude to life recently and I’d say it’s helping to a point.  I’ve been forcing myself to go to the gym in an attempt to focus my mind towards something positive rather than bemoaning the past injustices that I haven’t been able to solve or the difficulties I face in the present (such as my isolation in Winchester and lack of realistic prospects of a love life).  As a result, my lifts have been going up, I’ve (generally) been in better shape and maybe that will eventually lead to improved prospects on the dating scene.

The hardest part, for me, is trying to suppress that desire to see a light at the end of the tunnel rather than merely learn to live with my current situation.  To convince myself to be ambivalent about whether or not I ever end up settling down with someone.  To accept that friendship may be the most I can ever aspire to.

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The Ceiling (Part 1)

Imagine if I told you that I felt uncomfortable seeing gay people holding hands in public, or sitting next to black people on the bus.  I’m pretty sure you’d condemn me as a bigot.  I’m also pretty sure that you wouldn’t let me off the hook if I told you that these were my feelings and that you had to have respect for my feelings regardless of whether you agreed with them.

Let’s look at another example.

If you go on dating forums, a common topic that comes up is the topic of “Nice Guys Finish Last”, i.e. the idea that being nice to a woman is counterproductive and results in you being seen as a “beta male” friend who she will use as a shoulder to cry on while she shags the “bad boy” types.  The usual counter-argument is that individual women like what they like and it’s ultimately their choice who they go out with, so insisting that they should go out with you because you were nice to them just makes you entitled and controlling.  The “Nice Guy” in this scenario is then demonised as a snake who is merely pretending to be nice to get into the girl’s knickers and thus betraying her trust by merely posing as a friend.

While I don’t fully agree with the “Nice Guys Finish Last” position, I often retort that this is an unfair criticism because you don’t know that he was being nice just to get into her knickers (as distinct from actually wanting a relationship) and you are penalising guys for actually trying to get to know someone’s personality first, but at this point I am usually told “yeah, well, I find it snakey and that’s just how I feel!  You can’t tell me what to think!”.

Let’s look at a third (and final) example.

There is a (biologically) male Youtuber called Riley Dennis who identifies as a lesbian woman and dates – and has sex with – (biological) women.  He posted a controversial video a while back in which he claimed that people who would refuse to date a trans-person on the grounds that they were trans were being bigoted (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2X-PgHSZh6U).  The reaction from the anti-SJW channels was predictable: people like what they like and they can’t help it.  I would go a step further and argue that calling someone bigoted for not wanting to go out with someone they’re not instinctively attracted to is the “Nice Guy” argument with a different spin on it.  If I’m bigoted for not wanting to date a trans person, any woman I’m attracted to is bigoted if she doesn’t want to date me – even if she’s a lesbian!

There are a couple of points I’m driving at here.  The first is that there seems to be a limit to how much we humans will allow ourselves to be swayed by logic.  The second is that the selection of topics in which we will allow instinct and emotion to trump logic and fairness appears to be arbitrary.  If a girl can turn a perfectly decent guy down just because she doesn’t feel attracted to him, and he has no right to complain about that or to criticise her for that decision, then what’s wrong with my feeling uncomfortable sitting next to a black person on the bus?  This has always been my gripe with the concepts of “social skills” and “emotional intelligence”.

There was a great episode of Boston Legal about this.  This show is clearly not a realistic portrayal of how litigation works, but it does touch on certain topics in an illuminating way.  In this episode, a university student was denied entry to a particular sorority group because she wasn’t good looking enough in their eyes.  So she sued them for unfair discrimination.  The issue was framed as one of fairness vs freedom.  In his closing speech, Jerry Espensen – the lawyer representing  the sorority group, and himself a victim of bullying due to his Asperger’s – summed up with “that’s life.”

My mind honestly isn’t made up here.  Just food for thought.

 

Shock Horror

I am about to write something I thought I would never write: a post defending President Trump.

Trump has come in for a lot of stick lately (even more than usual) over his response to political violence that took place in Charlottesville recently.  In case you’ve been living under a rock, the violence was the result of a clash between protesters and counter-protesters regarding proposals to pull down a statue of some American civil war general from the Confederate side (I believe it was Robert E. Lee off the top of my head, but I could be wrong) on the basis that the Confederacy fought to maintain slavery.

Trump’s alleged transgression was in failing to lay the blame for this violence solely at the feet of the racist and neo-Nazi protesters in attendance – instead accusing “both sides” of violence.  When he condemned racism as “evil” 48 hours later, it was seen as a laughable attempt at damage control – too little, too late.

Here’s the interesting part: as far as I’m aware, the charge levelled at Trump is not that he was factually wrong in asserting that both sides were violent, and nor is it that the far-right side “started it”.  Rather, he is criticised for (apparently) failing to differentiate between neo-Nazis on the one hand and those who oppose them on the other.  I find this curious because you would think that people who wanted to criticise the far-right and/or Trump would want to portray the far-right protesters as the only violent side, or at least as the aggressors, if they were able to.

Think about that for a minute.  The implication here is that the far-right protesters simply deserved what they got because the beliefs they were propagating were beyond the pale.  The mere fact of their attendance and promotion of these views was tantamount to violence.

There is a debate to be had over whether or not people with racist and/or genocidal views should be allowed to organise and/or promote those views in public.  Some would argue that their views are so repugnant – and dangerous, if taken seriously by the unwashed masses – that they have to be regarded as exceptions to the general rules in favour of free speech and assembly.  Neo-Nazis and their ilk are the classic test case for this debate.

Be that as it may, the plain fact of the matter is that, in the USA, they ARE entitled to free speech and they ARE allowed to gather and organise.  These are their constitutional rights.  It’s not for some lynch mob (yes I’m aware of what lynch mobs originally were) to decide otherwise.  What matters here is solely how the violence unfolded.

And you do you want to know something else?  I’m not convinced by the argument that the far-right protesters’ views were too dangerous to benefit from free speech protection.  If they are, then so are views espoused by groups like Black Lives Matter e.g. “#killallwhitepeople” or “pigs in a blanket, fry ’em like bacon”.  One day, maybe YOUR views will be deemed beyond the pale.

So, unless someone can show me that the violence was truly one-sided, or that it was at least instigated by the far-right protesters, I’m afraid I have to stand with Trump on this one.

God, I love having an anonymous blog sometimes.

“This isn’t a court case!”

A common problem I come across in debates is the accusation that I’m talking or thinking too much “like a lawyer” – the implication being that legal concepts and analogies belong solely in the realm of litigation and should be left there.

I always try to remain calm and logical in debates, but this accusation is second only to the “straw man” fallacy when it comes to genuinely winding me up in that environment.

The argument usually raises its head when I use terminology often (though not exclusively) found in law – such as the phrase “burden of proof” – or when I use a hypothetical court case as an analogy.  For example, my opponent might make an assertion in support of their stance on an issue and I might attack that assertion as being unsubstantiated, e.g. the assertion that violent computer games influence their players to act violently in real life.  I will point out that they can’t prove that this is true, which means their argument is invalid.  They will retort that I can’t prove that it’s *not* true, I will respond that the burden of proof is on them not me as they are the ones making an assertion of fact, and hey presto: “this isn’t a court case”.

Here’s my problem with this line of argument: the only part of courtroom advocacy that isn’t always applicable outside of the courtroom is the specific content of the black letter law itself.*  Other than that, it’s merely a debate at a very high level – higher than most people can be bothered with.  I have to focus like a laser on *exactly* what the issue is.  If I make an assertion then I have to back that assertion up with something.  And any evidence I do put forward in support of my position will be rigorously analysed.  What I can’t do is demand that my interlocutors simply take my word for it and start crying and calling them names if they don’t.  You put up or shut up.

It seems to me that, as long as you actually believe in liberal democracy, this way of thinking and arguing is no less applicable to the social sciences than it is to the law, yet people do often seem to apply a more lax attitude towards proof.  And it matters, because every time you ask the government to ban X or to regulate Y you are interfering with people’s freedom to do as they please.  If there is no compelling evidence that violent video games cause their players to behave violently in real life then there is no proper basis for banning them.  If there is no compelling evidence that exposure to porn causes viewers to adopt misogynistic attitudes then there is no proper basis for banning it.  And I ask my readers (whomever they may be) to bear in mind that correlation does not imply causation when considering those examples.

The result of applying a less rigorous attitude towards debates is that people simply spout platitudes at each other, talk past each other and get wound up.  Take the abortion debate, for example: the pro-choice camp say it’s about a woman’s right to have dominion over her own body and accuse their opponents of misogyny, but that’s not the basis on which the pro-life camp oppose abortion.  They oppose it because, in their opinion, a foetus is a human life indistinguishable from any other and it is therefore wrong to terminate it.  Any pro-choice argument – such as the sympathy we may feel for a young woman who didn’t feel ready to raise a child or even one who had been raped – would go up in smoke if we were talking about killing a baby who had already been born, even for the most ardent feminist, so the pro-life camp would argue that abortion is no different in principle, it’s just that out of sight (i.e. inside the womb) is out of mind.  So the debate actually turns on two simple questions – does a foetus count as a human life, and if not, why not?

***

I’m a big fan of the philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris.  He is not a lawyer, but I feel he argues on a level rarely seen outside of the law.  He has attracted a lot of false accusations of Islamphobia and racism because he criticises Islam and deems it more dangerous than other religions.  Sometimes I think the people making these accusations are deliberately libelling him, but sometimes I think they’re just too thick to argue on his level and understand the subtle distinctions he is making.  To paraphrase his interview with Cenk Uygur from the Young Turks, in which he tried to clear the air on this issue:

“I think it is fine to assert that some religions are more worthy of criticism than others.  For example, Mormonism is objectively less likely to be true than Christianity, because while it’s unlikely that Jesus will come back one day, it’s even less likely to say that he will come back in Jackson County, Missouri.”

Cenk’s response was “Lol Sam, how can Jesus’ coming back to Missouri be any less likely than his coming back to Jerusalem”.  But that’s not what Sam said.  He didn’t say anything about Jerusalem.  Jerusalem vs Jackson County is not the point.

Ultimately I think the “this isn’t a court case” argument is simply an excuse.  If you use it then you are conceding that you can’t or won’t back up what you’re saying.  Game over.

* A slight caveat here is that the black letter law sometimes IS relevant in debates.  For example, people often rant about the Human Rights Act without knowing what it actually says.

For Frida

I once watched this TED talk about depression (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=drv3BP0Fdi8) in which Dr Stephen Ilardi explained that the most effective treatment for depression is physical exercise.  It’s far stronger than even the most powerful anti-depressant drugs you can get.

I’m into lifting weights, and I can say I’ve experienced the transformative effects of exercise first-hand.  Although my numbers are nothing to write home about at this stage, they are steadily going up, and I feel like the king of the world when I’ve finished.  My post-workout mood is the only time I ever feel truly relaxed.

I tried cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) once, and while I have some reservations about it, one point I did take away was that you sometimes have to force yourself to do the things you enjoy.  That sounds like an oxymoron, but really it isn’t.  When you’re depressed, you may feel like you just want to curl up into a ball on your bed and forget about the world, which only leads to spiralling further downwards.  You have to see the warning signs, grab yourself by the scruff of the neck and make yourself do something you enjoy – then, once you get stuck in, you will feel better.

Over the years I’d say I’ve been very dedicated to my work and to furthering my career.  But I think something has to give now.  I have therefore made an executive decision to force myself to leave work on time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays so that I can get to the gym and do my thing.  It’s important for both my mental health and my physical health.  I need to take my weight training seriously – not just as a casual hobby that I dip in and out of, but as a real priority that other things have to fit around – work included.  I’ve fallen off the wagon before when I got busy.   I need to stop doing that.  And who knows – maybe my work will benefit from a calmer mind.  It’s time to take charge of my destiny.

I mentioned above that I had reservations about CBT.  Essentially, I like the thought that I am solving my problems, not merely learning to live with them, which feels like accepting defeat.  I also don’t like the idea that I need to “change my perspective” in order to feel happier, because this assumes that the problem is all in my head and that my negative outlook couldn’t possibly be based on an accurate assessment of the facts.

But maybe there’s more to it than that.   I’m an atheist, but I think about the message in the story of Joseph in the Bible – in particular, the part about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Joseph advised the Pharoah to stockpile resources during the plentiful years so that Egypt could survive the coming famine.

I can’t make my current situation work as a perfect analogy to the story of Joseph.  But I think you can get the gist.  Lifting weights is not a miracle cure for the loneliness and emptiness I often feel.  It won’t deliver the love of my life and a circle of close friends to my doorstep tomorrow.  But while I’m waiting for those people to arrive, I can work on making myself fitter, healthier and more fun to be around.  That’s CBT.

Frida was the cognitive behavioural therapist I saw a good couple of years ago now.  I know I was hard work.  She cared so much that I actually ended up feeling sorry for her by the end of it.  And I doubt very much that she is reading this now.  But I hope she knows it wasn’t all in vain and that I really did move forward in the end.

Thank you for everything, Frida.  I’m sorry I was so difficult.

The Road Ahead

As I write this, I’m aware that I’m up far too late.  I was just going to turn in after a House of Cards session (God that show’s addictive!), but then I had a flash of inspiration regarding my difficulties with dating.

A couple of weeks ago, one of my best friends drove up to Manchester with me to visit another best friend of ours.
The journey up to Manchester took several hours, but it was a lot of fun.  We hadn’t seen each other in months, but as always, it felt like only five minutes had passed.  We had a great time blasting out some music, telling crude jokes and reminiscing about the old days, but also catching up on where we were now in our lives.

Now imagine how it would have gone if we’d had a futuristic teleporter rather than a car.  As fun as the car journey was, neither of us would have chosen it over the option of simply teleporting to Manchester in an instant.

My perspective on relationships is like that.  And to be honest, I think this may be where I’m going wrong most of the time.

Most people want the car journey.  I want the teleporter.  From their perspective, the journey is half the fun and I’m spoiling it like the annoyingly impatient kid in the back seat who constantly says “are we there yet”, whereas I don’t get why they are deliberately choosing to make the journey take longer than it has to.

Maybe the way forward is to be more patient.

Fading Love, Part 2: To Forgive, Divine

Once upon a time, I had a girlfriend at law school.  I became concerned that she was not really interested in hanging out with me for all the reasons I outlined in my previous post.  Cancelling with lame excuses?  Check (hers was that she was busy due to studying, which I didn’t buy because I was also at law school).  Upset that I had deleted her from Facebook before?  Check.  Going back out with me afterwards but acting uncomfortable?  Check.  Restricting non-face-to-face communication to texts and instant messages and never answering calls?  Check.  Me making all of the effort?  Check.  Due to a combination of fancying her a lot and wanting to believe her, I couldn’t quite bring myself to pull the plug at that time.  But she was aware that I had suspicions.

One night, we were supposed to go out on a date.  At the last minute, she asked if I would mind doing more of a joint social evening with her best friend who she hadn’t seen for ages.  From behind my phone screen, I grimaced at the thought, particularly because this would inevitably mean tolerating the presence of her other friend who she lived with, as this was a guy who fancied her like mad and would always turn up joined to her at the hip in any social event that wasn’t explicitly a one-on-one date so that he could hover and buy her drinks all night.  But I gritted my teeth and said “yeah sure”.  So we went out with her friends.

But then something interesting happened.  She messaged me after she got home.  She told me she was so grateful that I had cut her a bit of slack and let her see her friend that evening.  And for a short while, the roles reversed and she was the one initiating contact and generally making effort.  Though we broke up in the end as I just couldn’t believe her.

Years later, I came across a female friend with whom I fell madly in love.  Truly, madly, deeply, as Darren Hayes would say.  I knew she had a boyfriend (whom she later married) so I didn’t make a move.  However, a mutual friend went and blabbed my crush to her anyway.  She said I should have been honest with her and told her how I felt, but I told her that I hadn’t wanted to jeopardise our friendship by making her feel uncomfortable when there was no chance she would leave her (then) boyfriend.  She said she understood and insisted that there was no way she would stop wanting to see me.

While we were officially just friends, and there were certain physical lines I never overstepped, she was obviously aware of how I felt and she even claimed to feel the same way towards me.  Her other half was, from what she told me, violent, controlling, immature and as thick as two short planks.  What he was doing with such an amazing, intelligent, beautiful lawyer was beyond me and I told her as much because he upset her.  At this point, I felt less guilty about openly asking her out or at least to leave him.

Once again, this friend kept making excuses to cancel at the last minute and it became a source of tension between us.  If she got the slightest whiff of an idea that I didn’t believe her she became very defensive and angry, saying she wished I knew what a day in her life looked like.  Supposedly it was because she had an Asian family so there were always these big events like weddings that she totally forgot about and couldn’t get out of.  Now, on those times when we were together, it certainly felt like she was having a good time too and she said as much… and some of the occasions when we arranged to meet were her idea… but I found it hard to believe that anyone had to cancel as frequently as she did.  So my usual suspicions were in play.

The last time I saw her was when she had this conference in London.  The idea was that she would have a small window after the conference finished to at least have a coffee or perhaps a meal before heading back.  And it was her idea.

I waited and waited for her in the coffee shop at the train station.  She told me she had been held up at the conference and she wasn’t sure what time she was going to get out.  I became worried that she was simply laying the groundwork so that she could cancel again.  But I chose to trust her.  I got her her favourite coffee – a mocha – for her to have when she arrived.

When she finally arrived, she gave me a huge hug.  She couldn’t stop talking and asking me questions about what I’d been up to.  She had so much she wanted to talk to me about that I could barely get a word in – but she managed to laugh at my jokes regardless.  She checked the train times on her phone to see if she could simply get a later train so that she could spend time with me – even sacrificing her pre-paid tickets to do so – but ultimately concluded that she really had to go so that she could work on this big case for tomorrow.  I said that was fine and we would catch up again some other time.  As she was leaving, she planted the biggest kiss ever on my cheek.

In the days that followed, once again, the roles reversed.  She was texting me multiple times a day to  tell me she was so grateful that I hadn’t been angry with her for being late to meet me, that she missed me or even to just send a random “X”.  I confessed the full extent of my feelings for her.  She said she felt guilty about how much she missed me when I wasn’t around, which was strange because we met in person relatively infrequently, and while she didn’t use the exact phrase “I love you”, she said things that insinuated that and kept saying that we really needed to meet soon.  Ultimately this line of conversation had to stop because she became worried about her abusive husband would do if he saw the messages we had exchanged.

The point I’m driving at is… maybe some people really do just find it hard to cope with situations in life.  What sounds like a lame excuse to me is genuine and heartfelt for them.  And when I’ve shown compassion and understanding, despite my cynical instinct, they have been very grateful for my cutting them slack.  Perhaps I’m really not this dull, tiresome guy that they needed to make excuses to avoid – at least in some cases.  Perhaps I really have been harsh and cut people out of my life unnecessarily.  Perhaps I have tarred too many people with the same brush.

I look back over the last few years and I think about all the arguing that’s resulted from my obsession with this issue and all the suffering I’ve inflicted upon myself as a result.  The exams I couldn’t concentrate on because I was too hurt.  The martial arts and fitness routines I never made significant gains with because I kept assuming there was no point and I would never be happy.  The junk food I’ve wasted money on as a source of comfort that only made me fat.  The worry I’ve put my friends and family through by constantly beating  myself up.

I once read that resentment was like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.  When you’ve been mistreated by people who took advantage of your better nature you can be tempted to take a very harsh, critical line to protect yourself from history repeating itself.  But I’ve had enough poison.  It’s left me fat, bitter and less likeable.

It’s time to stop.  It’s time to let go.  It’s time to move on.  It’s time to forgive.