Tuesday, June 10, 2014

On depression, privilege, and online activism

[Content warning: depression, privilege, online activism]

This isn't a general account of my experiences with depression. Many people have written about that, and I don't have much to add. But there's one aspect that I don't hear about very often. It's something that bothers me a lot, and others have told me that it bothers them too.

The thing is, I'm not just a person with a mental illness. I'm also a well-off white guy, and I enjoy a whole set of unearned privileges from that. Every day people around the world are harassed, abused, and killed over things I never have to worry about. Even in mundane daily life, most everyone is playing on a higher difficulty setting than I ever will.

I've thought about this a lot over the past few years, and I'm trying to understand how I can help make the world more fair and less oppressive. So I give money and I volunteer a little and I speak up when it seems useful, but mostly I listen. I listen to the experiences of people who are different from me. I try to get some understanding of how they feel and why.

How is this related to depression? Because the reality of privilege and oppression is fucking depressing. Of course it's depressing to those who are directly harmed. That's a lot of what I read about, and some of the despair transfers to me. But my profiting from the suffering of others in a way that I mostly can't change is also depressing, at least if I make an attempt not to ignore it.

And my distress over my role in systems of oppression brings its own layer of guilt. People are actually suffering and I feel sorry for myself because I'm dimly aware of it? But this comes from the voice that has always taunted me about depression. “How can you be sad? Your life is great. If you had real problems you wouldn't be so pathetic. You're not really sick. You're just a whiner.”

All of which is part of the disease. I need to own it and work on it every day. But it seems like every time I read an online discussion about social justice, I take a huge step backwards.

It's hard to shrug off the “men are horrible” comments when I spend so much effort trying to convince myself that I'm not horrible. When I hear people gloating about delicious white male tears, I think about all the times when I would come home from work and collapse in bed crying. Is this what they want my life to be?

I can't give myself permission to tune out, because the same people lecture constantly about my obligation to be a good ally, which mostly takes the form of “shut up and listen.” And then when I'm upset by the things they say, the response is “This isn't for you! Why are you listening?”

A local group, one that had recently invited me to hang out as a guest, retweeted a member's declaration to would-be allies: “We're not friends. Fuck you.” Can you see why it feels like they're trying to hurt me?


Let me be clear: I truly don't care if people in a room somewhere are talking about how men are the worst. I don't feel oppressed by it, and I have no desire to argue with it. But I can't handle direct exposure.

And don't tell me that I'm too stupid to understand why they say these things. I know intellectually that it's not about me. I understand the need to vent and the importance of building solidarity. None of that matters on the emotional level where these comments register like a punch to the gut. I do feel this way, even if I shouldn't and I wish I didn't.

I'm talking about mental health, triggers, and unintentionally hurtful speech. Does that sound familiar? One reason I was drawn to intersectional feminism is that it seemed to have a good set of ground rules for how to treat everyone decently. But now I feel like I'm excluded from protection. “Men are horrible” is apparently the one form of speech where intent is all that matters, and I'm a bad person if it triggers something. I've been told it's offensive that I would even try to describe my experience in those terms.

It hurts a whole lot to try and really feel someone's pain, and then realize they don't even slightly give a shit about me. It hurts even more when they'll bend over backwards for anyone except me.

Look, I get it. You argue all the time with trolls who claim that men have it just as bad as women and will shout “what about the men” as a way to disrupt any discussion. When you're engaged in meme warfare, you can't show them any human empathy. They certainly wouldn't return the favor. And if my voice sounds a little like theirs, that's just too bad for me.

I know that this article will serve as ammunition for some people with views I find disgusting. That sucks, but I'm done using political strategy as a reason to stay silent. I understand tone policing as a derailing tactic, and I understand the need to call it out. But at this point it seems there's no room for a sincere request for kindness, especially coming from someone who doesn't get much benefit of the doubt. (The Geek Feminism Wiki basically says that asking for kindness is tone policing if and only if you're a man.)

I'm not trying to silence anyone here. I'm not jumping in and derailing an existing conversation. I'm writing on my own blog, on my own schedule, about my own feelings. But I'm told that even this is crossing a line.

I know that I can't dictate how others feel about our fucked-up world. Does that mean I must absolutely suppress the way I feel? Even when we agree about the substance of what's wrong? I know that if I ask someone to share their life experiences, they have a right to express anger. When does expressing anger become sustained, deliberate cruelty?

“People are being oppressed and you're asking us to care about your feelings?” Yes, I am asking you to care. Just a little bit. I don't claim that my feelings should be a top priority. I hope it wouldn't come up very often. But according to the outspoken few who set the tone, I'm never allowed to bring it up. I don't deserve to ask them to be nice.

And that's why I can no longer have anything to do with this movement. It's really that simple. I guess it says something about my state of mind that I felt the need to attach 1,700 words of preemptive defenses.


The truth is, when I'm not allowed to say or even think “not all men,” part of me hears “Yes, all men, especially you.” And if I'm ever confused about whether I'm allowed to say “not all men,” there are a dozen unprompted reminders every day. Little jokes, repeated constantly to set the climate about what will and won't be tolerated.

When you treat me like one of the trolls, I start to believe that I am one. Guys who say “I support feminism but sometimes they go too far” are usually trying to excuse sexist behavior. So what do I conclude about myself when I have the same thought?

I get that “ally” is not a label you self-apply, it's a thing you do, and the label comes from others. The problem is, if a hundred people say I'm a good ally, and one person says I'm a sexist asshole, who do you think I'm going to believe?

I'm not allowed to stand up for myself, because doing so is automatically an act of oppression. If a woman treats me like shit, and she's being “more feminist” than me, I conclude that I deserve to be treated like shit. That is the model I've learned of a good ally.

I'm not a good ally, or even a bad one. I'm collateral damage.

If the point of all this is to give me a tiny little taste of the invalidation that others experience on a regular basis, then congratulations, it worked. You've made your point. Now that you've broken me, how can I possibly help you, when it seems like I'm part of the problem just by existing? It feels like all I can do is engage in emotional self-harm to repay the debt of how I was born.

I can't just take a break “until I feel better.” My depressive symptoms will always come and go, and some thoughts will reliably bring them back. I spent years reading about how the most important thing I can do, as a winner of the birth lottery, is to be an ally to marginalized people. And now I've realized that I'm too sick and weak to do it.

Even if I give up on being an ally, I can't avoid this subject. It affects a lot of my friends, and I feel even worse when I ask them not to talk about it around me. I don't want to silence anyone. At least I've mostly stopped using Twitter.

So this is how I feel, but I'm not sure anyone else can do anything about it. Really, most of the people I've talked to have been sympathetic. Maybe I need to learn not to let bullies get to me, even when they're bullying in service of a cause I support. They don't seem to get much pushback from the wider community, at any rate.

What gives me hope is, I recognize that my participation in the endless shouting online wasn't really useful to anyone. If I can let myself ignore all that, maybe I can recover some of my energy for other activities that actually help people.

That's all I have to say right now. Thank you for listening to me.