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Posts Tagged ‘social anxiety’

Nine Worlds happened again last weekend. We’re three for three so far, and already booking tickets for next year. I may share my detailed feedback for them here when I get around to putting that together, as it’s not been without its problems, but it still has a lot to recommend it over other similar conventions, and it’s still way better than it could be.

deadpoolSomething that’s been a bit of a common theme for me each year has been feeling a bit disappointed with myself in the aftermath, for not throwing myself into things with a bit more gusto. Y’know, socialising with strangers, and other such nightmare scenarios that I understand are popular at many gatherings of this kind.

It’s really not a forte of mine, spontaneously talking to unfamiliar people and “making friends”, even when they’re clearly there for similar reasons and can be assumed to share many interests with me.

(That’s me in the pic above/to the side, incidentally. I’m the one who genuinely didn’t know what those two were doing behind me and was just following instructions to do some jazz hands. They look like my friends, right?)

But if anyplace was going to be designed to make it easy for me, and provide a range of decent and interesting people who I’d have a good chance of getting along with and who are unlikely to be bewildered and alienated by the concept of an introvert, NineWorlds is fairly close to how it’d look. (TAM London wasn’t bad, and QED may be worth a shot someday.)

NineWorlds is the closest I’ve come to feeling like I’ve found “my people”, outside of being alone in an empty house with a couple of cats (and possibly my wife if I’m feeling especially gregarious).

And I’ve spent way too much time in my life hoping for that “finding my people” feeling, ever optimistic that it really may be about to happen. I’ve gone into many new situations, with some part of me daring to hope that maybe here, at last, I’d finally feel at home, and feel welcome, and not be anxious around my (technically) fellow humans. These people shared my academic interests, or my approach to science and religion, or my sci-fi fandoms, or something else that gave me hope that our interactions would be different, and my feelings of awkwardness would somehow melt away around this particular crowd.

Other people speak of having this exact experience when they click with the right in-group, whether that’s the first other gay people they’ve ever had the chance to meet, or whether it’s LARPers, or whoever. It didn’t seem an unreasonable hope in my case. But every time it’s left me feeling empty and disheartened, in proportion to how different I was expecting things to be.

I’ve not given up all hope that someday I’ll feel less perpetually self-conscious and overly self-critical and not just want to hide whenever I’m around people. But I’m no longer waiting for the right kind of “other people” to make it happen suddenly and all at once. If I make any progress in that direction, it’ll be through slow and steady increments of the kind I’ve been making over the past few years. A brief back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates that, if trends continue, these gradual increments will render me a confident alpha-male just in time for mankind’s colonisation of Betelgeuse.

But aside from being an impractical expectation of the dynamics of social interaction (at least in my case), I’m also not sure whether finding “my people” is the worthiest goal.

I mean, if the people you meet in a gay bar or a goth club or NineWorlds are “your people”, then it follows that everyone else is necessarily not among your chosen extended kin. Now, for some folk there’s a real value in determining who isn’t part of the in-group who are known to be trustworthy, particularly if they’re accustomed to being shunned or hated or abused by others from the out-group. But however valuable a service or sanctuary the tribe might provide, there’s a danger that the same dehumanisation and contempt for “the other” might start going both ways.

I want everyone to be “my people”. That’s what humanism means to me. I’m never going to get along equally with everyone; there’ll always be folk I engage or connect with more readily, and they may share enough characteristics that they could be identified collectively as a tribe to some degree. But I’d rather avoid determining whether somebody new is to be trusted or feared, based on whether they appear to fall into some nebulously defined category. Without being too harsh on people who find that a useful heuristic, it seems worth avoiding if possible.

(Post-script: Actually I think the closest I’ve come to identifying “my people”, moreso than NineWorlds attendees, is “people on the internet who I can’t see or hear in real-time and who aren’t occupying the same physical space as me and who only communicate by text and gifs”. Those people are definitely special.)

(Oh, and double-post-script: I tumbl now, apparently, in the obvious place. Expect cross-postings but also new and original content as I become a master of cross-platform interactive brand management *punches self in face*)

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This is getting very interesting. (Well, your mileage may vary.)

I posted yesterday about Gary McKinnon, briefly referencing a couple of pages which I felt summarised my feelings pretty closely, and which said more than I was feeling in the mood for. It had seemed like this general view – that he’s basically a harmless idiot who deserves a break and is bound to be misunderstood and mistreated by a zealous US judicial system – was pretty much where all right-thinking decent folk stood, and the opposition to this position largely consisted of the vicious blood-thirsty nuts calling for his dismemberment.

I’m not aware if Ben Goldacre‘s weighed in on this yet, but I’m sure he’d have been the first to remind me that it’s probably a bit more complicated than that. Serves me right for even looking at the front pages of tabloid newspapers, I suppose.

It is clearly a complex issue, and the only point on which I have complete confidence is my last one from my comment here – that I’m glad it’s not me making the decisions and my opinions are of absolutely no significance.

I still have a lot of sympathy for the argument for compassion, and I’m entirely against retribution as a principle. But having witnessed a bit more of the discussion since yesterday, there’s a lot more that I don’t know than I thought.

Here are a few questions to which I don’t actually know the answers, but which do seem pretty central to the case that Gary McKinnon’s extradition would be a bad thing:

– For want of a more sensitive phrase, how autistic is he? I have almost no experience with any real world instances of this sort of thing (as opposed to depictions in movies and TV shows), but I get the impression that some diagnoses of Asperger’s can be a fairly mild condition, in which people can function adequately in a lot of ways, while lacking only some innate social skills. I understand McKinnon was only diagnosed last year, and that he is quite high-functioning. How much should this affect our image of a man hacking into computer systems? Does it make him “different” from the rest of us, or from our standard concept of a computer hacker, to a very significant degree?

– How much of the argument rests on the fact that he’s basically a nice guy who doesn’t really mean any harm? If he committed a crime, knew what he was doing, and intended to do exactly what he did, how valid is the defence that he wasn’t really trying to hurt anyone? Is it outweighed by the damage he did cause?

– Apparently at times he left messages on the computers he was hacking, which was one reason he eventually got caught. What exactly was he saying in these messages, and what can we reasonably infer from them about his intent, and his understanding of what he was doing?

I’m probably not the only one who tends to realise too late that I’m failing to distinguish between different points in making my arguments. The question of whether what McKinnon did deserves punishment is not the same as the question of whether his extradition is appropriate. (Which, in turn, is not the same as the question of whether Britain’s extradition treaty with the US is a good one.) So:

– Focusing just on the extradition, what is a reasonable expectation of the consequences of his being tried in America? Is he likely to suffer unfairly? Are the threats of over-zealous prosecution really credible? Do the assurances that he “probably” wouldn’t serve more than x months there count for anything?

I was basically assuming that these were all quite answerable objections, and maybe at least some of them are, but I have found myself backtracking somewhat over this. There are more compelling arguments for the other side than I thought, and some of them did seem to be deliberately downplayed by the people making the case that I originally supported.

I’m not saying I’ve completely changed my mind. The above questions aren’t meant rhetorically to point out what a flawed position the one I supported yesterday was; I honestly just don’t have the answers. I’m just saying: Okay, there definitely is a lot more to this than I appreciated, and I can’t argue the case as well as I thought I could, so I’m backing down a little.

So here’s the group discussion question for today:

Does anyone know much about research into the brain activity associated with admitting to mistakes and changing your mind?

How’s that for an Unexpected Genre Change? (Note: do not click that link if you were planning to do anything else with the next five hours of your life.)

This is what I actually wanted to talk about here. The Gary McKinnon thing, eh, it’s pretty complex and I’m not that smart, I’ll let the better informed or more determined people get on with that. What’s interesting me is how I felt when I was looking over the latest comments this morning (here and on other discussion threads about this), and deciding how/whether to respond.

I’ve had various social anxiety issues for about as long as I can remember (not to the point of it being a full-on disorder, just that some social situations really make me fret), and there’s a certain kind of feeling I’m pretty familiar with by now. It’s a kind of raw emotion, not something that’s easily verbalised, but it’s probably to do with the “flight” part of the fight-or-flight response. It’s a chaotic mess of being scared and feeling like a horribly inadequate person, and it flares up sometimes entirely independently of what my rational mind might be doing at the time. I can almost pinpoint its physical location in my head, weirdly – near the top of my brain, a bit left of centre.

It’s set off by some types of conversation, or speaking in public, or when I’m just having a bad day – but I started getting it earlier today too, a very similar urge telling me to just run and hide from it all, remove myself from all this perceived scrutiny and judgment. I really found some of this discussion – where people were asking awkward questions that I couldn’t answer, and being insightfully critical in ways I was unprepared to deal with – quite difficult to stick with.

And this wasn’t because of any kind of aggression or hostility on anyone’s part. I’ve had angry, ranting jackasses spitting venom at me online before, and that’s usually just funny. The homeopathy guy I responded to the other day was so obviously wrong about everything from the get-go that I wasn’t bothered at all, and appreciated having something else to write about. But with the Gary McKinnon stuff, people were bringing up things to which I didn’t have the answers, and which I got an instinctive sense might potentially be a lot more effective in undermining what I thought I believed.

That was really uncomfortable.

Not because I have any conceptual problem with having been wrong and changing my mind. But something about it just made me squirm.

I don’t really have it in me to just dig my heels in and fight my corner ever more aggressively for the sake of it, and convince myself that I’m much more secure in my understanding of the facts than I actually am. So, yeah, I stuck it out, read as much as I could, tried to keep evaluating everything, and did my best not to let that voiceless, inarticulate, white noise of emotional unpleasantness in the upper-left quadrant of my brain distract me too much. And I guess I’ve been swayed a little, and am still trying to decide about the validity of some things, and am kinda deciding to just leave it alone because I’m getting out of my depth.

But I thought it was interesting, that I found it so wrenching even to witness that kind of dissent, when I knew it couldn’t be easily dismissed. It wasn’t just that people were disagreeing with me, and therefore (by the strange logic of my neuroses) I should feel bad about myself – it was that I couldn’t rule out whether they had a point.

I’m fairly sure I’m not the only one who finds it hard admitting when I might have been wrong about something, and all the more so if it’s something I’ve spent time and effort thinking or writing about. Am I touching on a general phenomenon here which relates to all kinds of human stubbornness-based conflict? Or does nobody have a clue what I’m saying any more?

Well then. There we are.

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