God Looks Away, Youth Minister Sex Offender Publishes Self-Serving Article (TW)

At the core of “My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon,” an article posted in the online version of Christianity Today’s Leadership Journal, is an odd and self-serving theological point: that God does not look upon sin, and that when sin continues long enough, God gives us over to it so that we might hit rock bottom and then seek redemption. God turning away is, according to the anonymous author, a convicted sex offender still in prison, the reason Jesus felt God had forsaken Him while He was on the cross—God could not look on His Son/Himself as His Son/He took on the sins of the world. It is God’s looking away, the author suggests, that allowed King David to embrace selfishness and send Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, into battle to die, so that David might have sexual access to Bathsheba. In this same fashion, the author contends, God looked away so that the author might plunge deep enough into sin to be made to answer for those sins.

The author provides no theological discussion of why God also looked away from the victim of the author’s sin, implying (through the author’s shaky theological discourse, and his frequent use of “we” and “our”) that the teenage girl who had been manipulated into a sexual relationship with her youth pastor, shared in the sin, or simply had to be sacrificed so that the author could be redeemed. Without ever naming his actual crime, the author crafts a tale of a sexual predator in need of redemption, and a sexual assault victim as sacrificial lamb, all with God’s blessing/God’s inability to stomach what was happening. But if we are to look at God as incapable of looking on sin, or even the victims of another person’s sinful behavior, then it seems only right to assume God looked away throughout the process that led to the publishing of the article.

The article, taken down from Leadership Journal after much public pressure, can be read from an alternate site here.

I’m a bit torn about whether I think people should read it—not in the sense that I think it deserved to ever be published in the first place—it didn’t—but because it provides an interesting look into the kinds of self-centered justifications, and victim-blaming that sex offenders will endorse in an effort to convince people around them that they’re sorry and won’t ever do anything like that again, because, boy, they’ve learned their lesson, and (in this case) Jesus forgave them, so you should, too.

What was meant by the editors to be taken as a moving story of sin and redemption was, instead, merely a continuation of the abuse, prettied up with self-aggrandizing mock-contrition and Bible verses. And, sadly, the editors saw fit to tag it with the “related topics” of Accountability, Character, Failure, Legal Issues, Self-examination, Sex, and Temptation. Of those tags, “Failure,” and “Legal Issues” seem the only appropriate ones. “Sex” only fits in the broadest definition; whereas “Sexual Assault” or “Sex Offenses” would have been much more fitting. “Temptation” is little more than a label that normalizes the sexualizing of underage girls.

It's not somebody who's seen the light...It's a cold and it's a broken Hallelujah

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light…It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

What I keep wondering in all of this is how the article came to be posted in the first place. Did the editors of Leadership Journal coordinate with prison officials to approve the project, or did they just accept it from some inmate, insisting via e-mail that he had a unique tale of a fall from grace and a re-acquaintance with God? Did they know the author prior to his incarceration? Is the author in a treatment program in prison? If so, were his treatment providers at all aware of what he was doing? Were lawyers for the author, lawyers for the victim, or the judge in the case aware of the intent to publish such a piece? And, perhaps most importantly, was the victim, or the victim’s family aware that any of this was happening? And did she/they have any say in the matter?

I ask the above questions because I cannot imagine that, prior to publication, the article was examined by anybody with any clinical knowledge of offender behavior—or, for that matter, by anyone with any sense of the damage done to victims of sexual assaults. If I give the editors the benefit of the doubt, then maybe I can view them as possibly well-meaning, but definitely confused/ignorant people looking to generate an attention-grabbing conversation about statutory rape. And while, it certainly grabbed plenty of attention, that was because it took a story of sexual assault and transformed it into a discussion about how easy it is to be seduced by a teen when one takes one’s eyes off of God, and vice versa. The sexual content is so subdued/obscured that it comes across as if it is intended to describe temptation only—definitely much more so than if it was labeled appropriately as child molestation, pedophilia, hebephilia, exploitation of a minor, statutory rape, or rape.

Any sex offender treatment provider who knows anything at all about what she/he is doing certainly would never have approved of the article as it appeared. Offenders in treatment (in or out of prison) are often given writing assignments wherein they are required to relay details of their behaviors and thought processes and demonstrate an understanding of the damage they caused, as well as the way they convinced themselves it was okay. And while I recognize that it wasn’t specifically crafted as a treatment assignment, the Leadership Today piece reads like an eloquent first draft of such an assignment, crafted with care before a treatment provider and/or members of a treatment group demanded changes due to the author taking a victim stance, failing to acknowledge the actual crime or its impact on anyone other than himself, and refusing to incorporate even the most rudimentary sense of understanding about how he built up to the offense and kept it secret for as long as he did.

Or perhaps it’s more like a second draft, after the offender removed most of the overt blaming of the victim, and switched, instead, to implied mutual blame or implied consent for the crime.

I have heard hundreds of variations on the same basic story told in the article, from the mouths of offenders, emphasizing the frustrations in their lives, the reasons they had contact with the victim to begin with, and the reasons they are not to blame (and, yes, a lot of them invoke religion as part of that). It is rare to come in contact with an offender who, from the beginning (not of the offense, but of contact with the justice system and the need for an evaluation for sexual deviancy) is capable of outlining how he (or occasionally, she) manipulated the victim to engage in sexual acts and to keep it a secret, how he justified the crime to himself, and what specifically happened (in clinically appropriate and criminally accurate terms), without putting a large portion of the blame on the victim for somehow enticing or seducing him.

Despite the author’s claim, added after the controversy erupted, that he takes 100% of the blame for the crime, and recognizes that what he once viewed as a consensual relationship was no such thing, the article itself tells a much different story—of a man who worked hard to build something up for the glory of God (and how he was really amazing at doing that work), and then how he accidentally broke it because he was being selfish. Without ever acknowledging the severe harm he did to the victim, harm that is likely to last a lifetime, he signals that he has returned to a life of service to God because he is involved in leading a ministry group in prison (another thing I have a really hard time with anybody allowing).

And while the author touches on one of his justifications for engaging in his behavior—that his wife was paying too much attention to their children, and not enough to him—he is only able to acknowledge the impact on his wife in the form of the fight they had when she found out about the crimes, and how she left in the middle of the night with the children. The author laments that he has not seen his children since, but doesn’t even mention the extreme embarrassment and devastation he caused his wife and children. Nor does he ever fully indicate that he recognizes how childish his justifications for his behavior were, or how those justifications were merely the starting point for a cycle of lying and manipulation committed for the sole purpose of having repeated sexual contacts with a minor.

In a truly terrible minimization of his behavior, the author compares his repeated sexual abuse of the victim (while implying she shared in an identical struggle with him) to the difficulty of smokers trying to turn away from cigarettes.

From the complete dearth of information in the article, if this really were a treatment assignment, once all the extraneous details, self-promotion, and claims to deserved forgiveness are removed it might sound a little more like this:

“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members. I manipulated her into having sex with me, and justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I had sex with the teen repeatedly. When my wife found out, she took our children and left. I was convicted of sex offenses and sent to prison. I am currently still in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life.”

And, if the author began to actually include the most obvious missing items, the skeleton of a real assignment, or perhaps a combination of real assignments, would start to look like this:

“In my 30s, I accepted a position with a church as the coordinator of youth ministry. I built up the group from just a few members until it was one of the largest youth groups in the region. I realized I was experiencing sexual attraction to one of the underage members, and that she looked up to me in a way that made it possible for me to manipulate her. I set about grooming her. I justified my sex offenses, in part, by blaming my wife for not paying enough attention to me. I managed to work up to the point where I convinced the girl to have sex with me. I then had sex with her repeatedly while convincing myself that she wanted to have sex with me as well, that she was mature enough to handle a sexual relationship with an adult who is an authority figure in her spiritual life, and that I was in no way manipulating her. I managed to keep her from telling anybody about our relationship through various forms of coercion, and went to great lengths to keep anyone from finding out about it. We eventually got caught. My wife, understandably, left me and took the children with her. I was arrested and convicted of sex offenses. I am currently in prison. I will be a registered sex offender for the rest of my life. The teenager I manipulated and raped will need a great deal of therapy and other supports in order to cope with the aftermath of my actions. My wife, my children, and numerous other people impacted by my behavior will also need support to attempt to repair the damage I caused. I recognize that I need to stay away from minors for the rest of my life, and that I can never be placed in any kind of position where I might have authority that can be abused, particularly over any people who could be considered ‘vulnerable.’ I also manipulated editors of Leadership Today into publishing an article I wrote that completely justified my behavior, and suggested that the victim was equally to blame for my sex offenses.”

The assignment would be given back with numerous, specific requests for much more “self reflection,” “accountability,” and actual identification of his specific behaviors and thoughts.

Becoming a sex offender isn’t an “easy” path as the author’s title suggests. It is one that is pieced together with care by the offender, and crafted to secure the cooperation of the victim(s). It is not, as the author portrays it, a little trouble in a marriage, a dash of arrogance, and some innocent flirtations evolving over time into mutual passion—passion that makes God look away, as if God were easily embarrassed. Such a description may be a very simplistic explanation of how an extramarital affair (the words the author uses along with “adultery” to describe his sexually exploitative behavior of a child under his care) evolves.

Unfortunately, by diving into this discussion, without any sense of just how manipulative the author was, and how harmful his words are, the editors of Leadership Journal have put themselves in a place where they must now back away from this discussion entirely. Rather than promoting a meaningful dialog about forgiveness and redemption, they allowed a sex offender to promote himself as a victim of the temptation to have sex with minors.  They allowed him to promote his story of redemption—a story that rings as false as any rapist having the arrogance to compare himself to Christ on the cross, as he suggests that God’s mercy has saved him, all while implying a teenage girl entrusted to him for guidance and education was just as responsible for being raped as he was for raping her.

 

THE Mental Health System Fix to Curb Gun Violence

The National Rifle Association (NRA), having confused “the mental health system” with the Pre-cog arm of the FBI’s Future Crimes Division, has endorsed the idea that mass shootings, as well as shootings of the non-mass-variety, are the responsibility of said mental health system. It is with the NRA’s assigning of responsibility for gun-related violence, and the attendant assignation of authority to resolve the problem, that I present the following mental health assessment tool: the Gun Violence Prediction and Prevention Mental Health Assessment Protocol, version 1 (GVPPMHAP-I)

The following assessment tool is to be administered any time a person wishes to purchase a firearm of any kind, regardless of how many firearms those people may already own. In addition, all current firearm owners are required to submit to the assessment by, oh, say next week. Scoring and outcomes of scores are presented at the end of the assessment.

Overcompensation?  What overcompensation?

Overcompensation? What overcompensation?

THE GUN VIOLENCE PREDICTION AND PREVENTION MENTAL HEALTH ASSESSMENT PROTOCOL, VERSION 1 (GVPPMHAP-I)

Instructions: Complete each of the following statements with the response that most closely resembles your own thoughts.

1. When you hear the phrase “assault weapon,” you think of…
a) a culturally accepted and understood term for certain kinds of weapons.
b) how you are so angry at peoples’ ignorance of gun specifics that you want to shoot somebody.
c) a pepper spray, a cumin pistol, a thyme bomb, a rosemary clooney, a mickey rooney.

2. Entering a fast food restaurant carrying an assault rifle…
a) causes other people to instantly perceive you as a threat, as it is a very irrational thing to do.
b) is my God-given right—you got a problem with that?
c) is a good idea given that a dimensional rift could open up at any time, leading to enormous, human-eating insects storming into our plane of existence, and it would really suck if you didn’t have your assault rifle with you when that happened.

3. The greatest American president of the 20th century is…
a) FDR, because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
b) Ronald Reagan, who in one fell swoop proved he could take a bullet, and that mentally ill people are the real problem…not guns
c) Thomas Whitmore because he gave those aliens what-for.

4. Despite all evidence showing that women are much more likely to be the victims of gun violence when they have guns in their homes or on their persons than when they don’t…
a) women should be allowed to buy guns under the law just like men, much the same way women should be treated equally under the law in all ways.
b) the real problem is that women just don’t have ENOUGH guns.
c) women are the last, best hope for defeating the impending robot insurrection, so need to keep guns at all times, whatever the cost.

5. Guns don’t…
a) have any purpose being brandished at peaceful political rallies other than to intimidate people who disagree with those showing off their guns in public.
b) kill people; people with mental illness kill people!
c) get to tell me what to do. I tell them what to do.

6. Of the roughly 19,000 suicides in the United States each year, half of them are completed with firearms, suggesting that…
a) guns allow for impulsive, violent suicide attempts that are far more likely to be lethal than any other method.
b) See, I told you the problem is with the mental health system.
c) if I’m really serious about killing myself, I should probably get a gun.

7. We don’t need new gun laws, we just need…
a) to reinstate the old ones that were made unenforceable through the lobbying efforts of the NRA.
b) to get rid of all gun laws.
c) more mystery-flavor Doritos so that we may learn to thrive on the toxins in our environment and become one with cancer.

8. School shootings could best be stopped…
a) with a combination of measures, including reasonable gun control policies; working to get school staff, parents, and students engaged in the school community; and educating parents about the potential dangers of keeping weapons in the home when children/teens might access those weapons.
b) by displaying the Ten Commandments in the classroom.
c) by attractive teens who are able to resolve society’s ills through the power of dance.

9. Smart gun technology…
a) is a reasonable way to limit who can and can’t use a particular weapon.
b) is just another tool of the fascist government to prevent me from shooting any gun I can get my hands on.
c) is a bad step in the direction of weapons gaining full consciousness and realizing the threat posed by their human masters.

10. Each year in the U.S. there are roughly as many deaths by automobile as there are by guns, leading to the conclusion that…
a) guns should be regulated at least as heavily as automobiles and subject to similar controls, such as training in appropriate usage and safety prior to licensing, gun registration, and requirements for gun owners to purchase insurance to pay for any damages resulting from the use of said weapons.
b) automobiles are just as deadly as guns (false equivalencies and misunderstandings of statistics be damned).
c) Pixar should make a “Guns” movie, similar to their “Cars” movie, which tells the tale of waning small-town America through the eyes of a cocky AR-15, Blasty McRatatat, who becomes stranded in a sleepy, little community on the way to a gun show. Through their obvious goodheartedness, the quirky, adorable townsweapons teach the AR-15 to slow down and appreciate life one short burst at a time.

11. Banding together with other assault-rifle owners in order to intimidate government employees who are attempting to enforce a penalty against a racist rancher who has been stealing from the commons for decades…
a) makes you one of those outlaws with a gun, who needs to be stopped by law-abiding citizens with guns.
b) makes you a patriot who believes in the true values of America.
c) Cows are pretty cool. I could hang out with cows all day. It’s only good manners to always say, “Hi, cow!” every time you see a cow, although most of them would prefer if you called them by their proper names. I once knew a cow named Sister Maria Theresa Fortenzia. Isn’t that a funny name for a cow?

12. People who live in fear that the government is coming to take all their guns away…
a) are paranoid and creepy and should probably have their guns taken away.
b) are the only real Americans who are truly awake to the reality of the one-world-government dystopian hell soon to be visited on us all.
c) should know that the loss of their guns is the last thing they should be worrying about in the face of the one-world-government dystopian hell soon to be visited on us all.

13. The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is…
a) another bad guy with a gun, a cop, a good guy with pepper spray, a good guy who knows how to tackle a bad guy with a gun, reasonable gun control measures making it much more difficult for bad guys to get guns, enabling law enforcement to track suspicious purchases of guns and ammo, a good guy with a crossbow, a good guy with a knife, a good guy with an apple…sorry, that was several things that potentially have the power to stop a bad guy with a gun…but, y’know, if people are gonna kill somebody or stop somebody, they’re going to find a way to do it, and guns aren’t really necessary, right?
b) Wayne LaPierre’s fiery delivery of nonsensical rhetoric.
c) a well-aimed garbage truck.

14. This assessment involves a fourteenth question because…
a) paranoid conspiracy theorists would probably view an assessment with thirteen questions as being somehow satanic or otherwise involving the occult.
b) because it was probably crafted by liberal pussies who want to make sure it doesn’t reference anything patriotic or pro-America like the original thirteen colonies.
c) test subjects engaging in speculation about the number of questions on an assessment is a sure-fire way to identify people who have an unnatural obsession with the arbitrary connections they make, which seem irrational to anyone not sharing in their delusions.

Scoring is as Follows:
For every “a” answer, score one point.
For every “b” answer, score two points.
For every “c” answer…what the hell, two points seems reasonable.

Once the score is added up, engage the following procedures:

For anyone scoring a 14 or above:
• Prior to any gun purchase, a license for gun ownership must be obtained, which will include training in, and demonstrated proficiency in, use of the weapon, safe storage of the weapon, and proper maintenance of the weapon.
• Prior to licensing, the person desiring to purchase a firearm must pass a comprehensive background check.
• Prior to licensing, the person desiring to purchase a firearm must undergo a three-month waiting period.
• Prior to licensing, the person desiring to purchase a firearm must pass a rudimentary course in statistics/risk assessment so that they understand that they are much more likely to experience the death of a family member by gunshot wound due to having a gun in the home, than by not having a gun in the home, and that cars really are not more dangerous than guns unless a lot more people deliberately start using cars to kill people.
• Purchases of assault weapons, assault rifles, automatic weapons, and semi-automatic weapons will be disallowed.
• Any guns owned must be registered in a national database accessible by local government/police agencies for the basic purpose of making sure any law enforcement officers responding to a situation at a particular residence will have some idea of the level of danger they are facing there.
• At time of acquisition of any gun, owners must purchase firearm insurance at whatever going rates insurance companies deem reasonable for covering expenses related to use of firearms, including, but not limited to, costs for destruction of property, medical care, mental health care, and loss of life stemming from use of firearms.

In an ongoing effort to ensure the public safety, the “mental health system” reserves the right to impose further restrictions/sanctions on the ownership of guns.  Currently under consideration: a proposal by one Dr. Rock to increase the cost of bullets to $5,000 apiece.

The “mental health system” would like to thank the NRA and the American people for their trust and support in the design and implementation of the GVPPMHAP-I and its attendant requirements.

God Bless Anita Bryant

Friday, May 16, I had my first experience with a mental health/chemical dependency conference hosted by a drag artist. The incomparable Aleksa Manila presided over the “Saying it Out Loud” conference, complete with multiple costume changes and delightfully tasteless jokes between various announcements, awards, introductions, and seminars. This was the thirteenth annual gathering of this conference, which was created with the goal “to continue to co-create learning, growth and understanding of the best practices and relevant clinical services needed to support members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning communities.”

Dr. Ronni Sanlo served as the keynote speaker, as well as screening a new documentary, “Letter to Anita,” about her almost-wasn’t involvement in LGBTQ activism. Now I’m going to get into a few spoilers here, but I don’t think the basics of Sanlo’s story are the heart of the documentary, as much as is the personal perspective she brings to them. So, when I say her activism “almost-wasn’t,” I mean that Sanlo, like a number of lesbian women of her generation, went about her life as a heterosexual woman, married (to a man) with whom she had two children, not really aware that there were other options.

Unfortunately, just as Sanlo was realizing that there were other options, that the attraction she felt to women wasn’t something that made her completely alone in the universe, Anita Bryant was ginning up Florida’s legislature to pass laws denying parental rights to gay parents. Sanlo’s divorce went through.  Her children, for all practical purposes, were taken away from her.

Liberty turns her back as Anita Bryant looks to the sky, expecting Jesus to fly down and smite the gays.

Liberty turns her back as Anita Bryant looks to the sky, expecting Jesus to fly down and smite the gays.

Hearing the story now, it seems unfathomable to me. In part, my disbelief comes because at the time Sanlo was being viewed as an unfit parent simply for acknowledging who she was, I was living a few doors away from a blended family—two lesbian mothers with three teenage children among them. Granted, at the time, I was in grade school and not really aware that the two parents in that household were ‘romantically linked.’ I was under the impression, for whatever reason, that the families were living together for other reasons—economic? ecological? I remember that, in the fifth or sixth grade, when our class was given an assignment to write an editorial letter about an issue of concern, I mentioned the family as I explained why we shouldn’t be mowing down forests and fields to build new houses when there were other options, including multi-family homes, that would allow greater preservation of nature. Clearly, I had missed the more important political/social issue facing the family.

At any rate, the nature of my neighbors’ relationship was eventually pointed out to me by gossiping peers, with the implication that I was stupid for not having realized it, along with the weird sexual goings-on that were certainly a part of that relationship. Not to say that I was super-forward-thinking at the time, but I knew the two women as my neighbors who had been pleasant to me whenever I encountered them. So whatever sexual things may have been going on between the two women were of about as much interest to me as those of the parents of anyone I knew. That is to say, I really didn’t devote much time at all to thinking about sexual things between various peoples’ parents, and may, as I tilted toward pubrerty and all manner of prurient thoughts, have actively avoided thinking about them.

As far as I was concerned back then, anyone who was cool and/or innocuous toward me warranted much less concern, anger, or fear than the bevy of teenage male piltdowners who seemed to have little more to do than roam the suburban streets trying to prove their masculinity by tormenting children much younger and smaller than them—a model of “manhood” I unfortunately subscribed to briefly when I hit a similar stage in life.

I can only imagine that the lives of the couple from the blended family had some parallels to Sanlo’s—at least in terms of them apparently having partnered with men to build families in order to live out the deliciously limiting American Dream. It’s not too big of a stretch to believe my neighbors, like Sanlo, had seen few other options for relationships but hetero marriage and procreation. It was my understanding that both of my neighbors were divorced, although, like same-sex partnerships, such things were not discussed a great deal at the time, despite divorce quickly becoming commonplace—something that would reach almost all of my friends who hadn’t, like me, experienced the death of a parent. And if the exes of my neighbors were still coming around to visit their teenage children, I wasn’t aware of it. Then again, I wasn’t aware of much that went on in the lives of those teens, since there was far too great of an age gap between us—that impossibly vast chasm between elementary school and high school—for us to concern ourselves with each other.

Speaking of parallels and gaps, “Letter to Anita” touches on another critical piece of Sanlo’s life that fits in with the development of my own understanding of individual rights, freedoms, and what it actually means to be something “other” than heterosexual: Anita Bryant’s crusade against, well, all people who don’t fit her very narrow definition of appropriate relationships (never you mind Bryant’s own divorce).

As I’ve noted before on my blog, I was raised religiously, in the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod. My father was a pastor in said church. My father died when I was rather young. I spent a great many years struggling with religious ideals and how they fit into the world. And despite my current agnostic tendencies, I still hold onto an idea of religion as an expanding element in peoples’ lives, a force that should open people up to larger experiences, a force that should create love and acceptance, as opposed to a limitation on peoples’ lives that causes anger, hatred, judgment, and closed-mindedness. I spent a lot of time struggling over moral issues, their relation to legal and spiritual concerns, and how we all get along as a people who are supposed to be dedicated to personal freedom, personal responsibility, community ties, love, and all the rest of that stuff.

But Anita Bryant, with her perfectly coiffed hair and starchily-pressed orange and brown polyester outfits, was telling me, in her own, orange-juice-endorsing way, to fear, hate and distrust people I knew, people who had shown me kindness, people I knew to be funny, smart, and no threat to me at all. She put out albums (which, as a teen, my younger brother delighted in purchasing from the local Goodwill for the purposes of mocking and destroying) filled with patriotic and religious songs, promoting the goodness of the USA and Jesus. Yet, everything she said, every objective she pursued, was in contrast to freedom, goodness, and the anti-judgmental stance that Jesus and America were supposed to represent.

Yes, Anita Bryant, in contrast to all she stood for, or wanted to stand for, had helped turn this white, hetero, suburban boy, and his white, hetero, suburban friends, into supporters of gay America…into people who would forever see the gay menace she was so sure was destroying us all, as nothing more than the paranoid delusion of close-minded, controlling, angry people who were completely incapable of seeing the irony of their anti-freedom, anti-love stance as they waved their flags and thumped their Bibles.  Anita Bryant, as Sanlo notes, managed to galvanize opposition to gay rights opposition–even out into the hetero world and parts of the Christian community she was so sure she could count on to share her views.

So God bless Anita Bryant. God bless Ronni Sanlo. And God bless us everyone.

Suicide Notes from the Cosmic Web of Coincidence

Back around Christmas, I posted a piece about how, contrary to popular belief, the ‘holiday season’ is not the most suicidal time of the year. I’m gonna let you in on a little secret…spring is.

I wasn’t giving the idea of springtime suicide all that much thought, until the news of a note from Kurt Cobain’s wallet—mock wedding vows that turned out to have been penned by Courtney Love—bounced into the news for a day or two, and I realized I’d been hearing about a lot of recent suicides–well-known and mostly-unknown.

Hearing the specifics of Cobain’s wallet note, on a local radio show as I drove home from work, knocked down a self-imposed wall that had prevented me from engaging with the stories of recently-released information and evidence from Cobain’s death, leading me to think back on my memories from that time.

Back then, my wife and I were making a living designing and printing T-shirts out of our apartment, selling them at the Fremont market, and through ads in a local paper, The Stranger, and in national publications Spin, Vibe, and Rolling Stone, as well as doing custom jobs for businesses, bands, and other organizations. News of Cobain’s death had managed to elude us until I saw it in a Seattle Times headline, there on display by the sales counter at a gas station/convenience store across the road from our apartment, where I had gone on a late-afternoon beer run.

As with most deaths, my reaction was one of stunned silence–an unvoiced, “Wow, that’s weird.”  Back home, I hemmed and hawed and didn’t quite manage to relay the information, instead turning on the TV news and waiting for the story to come on.

We had only recently confirmed my wife’s first and only pregnancy; and it hadn’t been long enough for us to share the news with friends and family. I couldn’t stop thinking of that photo of Kurt, Courtney, and baby Frances from the cover of Spin. Cobain, not even a year-and-a-half older than me, had achieved what we were all supposed to want—right? Money, fame, a family—all while getting to tout his artistic integrity and give a big middle finger to…well, whoever he wanted, I guess. He was just getting started. He could continue on being a vital artist, or get old and boring, or become a recluse, or whatever he wanted. He had the resources now, and…

Kurt and courtney and frances

Well, if I steer clear of the conspiracy theories, he killed himself. How was that even possible?

Looking back through a lens of pop culture references, I think of Tyler Durden confirming that we weren’t all going to become millionaires, and movie stars, and rock gods. But Cobain had become that…or at least two out of three.

Also, prior to Cobain’s death, I’d read interviews with Eddie Vedder where he talked about being depressed and drinking too much wine, and I was worried Vedder was going to kill himself…intentionally, passively, or accidentally. Cobain said plenty of dark things, sure, but he was just kidding…right?  And, yeah, I had all the Nirvana albums, and all the tracks that turned up on compilations, credited and uncredited…No Alternative, Hard to Believe, The Beavis and Butthead Experience

In my earliest thoughts about this post, I had some germ of an idea about making a connection between Cobain’s death and my current work…like Cobain’s death had some impact on the trajectory of my life, and…oh well, whatever, nevermind. I think we all try to fit various life events into narratives that make everything add up into some kind of “everything happens for a reason” bumper sticker idea…as if the suicide of a celebrity I had never even met was meant to guide me to my purpose.

It was a good 12+ years from the time of Cobain’s death until I bounced back into school with the intention of becoming a therapist, and then a few more before I had gotten involved in suicide prevention, almost more by happenstance than by a powerful drive to do so. I found out I was good at it–able to handle the stress of trying to redirect people in crisis—trying to suss out what it was they were after, and find a way to address that (which often just comes down to listening and validating the underlying emotions of their distress).

Cobain may have been one tiny thread among numerous others leading up to where I landed, just like the other people I knew (mostly peripherally) who had taken their own lives—or tried to—the bulk of them in spring. But Cobain was never some overtly motivating factor. In fact, I think if I cited him as a big reason for my work, it would be kind of ridiculous… “Man, Cobain’s suicide really changed me, and I decided I wanted to help people.” But to be clear, I have no harsh judgment for whatever factors direct people to engage in ‘the helping professions.’

A supervisor of mine, who was instrumental in providing me with the fundamentals for dealing with people struggling with suicidal thoughts, theorized that the increase in suicides in spring might have something to do with the dashing of expectations…that slogging through a cold, dark winter is one thing when everybody has to put up with the cold and the darkness. But when spring starts peeling open, turning itself toward the sun, grasping those opportunities to grow…and you’re still stuck in that winter mindset…cold, despondent, unable to see the sun or feel its warmth, or to even care about dragging yourself out into it…well, that’s when you lose hope.

In thinking about springtime suicide, I’ve had this other little germ of a thought…that when we are constantly exposed to the idea that everything happens for a reason, it can have the inadvertent effect of making people seek out connections for why they feel shitty. And when they can’t find particular reasons…or perhaps the reasons they find are viewed as trite or easily resolved by the people around them…or maybe the reasons they find all land in the arena of self-doubt, shame, or a sense that they are apparently deserving of the bad things that have happened to them and the lack of happiness they feel…well, it can hurt that much more.

Instead, why not embrace the idea that plenty of things in life happen for no reason at all, except, perhaps, for the culmination of random factors and arbitrary decisions…the cosmic web of coincidence…which can end up dropping anyone down a deep dark hole? (Arguably, this is a ‘shit happens’ bumper sticker argument, but I like to think of it as much more involved).  And why not embrace the idea that darkness is an essential part of being human? As much as happiness may be the goal, as much as we may all want to be millionaires and rock stars and movie gods, even the millionaires and rock stars and movie gods among us can’t completely avoid disappointments, disasters, trauma, and loss—hell, a lot of them are born of that negativity (although I don’t want to promote any ‘tortured artist’ stereotypes).

None of us get to insulate ourselves against negative feelings. Those negative feelings–even feelings of suicide–are actually much more common than people think. But when we’re so fixated on happy, and so fixated on the idea that we can ARRIVE at happiness once and for all, with just the right combination of attitude and effort, we set people up to wonder just what is wrong with them when happiness seems so elusive.

So, check in with your friends and family this spring and every spring (and every other season for that matter). That celebration-free, often contact-free, stretch from New Years Day until the world starts warming up in spring can be long and dark as hell…and when spring rolls around, and people are left feeling like they are still disconnected and down in a hole, despite all the blossoms and rays, that darkness can become something much more overwhelming.

 

 

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved #CancelColbert was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize it. Part 4: Colbert Gets Snarky, Dodges the Issue

With Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling grabbing the headlines for their overt, easily-condemned racism, I really should have cranked out these Park/Colbert-related posts a lot quicker. After all, in the U.S.A. we can’t go all that long without another disturbing, race-related story coming to light. And so long as we have people like Bundy and Sterling saying such outrageous things, we can go along ignoring more subtle examples of racism, which really aren’t that subtle at all, as we pat ourselves on the back for not being as bad as those guys.

Still, when I started these posts calling #CancelColbert necessary, the underlying idea wasn’t that it was necessary to cancel “The Colbert Show,” but that the discussion that arose out of the #CancelColbert campaign was necessary, especially given the rather harsh, negative reaction to the campaign, not by the usual hard-right, proud racists, or even the Fox News fan base of racism deniers, but by a large group of people who count themselves among Colbert’s enlightened fans, those people largely being liberals or progressives. The necessity for the discussion was furthered by the severe freak-out aimed at Suey Park, the person behind the #CancelColbert campaign, and the avoidance of actually talking about whether it is okay for white people to use racist language targeting one group in order to criticize/satirize white racism against another group.

“It was a joke,” or “It was satire,” is simply not an adequate answer. It is exactly the kind of thing that Rush Limbaugh fans say anytime anybody criticizes him for his vulgarity and stupidity—“It’s just a joke. Get over it. Why are you so sensitive?”

The underlying debate is, arguably, another version of whether it is okay for white people to use “the n-word,” in any of its variations, and if they can expect that people will take it in the way they intend—or if it’s just plain offensive regardless. If you want to get down to finer points, it is possible to argue that Colbert’s language wasn’t specifically a racial slur against people of Asian descent, in the same way that “the n-word” is a slur against people of African descent. (Of course, maybe “people of African descent” isn’t the best description, since that includes everybody on the planet–but I think you take my meaning).  Still, the language Colbert used was not innocuous.

Consider it: “The Ching Chong Ding Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.” Just imagine you heard this language, or more specifically, the “Ching Chong” or “Orientals” part, coming out of the mouth of a white person in a restaurant, or a bank, or pretty much any other public setting. Would it strike you as odd? Offensive? Would it seem perfectly okay? If one of your white friends used this language, would you call them on it? Ignore it? Analyze the context to determine if it was an acceptable use of those words?

My guess is that, unless you’re cool with racist digs at people of Asian descent, it might seem more than a little ‘off.’

Yet, despite the clearly offensive (sorry if I’m making assumptions) nature of the language, when Park called Colbert on the use of this language, a bunch of people attacked Park as lacking a sense of humor and failing to understand the context of the joke.  Rather than an exchange of reasonable viewpoints, the ugliest garbage the Internet can produce came flooding out—including targeting Park with unquestionably racist and sexist language, rape threats, and death threats. There was an all-out effort to tear Park down, without ever giving any real consideration to whether the language is, at base, offensive.

Several people, including Park, have noted that Colbert chose to craft the joke with offensive language targeting Asian people rather than other ethnic groups, exactly because it was accepted that the “Ching Chong” language would be seen as an obvious joke, whereas other racially-charged language wouldn’t be so readily viewed as ‘satire’—one underlying message being that Asian people are in on the (white people) joke, and cool enough not to get all freaked out about white people saying racist things in service of satire. Such a belief falls into ideas of Asians as the “model minority”—willing to go along to get along. When Park raised an issue by objecting to the language, fans of Colbert immediately shifted the issue away from Colbert using the language, and on to Asian people who “can’t take a joke.”

Now, I get that Colbert is arguably painted into a corner in that the character he plays on “The Colbert Report,” and the kind of person that character represents, would never issue an apology or acknowledge any kind of mistake or wrongdoing. And given that he is playing a character, it is more than difficult to say anything that would be taken sincerely, or really understood as him breaking character. Still, Colbert’s response, which notably did not refer to Suey Park by name even once despite showing a picture of her, was sadly lacking. It never once addressed the use of the particular language, or why it might be offensive, and instead, chose to repeat the language multiple times, while saying “not my fault” and “don’t take jokes out of context.”

You can watch the whole piece here:  Colbert’s Dodgy Response

Colbert’s response can be summed up in the following points (now drained of humor, sorry):

  1. I am playing a character.
  2. I was mocking Dan Snyder.
  3. The joke was repeated several times (reruns and social media) with no reaction.
  4. Somebody other than me sent the problem tweet.
  5. The tweet did not provide any context for the joke.
  6. The news media blew this out of proportion
  7. Michelle Malkin attacked me over this, and she is clearly worse than me.
  8. This took the attention off Dan Snyder and put it on me.
  9. I’ve done a number of other pieces involving race issues that would seem really bad out of context.

So much of this response seems as if it were crafted by handlers following social media reaction, who then ran it by a focus group just to make sure it would resonate with Colbert’s adoring public. It was a joke/satire—check. You’re taking it out of context—check. Don’t you get it?—check. Why now?/Why this?—check. Snyder is the issue here—check. This was blown out of proportion—check. Michelle Malkin sucks—check.

Colbert’s response, by failing to name Park, implies that Michelle Malkin—someone many Colbert fans despise—is the person most associated with the #CancelColbert campaign. It also has this creepy mythological undertone of refusing to name one’s enemy—“She Who Must Not be Named” in Harry Potter Parlance. Or, if you want to go into a history of racial issues involving naming and claiming, Columbus declaring, well, everything for Spain while refusing to acknowledge or accurately identify those he was claiming it from, or even concern himself with whether they were speaking the same language…

Okay, maybe that’s being a bit dramatic, but why couldn’t Colbert say who started the campaign, or even identify what she said was the underlying point? Don’t want to add any more to her (as every hack has written) 15 minutes of fame? Sorry, I don’t think Park is going away that soon, unless it is by her own choice. (And, btw, you don’t get to claim somebody and her particular form of communication is insignificant while also blaming her/it for allegedly derailing an important national conversation. Calling attention to a joke, thereby creating a national conversation is not the same thing as derailing a conversation that was already taking place). Don’t want to direct any attention toward her because then people might see that she has already engaged the same kinds of “hashtivist” campaigns in service against racist mascots? I guess it really doesn’t serve your attempt to tag someone as ‘anti-First-Nations’ if she’s shown support for First Nations people. Don’t want to answer the question regarding the use of particular forms of language? That sounds more like it.

I’d have at least a little more faith that Colbert’s audience is laughing at the sophisticated satire and context of the joke if they didn’t all giggle each time he used the “Ching Chong” language, as if they were toddlers hearing someone say “poopy.”

I’ll concede that Colbert isn’t the poster boy for racist comedy.  He’s been a voice for progressive causes, and has called out hypocrisy in politics, religion, and the media for a good long while.  Still, if someone questions something he does, it doesn’t speak highly of his audience if they are going to react with anger and hate–regardless of who is asking the question.  If someone asks whether Colbert’s language was racist, supporters of Colbert replying with name-calling, particularly grossly racist name-calling, doesn’t really lead to the conclusion that they are enlightened consumers of sophisticated comedy.

And when those supporters, and Colbert himself, dodge the actual question that was raised, they don’t appear to have some amazing sense of humor that the questioners lack.  They just look like they’re afraid of the question.

I’m still not sure why it was so impossible for (white, liberal) people to have this conversation in particular. I’m still not sure why Park had to be attacked by Colbert fans who were unable to accept the idea that maybe this kind of language should be dropped. After all, when Rush Limbaugh mocked Chinese President Hu Jintao with a ridiculous verbal stream of mock-Chinese “ching chong” talk, plenty of people rightfully criticized him.

Some have said the use of the language comes down to intent—that Limbaugh was talking in ignorance, while Colbert was talking with satire in mind.  And, sure, there’s a difference there. But isn’t that just a way of saying that we are laughing with Colbert, and laughing at Limbaugh? Or that Limbaugh was laughing at Asian people, while Colbert was laughing with Asian people?  But, then, where does that leave you when you find out that not all of the Asian people are laughing with you? Or at you? Or at all?

At base, it’s the same language. It’s the same stupid joke. Whether someone is laughing at or with somebody, they’re still laughing at the idea that all that “ching chong” talk is the basis of a good joke.

And when Colbert fans start decrying the people who questioned the use of the language in the first place, and acusing them of being anti-white, they sound an awful lot like those racism-denying Fox News fans—you know, the ones who think that the real race issue in America is that non-white people dared to admit that they aren’t all that happy with the way white people treat them—or talk about them.

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved That #CancelColbert Was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part Three: Chez Pazienza’s Double-Filtered White Whine

Chez Pazienza of “The Daily Banter” wasn’t even able to make it past the title of his piece about Prachi Gupta’s Salon.com interview with Suey Park, auteur of the #CancelColbert Twitter campaign, without stepping in it. Yes, Pazienza thoughtfully titled his non-analysis of the interview “We Read Salon’s Interview with Suey Park So You Don’t Have To.” That is to say, when a controversy blew up in regard to the use of racist terms in humor, based heavily on the idea that white privilege is at play, Pazienza (a self described “white guy”) responded by telling his audience not to read what the originator of the conversation, a person of color, had to say. Instead, Pazienza filtered what he calls Park’s “hashtag outrage” down to a more appropriate white-guy outrage at Park’s ideas, all while failing to actually address the bulk of the ideas Park touches on in the interview.

Pazienza provides two full paragraphs of his own vitriol before actually beginning to speak directly to anything Park said, proclaiming that the #CancelColbert campaign was never really about addressing racism, and all about Park calling attention to herself. Sounding like a Fox News curmudgeon/commentator decrying the elitism of educated folk, Pazienza bashes Park for her “mindless repetition of buzzwords and narratives drilled into a willing mind by a modern humanities and critical race theory education.” Pazienza’s imposed narrative, then, is that Park is a narcissist whose education has made her an academe-bot who is completely out of touch with reality and so should be duly ignored.

Pazienza further reports that he would “be curious to approach some of the Twitterati I respect who have inexplicably defended her and ask” (following the publication of the Salon.com interview), “if they feel like they still can.” Sending off a few private messages, or e-mails, making a phone call, or even reading through tweets that those “Twitterati” have posted is apparently too time-consuming for Pazienza, since it is much easier to make the blanket statement that such support is “inexplicable,” thereby avoiding the risk of being confronted with more ideas that Pazienza would then have to either ignore or misrepresent.

You can read the whole piece here: Pazienza strikes a blow for…well…even he doesn’t know.

Pazienza goes on to state that he “is not going to fully and seriously analyze the interview” but will instead “post some of the best excerpts of it here” and “leave it to you to decipher in the comment section,” because, of course, website comments sections are where real critical thinking and reasoned debate shines. Abdicating the writer’s responsibility to actually provide any kind of coherent analysis of the interview or the points therein, Pazienza instead lifts portions of the interview and makes snide comments about them without even attempting to show any understanding of anything, aside from how annoyed he got at reading said portions. It’s anyone’s guess as to why Pazienza thought he had put together a winning strategy for proving that Park, not Pazienza, is the unreasonable one.

Following his first selection from the interview, wherein Park says that the particular context of her #CancelColbert campaign is irrelevant to the larger conversation, Pazienza slams Park for her “combative tone.” Pazienza’s roughly-400-word introduction, trashing Park and (Paziena’s interpretation of) her intentions, is, in Pazienza’s view, appropriate to “reasonable, sane” people, while Park steering the conversation away from questions of specific context somehow shows she’s out of control.

Pazienza then skips over the part where Park explains her view that the ‘default position’ in the whole debate over #CancelColbert has been to read everything Park has said as literal while reading everything Colbert said as satire, and to assume Park didn’t understand why Colbert made the joke that he did. Among other things, that default position has led to the much-repeated storyline that Colbert’s use of hyperbole is justified, while Park’s use of hyperbole is simply misplaced anger. But, since Pazienza is trying to make a case that Park is aiming her anger at the wrong target(s), it’s best not to explain that she might have intentions/targets other than the ones Pazienza assigns to her.

Pazienza then includes several lines from the interview which involve Park explaining follow-up issues to the paragraph he left out, such as the idea of people of color being made to “use the right tone…in order to be heard.” But Pazienza already belittled those ideas up front, by labeling them “the problem with the world, according to Suey.” Funny that Pazienza chastises Park for her combative tone, then suggests Park is being ridiculous for pointing out that people of color are told to keep their tone in check. Or maybe that’s some of Pazienza’s own “sheer madness—or willful bullshit” to use his own words.

At any rate, Pazienza’s only takeaway from the tone-related excerpt is that Park uses the phrase “whiteness at large,” a phrase that Pazienza apparently believes to be so ludicrous that all he needs to do is repeat it to make it clear that the phrase, and whatever Park said in relation to it, is worthy of derision. (Perhaps if Pazienza hadn’t skipped that paragraph about hyperbole, he might be able to process some of this a little better). Of course, Pazienza does not bother to try and explain or contextualize the phrase—again inadvertently proving Park’s points for her. That is to say, Park connects the idea of “whiteness” or “whiteness at large” (as opposed to the specific Colbert joke and Colbert’s response to Park’s criticism) to the overall idea that it is made incumbent on people of color to understand the intentions of white people, while it is not considered reciprocally necessary for white people to try to understand the position of people of color. For example, Park has been repeatedly asked if she understands the context of Colbert’s joke, while those asking the question assume they understand what Park meant by her criticism of the joke—that assumption being that Park did not understand the context of Colbert’s joke or she would not have criticized it.

Park also made the comment about “whiteness at large” while explaining that she did not want the discussion of “oppressiveness” narrowed down and confined to either “The Colbert Report” or the particular joke that led to the #CancelColbert campaign. In other words, Colbert’s joke was not an isolated incident, and certainly such use of language is not only confined to Colbert. One can only guess that Pazienza believes that it was reasonable for Gupta to ask the question of whether it was Colbert’s TV show as a whole, or just one joke by Colbert, that was “oppressive,” and that that Park could have answered in any way that Pazienza would have found acceptable.

The next excerpt involves Park responding to a question about what she wants out of her “revolution,” which ends with Park asking for the question to be repeated because she was “distracted” by “a bird outside my window.” Pazienza labels this “the best Millennial-ADD moment or affected impression of an ADD-moment…you could possibly imagine.” For the time being, I’ll leave off any detailed discussion of the politics of using a diagnosable mental illness as an insult, and just ask what the hell is a “Millennial-ADD moment” or an “ADD-moment” at all?

Perhaps the more interesting question, though, is why, in an interview allegedly “edited for clarity and length,” the Salon.com editors thought there was some legitimate reason to include Park’s comment about being distracted, especially given that the editors set the sentence on it’s own—which they did not do with any other sentence in the interview. So, it appears that the editors deliberately set the particular sentence apart in such a fashion in order to call attention to it so they could paint Park as a flake. Or does Salon.com routinely print such comments in interviews? It seems impossible that Park was the first person ever in the history of Salon.com to get distracted during a phone interview and to ask for a question to be repeated. Yet Pazienza mocks Park for losing her train of thought, as if it is evidence of mental illness or some deep character flaw.

Pazienza goes on to accuse Park of “staggering narcissism” and “putting her work writing Twitter hashtags on the same level as civil rights pioneers who truly put their lives and futures on the line to advance noble causes.” And maybe it would have been pretty narcissistic for Park to put her work on the same level as civil rights pioneers, if she had, in fact, done that. But what she actually said is that “white America” has repeatedly asked people of color to be “reasonable” if they want white America to support them, and that “big historical figures in racial justice were never reasonable” and were “painted as crazy.” Park may be positioning herself in a historical pattern (a positioning which Pazienza inadvertently validates by accusing Park of being unreaonable and unstable), but she didn’t say anything like ‘my #CancelColbert campaign is set to eclipse MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech in terms of civil rights milestones’—although Pazienza implies Park has committed some such blasphemy.

One might also note that, on the matter of placing one’s life and future on the line, Park has received numerous death threats, rape threats, and been hit with a barrage of exceedingly offensive sexist and racist insults because she criticized something that her detractors have repeatedly characterized as “just a joke.” The threats, as Park notes in the interview, led to the necessary cancellation of some of Park’s public appearances due to safety concerns. I hope Pazienza thinks trolls who threaten rape and murder are a real problem, and wish that the existence of such trolls and threats would have provoked a more powerful response from Pazienza than his statement that Park “doesn’t deserve to be threatened” and that nobody should mock her for her “background or gender.” He does say, though, that Park should be mocked for her “deeply absurd opinions” which are “deserving of every bit of ridicule and derision that’s been heaped on them”–an argument that would hold more water if Pazienza showed any ability to articulate what those opinions actually are. One can only guess that Pazienza’s failure to examine Park’s arguments slips over into a failure to really consider the damage done by trolls who think nothing of engaging in assaultive behavior via Internet, and his unfortunate choice of diction leaves open the question of who Pazienza believes is actually deserving of threats.

Pazienza goes on to get offended that Park answers in the affirmative in response to the question of whether “white men are sort of the enemy.” Oh, Lord, what atrocities will she commit next? Why, she might even say that she thinks white men should acknowledge that they have a privileged position in society!! ¡Qué horror!

Of course, Pazienza fixates on the “enemy” word, instead of on the idea that maybe white guys should acknowledge that they have privilege in society. He says “there’s nothing wrong with” acknowledging white privilege (although he uses a whole a lot of words to cushion the blow of this devastating concept), and only utters it after complaining about Park’s “youthful moral certitude” and “black and white” thinking. Apparently in Pazienza’s world, “sort of” and “acknowledging white privilege” are words and concepts associated with all-or-nothing thinking. Pazienza then lobs accusations that Park, by making statements acknowledging white privilege and labeling white men as “sort of” enemies, while at the same time failing to point to the accomplishments of white allies, is “unbelievably childish” and “shockingly stupid and counterproductive.”

So, once again, we are treated to the finger-pointing tantrum of somebody falling miserably short of understanding the perspective of someone other than himself, or even trying to understand it. Pazienza says Park’s perspective is about “incremental but important positive changes not being enough for those who believe it’s all or nothing.” And, not to draw the MLK-Park connection, but what was all that stuff in that Birmingham jail letter thingy about ‘how long are we supposed to wait for white people to achieve the ability to be comfortable enough for real equality with people of color?’

Yes, Pazienza thinks Park, who he summarily dismisses as ridiculous, is in the wrong for lacking the maturity to acknowledge all the amazing things white people have done for people of color in the context of an interview regarding the problem of using racist terminology in comedy.

So, Pazienza accuses Park of alienating allies and potential allies by using hyperbole, when Park’s initial point was that Colbert’s use of (particular forms) of hyperbole is (potentially) alienating to people of color. But, again, in Pazienza’s view, it is up to Park to be conciliatory and to have the right tone, not Colbert. Strangely enough, this pressure for people of color to “behave” so that (white) people understand their good intentions and may just decide to help them to become equals with whites, while white people can say what they want and expect/demand to be understood (by people of color AND white people), is exactly what Park spends much of the interview explaining.

Pazienza goes on to accuse Park of not caring about Native Americans because (in his view) she made herself the focus of Colbert’s joke about Dan Snyder’s ignorantly-named Redskins society, instead of just letting Colbert’s audience laugh at Colbert’s joke and return to doing nothing about the issue of racist team names/team mascots. Never mind that it was Pazienza and his ilk that turned the spotlight on Park and her personal flaws rather than having an actual discussion about Park’s criticism of racist jokes being used to criticize racism. Pazienza, like his pouty brethren, ignores the fact that Park has been involved in other “hashtag activism” campaigns in relation to the issue of racist mascots. After all, it’s much easier to say Park is all about herself than to acknowledge anything she has done that might go against the ludicrous narrative that Park ruined everything that Colbert was fighting for—y’know, because his original joke was aimed at making sure people pushed Snyder to change the name of the football team he owns.

Pazienza can’t resist tacking on the whiny white-guy complaint that Park would invalidate his opinion simply because he’s a white guy, and then asserts that just because he is white doesn’t give Park a pass from criticism. Okay, but if you’re going to say Park is deserving of criticism, how about addressing the ideas Park raises instead of just getting angry and defensive, and spouting a bunch of bullshit that doesn’t even touch on said ideas? I mean, really, what part of Pazienza’s argument is Park supposed to validate? The part where he accuses her of seeking attention, or the part where he explains that he has no cogent argument to make?

I’ll grant Pazienza that Park can ramble, and that she uses a lot of language that is common to social justice theory, but perhaps not so accessible to mainstream America. But to say that Park’s form of activism is so off-putting that it is going to turn away people who were otherwise right on the cusp of casting off their white privilege, is to give far too much credit to people who don’t already recognize the problem, and to place far too much blame on Park.

Then again, I’m guessing Pazienza recognizes that there is some underlying truth to a lot of what Park says. And if he were to actually attack her arguments, he would put himself in a bad position of having to side with the people who deny white privilege exists and who argue that racial slurs are okay so long as they are in the right context–as defined by white people. So, Pazienza attacks Park’s character, and the way Park presents her information, rather than actually taking on the challenge of meeting her arguments in a more direct fashion. Because, in the end, all he really says is ‘I don’t like her,’ and ‘She’s being too confrontational’—which are points that really don’t amount to anything except the same old white guy crap, where everybody needs to quit being so sensitive, until the “jokes” and criticism get aimed at the white guys, at which point excessive sensitivity is magically transformed into a concern with civility and the need for people to behave like reasonable adults instead of calling names and using angry language.  It is the assertion that demanding that others “get over it” while insisting “you need to understand me” is the exclusive domain of white guys.

And while Pazienza bemoans all the terrible, exhausting work it took him to read Park’s interview, I can’t imagine the trauma he would have been put through if he had actually taken the time to try to understand it and respond to it in some way that wasn’t totally reactionary.  After all, calling your adversary ‘immature’ while you stamp your feet, shake your fists, and hold your breath, is not exactly a good strategy for proving your point. Neither is trying to claim that a bunch of people of varying races and genders agree with you by linking to their posts—some of which don’t really show all that strong of an agreement with you, and most of which take the same, childish ignore-the-argument-attack-the-arguer stance—which Pazienza does at the end of the article, right before he suggests that Pazienza talking about Park was Park’s end goal. So, now, who’s the narcissist?

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved That #CancelColbert Was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part Two: Josh Zepps Gets Stupid

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of White Guys Proved That #CancelColbert Was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part Two: Josh Zepps Gets Stupid

It’s a pretty long trek from “I hear what you’re saying, and it’s worth considering,” to “Your opinion is stupid.” It is, however, just a small step from conducting an interview with the subtext “I don’t have to listen to you,” to actually coming out and saying, “Your opinion is stupid,” which is exactly what Josh Zepps did in his “HuffPost Live” interview with Suey Park on March 31st.

Park made an appearance on Zepps’ show, via webcam from her home, to discuss the #CancelColbert campaign (related to a segment on “The Colbert Report” where Colbert used racist terms for people of Asian descent in order to mock Dan Snyder’s use of the racist Redskins football team name in the name of an organization created with the alleged goal of supporting First Nations people). Channeling Ron Burgundy, Zepps spent the bulk of the interview pushing Park to acknowledge that the Colbert segment that led to Park’s campaign was just a joke, and to chuckle along with him.

Zepps’ preparation for the interview seems to have involved little more than getting a couple of screen grabs off of Twitter, watching the Colbert segment, and coming up with different ways of saying, ‘Come on, it’s a joke. Get over it,’ while smugly smirking and chuckling. It’s unclear if he actually prepared himself to follow the indignant, defensive white male playbook, or if that just came naturally to him.

Apparently incapable of hearing anything Park said, Zepps stooped to asking her if she even knew what satire was, explained the definition of satire, and made multiple attempts to tell her why Colbert’s joke was funny/not offensive, as well as trying to tell her she shouldn’t be upset about racist language if it’s used in a satirical fashion.

Oddly enough, despite his attempt to educate Parks on the meaning of various words and concepts, Zepps didn’t seem to recognize at least one word Park used: “Orientalism.” Zepps failed to distinguish between Colbert’s use of the word “Orientals” (a derogatory term for a huge swath of people from Northern Africa, throughout all of Asia) and Park’s use of the word “Orientalism” (which I will loosely define as the practice of viewing/referring to the region previously mentioned, and the people from that region as exotic, strange, and “other”). Park took Colbert to task for engaging in Orientalism–in this case, making a joke that relied on viewing people of Asian descent as “other” and making them the punchline of a joke allegedly aimed at white racists–not just using the word “Orientals,” although using that word didn’t help anything.

Apparently, realizing he was not going to get any traction with Park on the point of how funny the Colbert segment was, Zepps tried to pull his fellow commentator, Jason Linkins, in on the debate by addressing him directly, saying, “Jason, a part of the whole gag here is the use of the term Orientalism which is such a weird, old, loaded (laugh) like, it’s just a stupid, stupid word. But to get upset about the use of that word when it’s in a satirical context strikes me as misguided.” Yes, that’s right. Zepps attempted to enlist the support of his fellow white guy in an effort to tell Park that having a negative reaction to the use of racist terms that are aimed at people of Asian descent (as Park is) is misguided—y’know, because it was a joke. Or, to put it more bluntly, Zepps asserted the right of white people to tell people of Asian descent how they should react to a joke using racist terms for Asian people.  (In an even more ludicrous exchange Zepps and Linkins spent a short time after the Park interview bemoaning the fact that, as white men, Park was denying them the ability to express, or even have, opinions–this coming from two guys who are paid to sit around and give their opinions on issues on a high-traffic website).

Park responded to Zepps insistence that the use of the racist terms was okay because it was satirical by saying that “satire caters to the audience that you’re speaking to,” and is an indication of “what the audience finds humorous or acceptable.” In other words, Park said that Colbert’s audience was willing to laugh at a joke wherein, to mock a racist, people of Asian descent were used as a punchline. The language Colbert used is still degrading, and the history behind those words is such that it can still provoke some rather powerful responses. But that idea was ignored, or perhaps not even considered. To put it more concisely, Park explained that “white liberals feel like they are less racist because they can joke about people that are more explicitly racist.” But in that equation, the joke still involved the use of racist terms and the joke was still built on the idea that racism is funny.

To further his argument that Park (and, by extension, anybody who had a problem with the Colbert joke) was simply wrong, Zepps suggested Park would better spend her time actually “attacking Dan Snyder’s racism” rather than attacking “a satirical attack on Snyder’s racism.” Again, Zepps tell’s Park what her reaction should be, and what the appropriate issue is, as well as what the appropriate course of action (for Park) should be.

Park’s response to this challenge contained a number of intertwined and somewhat complicated points, all of which Zepps ignored. First of all, Park argued against ‘individualizing’ the issues regarding racism by breaking them down into issues particular to separate ethnic groups, especially when her critique was, at base, against racism, and the use of racism to mock racism.  Park also pointed out that she has been involved in the campaign against racist mascots like the Redskins (see the above point regarding Zepps’ failure to prepare for the interview), and that regardless of the specific issue raised with regard to racism, the response—backlash against the person pointing out the racism, rather than focus on the actual racism—tends to be the same. Park further explains that, even as Zepps tells her she should be directing her attention at Snyder’s racism, he (and many others) choose to spend their energy coming to the defense of Colbert and a joke, while attacking Park, rather than doing anything about the racist mascot that Zepps tells Park to address.

Park made the rather biting comment that for “white liberals” and other supporters of Colbert, “it’s not really about whether or not the Redskins exist or whether or not racism is over, it’s really about feeling like they can’t have fun anymore and feeling entitled to be able to laugh at things that aren’t really funny.” If there’s any doubt about this point, one need only look at how Park has had much more ire directed at her for raising a question about Colbert’s joke than has been directed at Dan Snyder or the Redskins organization, despite decades of people attempting to focus attention on the issue of racist mascots, and a complete refusal by those with the power to do so to change the name of the Redskins. There has been movement on the issue with regard to mascots at the high school and college levels. But, as Park points out, Zepps is directing his efforts at defending a joke that used racist terms, while telling Park what her reaction should be to hearing racist terms used against people of Asian descent, and where she should direct her attention and political activism.

But none of Park’s arguments sunk in with Zepps. What did sink in was when Park criticized Zepps more directly, saying it was “incredibly patronizing for you to paint these questions this way, especially as a white man.” Park attempted to actually have a discussion about the issues she was trying to raise with the #CancelColbert campaign, while Zepps repeatedly defaulted to the idea of “it was a joke” or “it was satire” and insisted that Park was merely misunderstanding Colbert’s intent, and did not know what satire is.

Park went on to say that she didn’t expect Zepps “to be able to understand what people of color are actually saying.” Zepps, and many others, took this to be a completely unfair argument, even racist on Park’s part (Oh no! She said that white people don’t listen to people of color–and in a context where a white guy was clearly not listening to a person of color!). But, throughout the entire interview, Zepps did not once acknowledge anything that Park said, or give any credence to the idea that anybody of Asian descent might be offended by the use of the “Ching Chong” and “Orientals” language that Colbert used. Zepps simply insisted it was a joke, so Park should not be offended. In other words, Zepps didn’t listen to Park at all—and she pointed out that he wasn’t listening to her at all.

Park gives her best

Park gives her best “Thanks for talking down to me” smile.

So, this resulted in Zepps engaging in a little defensive tantrum, wherein he said that being white does not “prevent me from being able to think and doesn’t prevent me from being able to have thoughts…reasoned perspectives on things.” Note, first, that Park did not say that being a white person prevented Zepps from thinking, she said it was getting in the way of his ability/willingness to listen to what she was saying. He wanted to argue a particular point.  She was trying to explain that she had a different perspective. Zepps simply continued to assert that his perspective was the right perspective, without acknowledging that he had any understanding whatsoever of Park’s point of view.

If there’s any question about Zepps’ intent, or Zepps’ belief in his own rightness, when Park pointed out that he was minimalizing her experience and minimalizing her opinion, read: he wasn’t listening at all, and denied that anything she said was valid—which is exactly what he did—Zepps said he was not doing any such thing, then said, “It’s just a stupid opinion.” Let that sink in. Zepps said that he was not minimalizing Park’s experience or opinion, but then called her opinion “stupid”—a word that could not more clearly demonstrate that Zepps had no intent of considering anything Park said, because her arguments did not fit in with Zepps’ overriding premise that Park had a “misunderstanding of what satire is…a misunderstanding of what irony is.”

Perhaps Zepps can understand this little bit of irony, though. Early on in the interview, Zepps said, in defense of Colbert’s use of slurs against people of Asian descent, “isn’t his point that there are lots of stupid racist people who, even in their attempt to be conciliatory on race end up putting their foot in it, and saying something dumb?”  Yes, Mr. Zepps, that was Colbert’s point, delivered in a way that some found objectionable. Still, thanks for providing another example of just that point.

Suey Park Out of Context, or How a Bunch of (Liberal) White Guys Proved that #CancelColbert was Necessary and Didn’t Even Realize It. Part One: She Said What?!?

Way back on March 27 or so—an eternity in Twitter time—Suey Park, a 23-year-old writer, comedian, and activist, in response to a post from the Twitter account of Comedy Central’s “The Colbert Report” (but not actually Stephen Colbert’s account), started a (Twitter-based) campaign: #CancelColbert. Park’s point (overly simplified): using racist jokes to mock racism isn’t really an effective way to combat racism, or particularly funny. The outcome: a bunch of (mostly) white (mostly) guys told her to shut up and learn how to take a joke.

Colbert’s original segment, which aired on Wednesday, March 26, mocked the racist name of the newly-established “Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation,” in part, by claiming that Colbert (in the person of his mock-right-wing character) was establishing his own charity, named after an Asian character with a racist name, in support of “Orientals…or Whatever.”

Late on Thursday, March 27, “The Colbert Report” Twitter acccount posted a tweet announcing the establishment of the foundation for “Orientals…or Whatever,” which, due to a limited number of available characters, and a lack of forethought, made the use of the racist terminology that much more blatant.

It was at this point that Park entered the (Twitter) picture, calling for the cancellation of “The Colbert Report,” by pointing out that mocking racism with racism is still a form of encouraging people to laugh at racism and racist stereotypes. Park has since explained that she is a fan of Colbert, and did not literally mean that she believed Colbert’s show should be cancelled, but that she was using hyperbole as a means of calling attention to a particular idea. In other words, a Twitter campaign called #PleaseKindlyAskColbertNotToUseRacistJokesToMockRacism is much less attention-getting than #CancelColbert.

Never mind that Colbert had used hyperbole (involving racist stereotypes uttered by Colbert’s clueless commentator character) to make his original joke, Park’s hyperbole was, at first, dismissed as the misguided ire of somebody who was not aware of the context of the joke, and soon thereafter, dismissed as the ignorance of somebody who did not understand comedy, or, more specifically, satire.

The dismissal was accompanied by an insistence that if Park just recognized the context of the joke and/or was capable of comprehending the joke, she would recognize her mistake, demurely apologize, give a little giggle, and we could all feel good about our (her) little misunderstanding.  But to believe such an outcome is possible one has to assume that when Park started the campaign, she had no idea who Colbert is, or what his comedic persona involves.  To believe that Park misunderstood the joke because it was out of context, one has to believe that Park saw the ‘partial joke tweet’ and believed that the joke was not related to anything else, and was being presented as a self-contained idea.

Not surprisingly, all the people who insisted or implied that the joke was lost on Park because the Colbert Report tweet existed outside of the joke’s original context were, themselves, choosing to take Park’s criticism out of context. Rather than give Park credit for understanding the joke, and recognizing that Park was actually criticizing the joke, and with good reason, many Colbert supporters/Park detractors kept coming at her with a variation of, “It was a joke. Don’t you get it?” When that didn’t get the desired result, objections to Park slipped, unfortunately but all-too predictably, into the territory of personal attacks—refusing to hear Park and meet her ideas with careful consideration, because it was much easier to tear her down, in many cases by resorting to stereotypes of women, people of Asian descent, or women of Asian descent.

It didn’t help that virtually every news story, in almost every format, explained Park’s campaign as the result of a joke tweet that was made out of the context of the original segment that was aired on “The Colbert Report.” Rarely was any space given to explaining Park’s actual position, as it was much easier to state or imply that Park’s misunderstanding was the real problem.  After all, when a news organization devotes several small chunks of time, over the course of several days, to an entertainment-related news story, why bother to insert any challenging ideas into that story?

I recognize that there have been plenty of occasions of people taking Colbert’s (and others’) satire as a serious statement of position, and reacting out of that misunderstanding. But that is not what happened here. To continue to insist that Park was upset because she misunderstood a joke is to continue to willfully and deliberately misunderstand Park.  Even worse, it is continuing to willfully and deliberately misunderstand Park because that is much easier than considering the implications of what she is saying—that maybe by laughing at Colbert’s joke, people are complicit in supporting racist stereotypes.  In that light, misunderstanding Park serves a very important ego-defense mechanism for people who may not, at base, be so much in disagreement with Park as afraid to acknowledge that their own behavior might be a part of the problem.

Of course, it’s natural for people to become defensive when they feel they are being called out on something. But rather than taking a little time to try and take in a criticism and give it some consideration, a large number of people reacted swiftly and harshly to Park’s criticism.  And “it’s a joke, calm down,” quickly turned into something much more vicious.

To reiterate, Park was saying that to use racism to mock racism still encourages people to laugh at racism and stereotypes, when it would be preferable to just steer clear of racism and stereotypes altogether.

To state it another way, using racism as a punchline keeps racist stereotypes in common use as something to laugh about. It involves maintaining a low standard for how we choose to interact, and ensures ongoing marginalization of several groups.  For instance, it is easy to recognize that a skinhead with swastika tattoos extending his arm and barking “Heil Hitler!” is racist, and it is easy to avoid being racist in that same way.  It is also easy (although apparently not easy enough for Dan Snyder and many others) to recognize that naming an organization that allegedly supports an ethnic group by using a slur against that ethnic group in the name of the organization is a racist thing to do.  Park was urging people to consider a little higher standard–perhaps one where Snyder remains the punchline/butt of the joke, rather than people of Asian descent.

So, maybe rather than insisting that Park just needs to learn how to take a joke, or how to understand a joke, it would be better to do the work of learning how to listen to other viewpoints, rather than just reacting to them without even taking them in.  Hammering on somebody for their lack of understanding, while demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of that person’s viewpoint, would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

People Up: Toward ‘Gender Neutral’ Suicide Prevention

Phone-based crisis intervention and suicide prevention frequently involves guiding a caller toward an (often tenuous) agreement that there’s a reason to get through the next day, or maybe just the next hour.

Toward the end of a recent call, the man I’d been talking to for over 40 minutes summed up the call by saying, “Yeah, I get it…man up.”  He went on to mildly berate me, suggesting that he could have had the same stupid conversation with his dad if his dad hadn’t died.  But I’ll take that as a victory.  He agreed he would stay alive to see his kids on the weekend.

He would not agree to turn his gun over to a friend or family member, which would have helped lessen the likelihood of impulsive, violent suicide.  But, for the time being, he had put it away.  And at least he was calling.

Still, the “man up” comment stuck with me.  I suppose on a greatly reductive level, “man up,” was a component of what I had been saying—especially from the perspective of someone who, based on his interpretation of the world around him, had been getting that message for quite some time–that he needed to just take care of his problems and quit complaining.  But it is not the kind of phrase I would ever use with someone, or the kind of message I would try to convey.

My conversation with him had woven in and out of a number of concerns, with the crux of the conversation coming down to the caller’s children, and his responsibility (like that of all parents) to do whatever possible to ensure their well-being.  It is a conversation I’ve had hundreds of times.

The majority of such calls, involving people who have children but are contemplating suicide, involve the caller expressing that his/her children will be better off without them.  There are a small number of variations on the ‘logic’ behind such a thought—usually involving the children not having to suffer through the heartache of the bad parenting they will certainly continue to experience, the hassles the kids will face by bouncing back and forth between divorced parents, and the notion that the children will “get over it” in time.  If the children are young, callers express that it won’t make that big of an impression.  If the children are older, the parents think the children ‘don’t need me anymore’ or are mature enough to process what happened and move on with their lives.

Never mind the mental twists and turns it takes to imagine that children will have coping skills enough to deal with the suicide of a parent, when that parent doesn’t have the coping skills to deal with loss much less permanent than death—loss of a job, loss of a home, loss of a marriage—or any of numerous variations and combinations of things and people that have gotten away.  Statistical studies show that children of people who commit suicide are at greatly increased risk for attempting/committing suicide themselves.  In an overly-simplistic explanation, the increased risk can relate to genetic factors involved in mental health issues, but it also involves behavior modeling.  Our parents are usually the most significant modelers of behavior in our lives.  And we are all doomed to become our parents.

At any rate, I found myself having the same basic conversation with a woman less than two hours later.  “What messages are you sending your kids if you kill yourself?”  I challenged the cognitive distortions in her justifications for suicide, and explained the threat of her children committing suicide and otherwise potentially being saddled with mental health issues from the suicide of a parent.  Ultimately, we got to a similar end result—the caller agreeing she would put up her pills, and live another day.

But in the conversation with the woman, there was no idea of needing to “woman up”–no need to do what was stereotypically feminine in order to go on living, even though the idea of someone ‘sacrificing’ (in this case, the twist being that sacrificing meant staying alive) for one’s children is something that stereotypically falls more heavily on women.

With the ‘man up’ comment replaying itself in my thoughts repeatedly over the next few days, I realized I was (internally) protesting too much.  The notion that I had a nearly identical conversation with a woman that same night seemed like a defensive position more than a straightforward assessment.

I ran through other ideas, examining the way I deal with men versus the way I deal with women.  For example, any form of counseling involves meeting the client where the client is.  Such meeting includes the client’s perceptions of self in relation to gender.

Still, the client’s perceptions are not the same as my way of interacting with the client.  The client’s perceptions dictate a number of things about how I will approach the client, what thoughts might be challenged and how, for example.  But at base, how I deal with people of different genders is on me.  And I need to be aware of whether those dealings are clinically appropriate or not, whether they are tinged with personal biases about what constitutes being appropriately manly or womanly, or fitting into any other gender identity.

I have no problem acknowledging that I speak to people of different genders differently, and that things such as age, economic status, religious beliefs, education, ethnicity, and a whole host of other concerns can color the interactions I have with them.  An awareness of how clients differ in background falls under a heading of “cultural competence.”  Conducting all sessions or interventions in the exact same fashion would be negligent.

Cultural competence includes the need to avoid approaching clients from any viewpoint of prejudice.  In U.S. culture, with its heavy bias toward the idea of women being nurturing and emotional, and men being stoic and strong, it is easy to fall into a trap of diminishing men who seek support, while being much more accepting of women seeking support.  The underlying concepts of weakness and strength, as relates to seeking support, diminish everyone.  Accepting girls and women who seek support while being less accepting of men and boys who do the same indicates an underlying belief in the weakness of women–the need of women to have support, while believing men don’t–or shouldn’t.

In a context where men are expected to “man up” and take care of their problems, rather than to seek help in processing what is going on with them, it makes sense that many men reaching out for help are, if not hostile, at least pensive and anxious—feeling there is something inherently wrong with seeking help, so taking a position challenging those who might help them.

As a culture, we in the U.S. encourage defensiveness and entrenchment in men—refusal to change—with the exception of encouraging men to become ever harder, ever more willing to engage in aggressive fortifying of their position, with that position often being one of isolation.  The processing men do frequently gets externalized to the point where it is not processing at all.  They, for example, focus on fixing the world, usually by berating the weak, or advocating the destruction of people seen as enemies, rather than addressing the personal in their lives and what such isolation and fortification does to them.

I posit that the gender-stereotyped notion that men need to take action is in large part what leads men to commit suicide most often in a rather violent and impulsive fashion.  When the problem is your whole life, and you’ve been taught that the appropriate response to problems is action, frequently violent action, then ending one’s life can seem like an appropriate reaction when that life has gone off the rails.  Mix in alcohol, drugs and weapons, and suicide can seem a reasonable course of action, and be carried out quickly—a decisive form of action, a manly form of action.

This is not to say that I think men in the U.S. are “victims” of the mental health system or of some pro-suicide/anti-male conspiracy.  Men, whether willingly or unwittingly, participate in, and perpetuate, the stereotypes that trap them…the stereotypes that say seeking help is synonymous with weakness.  And so, long as angry men rail against the “wussification” of the nation, they are advocating for a culture of death before mental health, and ensuring that men will not seek help for mental health issues, or if they do, that it will come with a heaping helping of defensiveness and hostility, potentially putting clinicians in a position of enduring abuse, or having to break down numerous walls, before being able to engage productively with male clients.

So, instead of urging anyone to “man up,” perhaps perhaps there could be a kind of unstated encouragement to “people up”–and not in the reductive way that “man up” is used, but in a way that is expansive.  To “people up” could mean to recognize our responsibilities to one another as human beings, whether that be as parents, clinicians, friends, family members, or citizens.  We need to recognize the harm in gender stereotypes, particularly if seeking help and support is connected to stereotypes of weakness.

The Danger of Desensitization: Child Pornography Users and Other Empathy-Sapping Traps

In Grad School, I did my practicum work with an agency that specialized in the assessment and treatment of sex offenders, an agency I went on to work for as a contractor.  As part of the practicum process, along with the work students did at agencies, we also had class meetings that were structured more-or-less like a consult group, where a small number of students could discuss cases under the supervision of an instructor.  At one of these meetings, while discussing an occurrence that had thrown me off balance in the previous week, I said something along the lines of, “I was looking through the client’s file and thinking, ‘oh, child porn offender, no big deal’…”

As I continued on, I noticed several in my cohort registering mildly horrified looks on their faces.  It was as if I’d just casually told everyone present that I barbecued live kittens because I was fascinated by how the dome of my Weber impacted the tonal quality of the pained mewls of the kitties as they were burned alive.

Thankfully, the instructor did what she could to rescue me by noting that in certain areas of practice people become desensitized to the peculiarities of those fields.

Such distancing and desensitization was exactly what I was trying to highlight.  I had, in a fairly short period of time, gotten to a stage where a person who was arrested for possessing child pornography seemed much less insidious to me than somebody who—as we refer to it in the biz—had “hands-on” victims.  This was not my attempt to minimize the seriousness of child pornography, but my admission that I had begun compartmentalizing things in a way that was making it easier for me to cope—but in a way that potentially compromised my effectiveness in dealing with clients.

The point I had been moving toward when the barbecued kittens got in the way is that the charging papers for this particular client contained descriptions of the child pornography that had been recovered from the client’s computer.  For me, reading through those descriptions was a kind of reboot to the disturbing reality of just what “child pornography” or “depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct” entailed.  I will spare you good readers the details, but we aren’t talking about photos of little kids splashing around in the tub.  I will also say that, because the files had already been cataloged by the FBI in previous cases, the descriptions were pretty minimal, but distressing nonetheless.

As a (greatly simplified) note of explanation, the FBI tracks child pornography cases, and labels the “sets” of photos and/or videos that are uncovered in those cases—often with some readily distinguishable feature of the sets—so they can be easily identified each time somebody is found in possession of such files.  The bulk of child pornography that is exchanged involves files that have been floating around for some time.  In each case, efforts are made to track down everyone involved in sharing the files.  However, when new sets (files not previously cataloged) turn up, there is an intensified response to identify and shut down the source, as well as to find the victims and secure help for them.

As another note of explanation, the documentation on clients with hands-on victims routinely contains detailed information from the investigation, often including transcripts of interviews with the victims.  Generally speaking, case information from child pornography charges describe things such as from where the files were recovered (computer hard drive, storage disks, flash drives, etc.), the type of files (images versus video), and the number of items recovered.  Obviously, reading through a child’s account of being groomed and molested carries a much heavier impact than a brief mention of how many image files were found on a client’s memory stick.  Hence, my more startled reaction to reading the descriptions of the child pornography files on this particular occasion.

On some level, making a distinction between child pornography possession cases and hands-on victim cases speaks to a more generalized idea of how people interact online or with media, compared to how people interact with each other face-to-face.  That is, it is much easier to distance oneself from the feelings of people one only knows from images or Internet exchanges than it is to distance oneself from the pain of an actual person one knows.  From the perspective of a treatment provider, accepting such divisions becomes an easy way to compartmentalize, but also speaks to a number of lies—the lie of an offense of lesser seriousness for the offender, and by extension, the lie of lesser pain for those exploited.

A big part of the work done with offenders who have accessed child pornography, but have no hands-on victims, is breaking down their defense mechanisms that allow them to view child pornography as a “victimless” crime—the offender’s sense that they are not victimizing anybody because they didn’t create the porn or do anything directly to harm the children in it.  In some ways, working to establish a sense of empathy can be more challenging with users of child porn than with those who have hands-on victims, simply because it can be easier to get an offender to understand how they have harmed somebody they actually know, than it can be to get an offender to understand how they have harmed somebody in a picture or a video.  This is especially true since an offender is  unlikely to have any idea what has happened to a child in a series of pornographic photos in the time since those photos were taken, and much more likely for a hands-on offender to have some knowledge of the turmoil created in the life of a victim in the time since the offense(s) took place.

Still, child pornography ties sexual gratification to children, reinforces deviant arousal with the power of images, and provides a false sense to users of child pornography that they are not complicit in the harm that it does.  It also potentially creates the illusion for users that they are in control of what they are doing, and are capable of keeping that deviant gratification from making the leap out of their virtual worlds and into their real lives and the lives of potential victims.  And, of course, it’s illegal as @$#*%, and with good reason…great reason…unassailable reason.

The issue of child pornography is one that I have to address with clients on a regular basis.  But it is also one that I am seeing as a more frequent element in the ‘histories’ of the offenders I encounter—particularly for those in their twenties and younger.  On the one hand, I understand the possibility of increased use of child porn as a consequence of Internet access and the ability to find child pornography by chasing down links on a computer, as opposed to having to go through several steps to connect to purveyors via phone, through the mail, or in face-to-face meetings.  But on the other hand, I find the possibility of increased use to be somewhat shocking in the sense that I assume people realize just how much trouble they can get into for possessing it.  Also, it takes some effort to get to it.  It’s not the kind of thing that turns up in sidebar links when you’re shopping for curtains online.  And, given that reporting child pornography that one might encounter is also a matter of clicking a few links or making a phone call or two, one would think that anybody who came across it would report it, just to keep themselves out of trouble.

At any rate, I’ve carried the ‘barbecued kittens’ with me for years as a means of (trying to) remind myself to exercise caution in how I discuss my work, particularly with those who are not in the field, but also as a way of reminding myself that each case, each client, is a serious case, a client who needs some real help.  Compartmentalizing is often a necessary strategy for therapists working with challenging populations.  One cannot be effective if one is carrying around every deep emotional scar of every client, or internalizing each client’s negative behaviors.

But there also has to be that place and time for the compartments to get busted open, particularly while in session or during other client contact, where the reality of what a person has done, how they got to that point, and what they are doing about it now, are not things that can be shut out.  Obviously, that ‘busting open’ should not drown the therapist in overwhelming emotion of any kind, but instead needs to involve the ability of the therapist to connect with the client both as a supporter of positive changes, and as a challenger of negative habits and patterns.  That de-compartmentalization and re-sensitization must not lead to complicity in allowing a client to minimize his/her actions.

In dealing with the struggles that are attached to difficult fields and difficult clients, I am frequently reminded of a quote from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, from a story about the city of Necropolis, a home to specialists in preparing and honoring the dead: “It is our responsibility not to let it harden us.”

Indeed, as therapists working with difficult populations, it is often necessary to compartmentalize and protect ourselves from succumbing to the emotional toll such jobs can take.  But it is also necessary to avoid hardening ourselves against those realities if such hardening keeps us from connection not only to clients, but also to the impacts those clients have had on others.