Whataboutery – derailing discussion or highlighting disparity?

Whataboutery. Also known as whataboutism. Even if you’ve never heard these terms before, I’m fairly sure you’re familiar with how they play out in a discussion. Someone poses an idea, campaigns for some kind of change, comments on a current event or experience only to be met with the obstructionist’s rally-cry… ‘what about something else?’

Before I continue, I highly recommend you read this blogpost detailing how whataboutery infiltrates and undermines this researcher’s work into women and girls. Sometimes with very abusive language attached. Spoiler alert: the same cannot be said for her work into men’s wellbeing.

I have also come up against this when commenting on International Women’s Day, feminist theory and gendered violence.

But whataboutery doesn’t limit itself to gender issues. It can appear in discussions about gun control in the United States (whatabout mental health problems or the many and varied other ways in which people are killed), improving the lives of marginalised minorities (whatabout all lives), marriage equality under secular law (whatabout my religious beliefs/rights), fairer pay and working conditions for a particular industry (whatabout a different industry which I personally find more deserving but not enough to actually campaign for)…you get the idea.

When used in this way, whataboutery isn’t providing anything constructive to the discussion. It is not ‘playing devil’s advocate‘, which involves critical thinking rather than just criticism. In this context, whataboutery’s sole purpose is to be obstructionist. Why? Because it’s the path of least resistance. It requires no commitment to an alternative cause, no evidence or fact-based discussion and no desire to change anything.

In fact, it almost guarantees nothing will change, because why change anything if you can’t change everything? If you can’t eradicate all accidental deaths via legislation, is there even a point in restricting the sale of high-powered firearms? Eh? Eh?

So, I had come to the conclusion that whataboutery = bad and I decided to start calling it out whenever possible.

And then I began to do it myself.

To the person who questioned why law-abiding gun-owners were being punished because of a few bad apples, I pointedly noted how millions of Islamic women and men are similarly maligned. But they risk losing a lot more than the freedom to own a gun or the gun itself.

When others compared Australia’s collective outrage against the recent cricket ball-tampering scandal to our indifference towards incarcerating vulnerable refugees on Nauru or Manus Island, or towards assault and abuse cases perpetrated by sporting heroes, I joined in.

My reaction to Hollywood’s gender pay-gap problem has been to say ‘that’s one small step toward equality…now whatabout celebrities (and other ultra-high earners) of both genders take a pay-cut so we can address those socio-economic inequalities that are so entrenched we don’t even notice them anymore.’

And it got me wondering if I was being just as obnoxious and obstructionist as I perceived others to be (quite possibly) or if whataboutery can have some productive purpose after all; to highlight the disparity in our reactions, perceptions and expectations of how the world’s rules are applied (also quite possible).

Used in this way, whataboutery isn’t being obstructionist for obstruction’s sake. In this context, whataboutery seeks to reflect how contradictory the world is, and how we have come to accept certain injustices; either because they are just too big or because they have always existed and will continue to do so, no matter how much outrage we fling at them (more on learned helplessness in a future post). And also how challenging these injustices rather than normalising or reinforcing them can pave the way for major social change.

So how do we decide where whataboutery may be useful and where it’s just plain annoying? Well, that’s up to each individual. But my rule of thumb is going to be: if the second issue is demonstrably more critical, is going to highlight or challenge a disparity, and is meaningful enough to actively fight for (that is, putting my money/actions where my typing fingers are), then I believe it’s whataboutery for a good cause.


Photo credit: ChainSawsuit.com


The evolving self

My new role as parent has given me the opportunity to think about my son’s social, psychological and emotional development as he grows.

Of the many theories of psycho-social development,  I think Erik Erikson’s resonates with me the most.

This theory suggests that during each of its eight stages, an individual is faced with a developmental task to resolve. Completing each task requires varying degrees of self-awareness and vulnerability, and ultimately leads to greater social potential and self-realisation. Erikson posed that the more successfully an individual resolves these tasks, the healthier social development will be.

Trust versus mistrust
ages 0-1
Infants are totally dependent on caregivers for their physical and emotional safety and well-being. Developing trust or mistrust in infancy will set the tone for the rest of an individual’s life.

Autonomy versus shame and doubt
ages 2-3
In this stage, toddlers develop a sense of independence and learn to assert their will within the family dynamic. Excessive punishment or restraint can lead to feelings of shame and doubt.

Initiative versus guilt
ages 4-5
As toddlers grow into preschoolers, they are likely to develop a sense of responsibility to go with their newfound independence. This stage involves navigating the practical and emotional consequences (such as guilt) arising from irresponsible behaviour.

Industry versus inferiority
ages 6-10
This stage involves mastering knowledge and skill. A child who is unable to demonstrate competence in something is likely to feel inferior when compared to peers.

Identity versus identity confusion
ages 11-19
It’s well known that adolescence is a time for self-discovery. This is the stage where an individual develops a sense of identity that is separate from the family of origin. Confusion may arise without the freedom to explore a variety of identities and value-systems.

Intimacy versus isolation
ages 20-39
This stage is typically when we seek to form intimate relationships with others. Not just romantically, but also the sense of being known and understood by close friends or colleagues. When we do not feel understood by others, we are likely to feel a sense of isolation.

Generativity versus stagnation
ages 40-59
Individuals during this time of life will usually wish to help younger generations lead productive lives. The feeling of having done nothing to help future generations is stagnation.

Integrity versus despair
ages 60+
This is the time when an individual typically reflects on his or her own life; their achievements, regrets and legacies. A life well-spent will lead to integrity, however excessive regrets and doubt will lead to despair.

To my mind, this theory invites us to be active participants in our lives, rather than passive observers. While these dichotomies are not posed to us explicitly, we are invited to choose what sort of life we want for ourselves. And this is definitely something I’ll be teaching my son about.


Photo credit: University of Arkansas
Source: Santrock J. W. (2014) Lifespan development Australia/New Zealand, McGraw Hill Education

New Year, Old You!

Another year is coming to a close.

It has been a good many months since I sat down to write; motherhood (as a concept and as a reality) having demanded much of my attention this year.

This new parenting gig is far more intense than my partner or I could have predicted – the highs are sweeter and the lows more isolating. Adjusting to new family dynamics, new roles and new responsibilities has been confronting; not just because it is unchartered territory, but also because it has brought us face to face with the old.

Unresolved insecurities from the past, leftover hang-ups from the way we ourselves were parented, and differing value systems have all raised their messy heads to remind us that, in many ways, we are still vulnerable children ourselves, in need of nurturing and guidance.

So as the new year approaches, I’m less inclined to reinvent than I am to rediscover myself. Something tells me I’ll be a better partner and parent for my troubles.


Photo credit: Eyes on Broadway

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

– Mary Oliver

Photo credit: Soul Artist Journal


Manipulation and power games

While some manipulators are relatively harmless (think Mrs Bennett in Pride and Prejudice), others can inflict wounds that take a long time to heal.

After leaving an emotionally abusive relationship, I found myself needing to understand what had happened. Like most people who leave a volatile situation I was, quite simply, unable to process and articulate what was wrong. Apart from being incredibly vulnerable, I was also just too close to my own situation to see it objectively.

So I decided to read Power Games: Confronting Others’ Hurtful Behaviour and Transforming Our Own by Kay Douglas and Dr Kim McGregor. What I found was a wealth of information confirming what I couldn’t express or even see for myself. Here are some choice insights from the book, as well as some of my own thoughts*:

  1. Control is always at the heart of a power game. The need to assert control will usually involve undermining and/or discrediting another to achieve our own ends. For example, we are using power games when we:
    • evoke and play on another’s feelings of compassion, obligation, insecurity, guilt, shame or anxiety in order to get our own way;
    • refuse to listen to their point of view, speak down to or ridicule them;
    • bully or intimidate someone into agreeing with our demands;
    • withhold attention and affection as a punishment;
    • deliberately confuse the situation by distorting the facts, denying the truth or lying;
    • discriminate against someone, based on any number of factors;
    • bait and provoke others through disturbing statements or actions and then claim they’re being over-sensitive/emotional, crazy or irrational (known as gaslighting); and
    • engage in name calling, put-downs, harsh criticism or threats.
  2. Manipulators often feel they have no control over their own lives. They may be unable to process rejection or disappointment and they likely struggle with insecurities, an exaggerated sense of entitlement or need for control, neediness and a fear of abandonment. Because of this, it’s incredibly easy to let reasonable emotional responses give way to irrational perceptions and behaviour. Manipulators are very skilled at telling themselves (and anyone else who will listen for that matter) a story where they are the victim and everyone else is to blame for their misery and must be punished. As a result, manipulators find themselves pushing away what they most want to hold onto.
  3. Manipulators are not concerned with taking responsibility for their decisions/behaviours/feelings. Instead, they create a smokescreen by shifting the focus or blame to others. And consequently, the other party must assume the responsibility for making the situation ‘better’. If the other party is a ‘good’ person, they will comply with whatever demands are issued (peace at any price). As soon as they resist, however, the manipulator is likely to go on the attack.
  4. Unprovoked (and therefore unanticipated) attacks cut the deepest. These are designed to bewilder, but also to elicit anger in the other party. This anger can then be used as evidence when gaslighting (‘See how sensitive you are? You’re crazy!’). It is the emotional equivalent of detonating a bomb and then blaming the other party for the explosion. Essentially, the person on the receiving end is set up to fail; it doesn’t matter whether they challenge, capitulate or strive to avoid conflict altogether, it will never be enough to stop that bewildered feeling or help them or get the relationship on an equal playing field.
  5. Losing personal power, such as the right to speak up, assert boundaries and be respected, often happens incrementally, so that you’re not even aware of it. Little by little though, it becomes much harder to negotiate from within the relationship without offending, displeasing or inviting further confrontation and abuse.
  6. Manipulators often seem to be in a hurry. Urgency is a theme of manipulative interactions. A rush to make a decision, a relationship that develops a bit too quickly, an insistence that you give up your right to feel whatever it is you feel. This is the manipulator’s way of gaining control over the situation.
  7. Once de-coded, power games are quite simple. On the surface, it may seem that power games consist of a confusing barrage of activities and accusations that defy logic. Looking closer, manipulators select peace-keepers, problem-solvers, care-takers to bear the brunt of their abuse because they are easy targets. Their natural disposition (and possible social conditioning) means they will try even harder to compromise, sacrifice, take responsibility and make things right. And with each instance of abuse, the less likely they will be to fight back.
  8. Not all abuse is ugly on the surface. In fact, manipulators will often argue in the negative, revealing their insecurities. Consider the character of Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre. Knowing he needs to create just the right situation to allow him to marry Jane, he says:

    “I have a strange feeling with regard to you. As if I had a string somewhere under my left ribs, tightly knotted to a similar string in you. And if you were to leave I’m afraid that cord of communion would snap. And I have a notion that I’d take to bleeding inwardly. As for you, you’d forget me.”

    Right on cue, Jane is moved to protest and re-assure. And, as we know, she falls into Rochester’s dexterously-laid trap. Later, after his deception is discovered, Rochester attempts to sweet-talk Jane into running away with him. And so, just as manipulators are skilled at inflicting damage, they also skilled at restoring people’s trust with remorse and charm. Highly charged emotions, stormy bust-ups and passionate reconciliations can bind us closely together, but desperation and fear are usually behind this and as such, roller-coasters of emotion are misleading.

  9. For the receiver, cumulative exposure to such tumult may reduce self-esteem and increase anxiety, resentment and fear. Receivers will experience intense emotional reactions and may end up interpreting these as proof they are selfish, unbalanced, over-sensitive and unreasonable. They may lose their sense of self; either over-compensating to ‘get it right’ and ‘be better’ or even adopting manipulative tactics against others.
  10. For the receiver, regaining personal power starts with a shift in one’s thinking. More specifically, an acknowledgement that the manipulator must take responsibility for their feelings and behaviours and any future change. It is accepting that the dynamic needs to change and learning to distinguish between real and manufactured guilt. It is constructing and defending boundaries and a willingness to listen to what anger is trying to say. It is the ability to cut through the smokescreen tactics and see the situation clearly. It is the ability to speak one’s truth and articulate one’s feelings. It is honouring the self. And, sometimes, this will mean leaving.

What I learned is that while not everyone who feels inadequate is a manipulator, every manipulator feels inadequate. So do we all, I know. But, what sets manipulators apart is the way they consistently and systematically re-distribute this inadequacy onto others.  What I also learned is that by disengaging I was not giving up, but that I was actively saying ‘I am worth more than this’.

* While there is some overlap between these insights and those expressed in part two of de-mystifying narcissism, this article aims to address manipulation and power games on a broader scale and, in so doing, acknowledges that these behaviours are not exclusive to narcissism.

Photo credit: Viral Novelty

Cultivating equanimity

Equanimity is one of four divine qualities of the heart (traditionally known as brahma-viharas) taught in Buddhist practice, along with loving kindness, compassion and appreciative joy.

The four brahma-viharas represent the most beautiful and hopeful aspects of our human nature. They are mindfulness practices that protect the mind from falling into habitual patterns of reactivity which belie our best intentions.

Also referred to as mind liberating practices, they…transform the turbulent heart into a refuge of calm, focused awareness.

~ http://www.brahmaviharas.org/

I was first introduced to equanimity (which means calmness or composure) during a week-long silent retreat which focussed on cultivating the four heart qualities.

In Buddhist practice, calmness is found by freeing ourselves from the difficulties associated with both attachment and avoidance. Therefore, equanimity means accepting things as they are, not as we wish them to be (in other words, letting go of our attachment to control) as well as releasing those resentments and fears which keep us separate from others (being present instead of avoiding genuine connection).

As someone who oscillates between attachment and avoidance (and is possibly attached to avoidance!), letting go of emotional reactions and expectations to find that calm middle-ground sounds about as easy as flying to the moon. But, despite grappling with this concept during the retreat, I found myself deeply wishing I could cultivate it for myself. So I decided to make equanimity the focal point of my meditations.

From here I learned several things:

  1. When I think of equanimity, I think of Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda. Yes, really. His ability to accept and respond to life’s difficulties without losing his peace of mind really is something to aspire to. He sees the world for its potential, but is not blinded by his own desires. Nor does he fool himself into thinking he can avoid difficulty altogether.
  2. I already have the capacity for equanimity. I found that taking the time to recognise the ways I have been equanimous in the past was really heartening. Whether shallow or profound, remembering each occurrence helped me to form a concrete idea of what equanimity looks like for me.
  3. Equanimity will come and go – and this is ok. I reminded myself that sometimes I will find a peaceful acceptance of, and response to, my reality and sometimes I won’t. When equanimity is difficult, self-compassion is always there.
  4. Equanimity is found in the space between oneself and one’s state of mind. In a similar way to mindfulness, equanimity involves noticing and accepting an emotion or thought, but resisting the urge to become it.
  5. Equanimity often comes after digesting a lived experience with mindful (and non-judgemental) awareness. During the retreat, I took the time to explore some of my own experiences using a combination of all four heart qualities. I don’t think this would have been possible however, if I hadn’t already allowed myself the time to openly feel and express my emotions. Subjective reaction often paves the way for objective reflection.
  6. Equanimity often comes as a result of engaging the other heart qualities. For this particular experience, I believe it was the combination of loving-kindness (universal good-will) and compassion (a deep wish to relieve pain) that produced equanimity in the form of an incredibly sweet healing sensation. This was the first time I had experienced something stronger than a sense of calm when meditating, but I don’t think it would have been as strong if I had simply tried to think equanimously. For me, it was about opening my heart as well as my mind.

While the retreat was a profound experience, there are times I forget to be equanimous and fall into my natural state of reactivity.  See point 3. But I am getting a little better at honouring my thoughts, identifying where the limits of my responsibility lay and then making the conscious decision to let things unfold the way they need to. After all, a wise old tortoise once said: ‘there are no accidents.’



Photo credit: DreamWorks Animation

Re-writing the rules

A few months back, I took an online course which encouraged me to own my story. Because it’s easy to feel powerless under the weight of expectation, failure and the wear-and-tear of (sometimes traumatic) life events, the workshop aimed to help participants:

  • identify the beautiful and brutal (bru-tiful) journey they are currently on;
  • identify the various ‘rules’ imposed by family, community or culture which shape behaviour and identity;
  • understand the connection between thoughts, expectations, emotions and behaviours;
  • feel empowered to take control of one’s own struggle, re-writing rules where possible;
  • dare to write an ending (or even the next chapter) which reflects their values, priorities and needs; and
  • see how such changes can be applied to the world’s stage.

With respect to my story, the concept of ‘rules’ was particularly important, as these have shaped my worldview (moral code and understanding of justice), my sense of self (under what circumstances I feel proud or ashamed) and my behaviours, (in both adherence to, and defiance of, said rules).

Most of the time, we operate within these rules with very little awareness that they even exist. This isn’t always a bad thing; rules provide order amongst the chaos and help us navigate our place in our relationships, our workplace and the wider world. However, rules can also restrict growth and fuel shame, especially when they’re contradictory.

Here is a list of some contradictory and restrictive rules that I have experienced and, no doubt, projected onto others:

  • don’t expect too much from others, but be sure not to let them down. Expect a lot from yourself, because others will;
  • others have the right to judge, shame and fix you, based on these expectations. Let them, because this is done with good intentions;
  • mistakes are an important way to learn and grow. Even so, only certain mistakes are acceptable. See above;
  • make sure to find another perspective to every situation. Even if this means invalidating your own perspective in favour of others’;
  • don’t be too sensitive, but don’t be too hard and cynical either;
  • don’t be a push-over, but be prepared to be shut-down if you stand up for yourself;
  • always be grateful. Even if this means minimising your own natural emotional reaction; and finally
  • give, even when you don’t feel you can. It’s better to absorb a bit of discomfort than let others down.

Articulating these was difficult, but also quite liberating. I came away from the course feeling that, after naming the ways in which I felt trapped, I might do better at shedding some of these restrictions and expectations. Likewise, I might do better at not enforcing these onto others. Taken together, these are the ways I can start to take control of my story, rather than constantly reacting.

As 2016 draws to a close, I encourage you to think about what rules have you experienced (or perpetuated). How might changing these help you to write the next chapter of your own story that’s more in line with your values?

Photo credit: UA Business Cloud.