Monday, May 30, 2011


One term that I see thrown around a lot in fiction is 'mindless'. Various monsters, most commonly zombies, are referred to as being mindless. Generally this indicates that they will not be able to speak, will have a very simple strategy of attack, and will not learn from mistakes.

This term bothers me. Such a creature as I described above is not, technically, mindless. It's clearly capable of thinking - just in a very simple and inflexible way. A typical horror movie zombie can do things like processing sounds and orienting towards them, (clumsily) coordinating their body to move towards the sound, feel hunger and know that biting something is what they should do about it, etc. All of those, though they seem very simple to the average person, become very complex if you look closely at what is needed to do it. For example, do you know how many muscles have to move in perfect timing for you to take a step? A lot. (Incidentally, the only way a walking, attacking zombie could be mindless is if it's controlled by a necromancer or something.)

I see this in real life, too. I can't count how many times I saw someone refer to Terri Schiavo or other people in vegetative states as 'brain dead' - even though, by breathing, having reflexes, etc, the person is proving that some parts of the brain are working just fine. And recent research is suggesting just how hard it can be to rule out complex cognition in a severely brain-injured patient.

There seems to be this idea in people's heads of an 'empty shell' - an animate body without a person inside. We seem determined that there must be someone who is like this, whether in fiction or in real life. And we keep applying this idea to all sorts of people who can't communicate and lack various other skills.

It's theoretically possible that there is someone out there who has a functioning autonomic system but no cognitive skills whatsoever. But we have no proof of their existance. And meanwhile, we keep projecting this image onto people who are aware and reacting to their environment, but processing in very atypical and/or extremely simple ways.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Community is Community

A lot of people criticize Internet relationships. They say these relationships aren't real, and they distract from real relationships. They say these relationships are no replacement for real-life relationships.

The last point is certainly true - there are some thing you can get from a good real-life friendship that you can't get over the Internet. But that doesn't make Internet relationships valueless.

I posted awhile back about my younger's brother's unhappy experience with a gym teacher. When he came home that day, he was the first one home, and was extremely upset. He logged onto World of Warcraft, on a draenei paladin character.

One of the multiplayer elements in World of Warcraft is guilds. Guilds are communities of players who work together. They have a shared bank and various perks based on how experienced the guild is. Many guilds have regularly scheduled events such as raids (where 10 or 20 high-level players take on a very difficult dungeon together). And, most importantly, they have a guild chat. You can tell which other guild members are online, and you can talk to them.

That's what my brother did. His draenei paladin, his worgen druid, and my night elf hunter are all part of the same guild. On that day, he talked to two guild members, the guild leader and a member who is apparently a soon-to-be mother. He told them what had happened and how he felt, and they comforted him. By the time Mom got home, he was calmed down.

There's another person I know of who's been helped more dramatically. He hangs out on the TVTropes 'On Topic Conversations' forum, under the username DJay32. In November of last year, he posted a thread titled "Could someone.. help? A bit? Please? *Massive Story Inside*". In that first post, he told us that he was 15 years old and being physically attacked by his father and older brother, and not getting enough food.

The thread is now 60+ pages long, with more than a thousand posts. The other members of this forum told him that he was being abused, that he did not deserve such treatment and should contact social services. Sadly, social services didn't hold up their part, delaying until his sixteenth birthday and then claiming they "don't foster sixteen year olds". But the members of this forum have stuck with him, advising him on various routes to seek help, the locations of nearby food banks, and how to get around his parents' efforts to keep him from telling on them. And they've supported him emotionally.

I wouldn't be surprised if TVTropes forum is keeping this kid alive. He has been losing time, waking up to find that he's written and drawn things depicting suicidal thoughts. He says he wants to die, but can't kill himself because of his friends telling him suicide is a bad idea. And when his Internet connection goes down, he gets desperate. He doesn't really have any support other than the Internet, since his family recently moved and he's very shy in person.

Internet relationships, to be clear, are real. They involve real people interacting with other real people, and can have real effects on people. They are different from in-person relationships, but that doesn't make them worthless.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Just The Way He Shows That He Loves Her

I've noticed a certain formula that tends to occur in Urban Fantasy stories. You have a woman, who is either a normal human, has superpowers that aren't useful in combat, or is a werecreature where males of her kind outnumber females (thereby making her a prize to be protected). Her boyfriend is either a vampire or a werecreature, and this causes him to behave in certain instinctive ways towards his love.

He may stalk her, stated to be either out of worry for her safety or because he can't stand being away from her. He gets violent with romantic rivals, or sometimes even a guy who she merely interacts with. He gets even more violent, murderously so, with anyone who hurts her. He's extremely controlling towards her.

And this kind of guy is seen as romantic. An ideal partner. It doesn't matter if he almost kills her nice male friend, or if she has no privacy, or she feels like she'd 'dating the Godfather'. He's doing it because he loves her, so it must be OK.

There's a stereotype that abusive spouses are just plain bad people. That they don't care about their spouse's feelings, that they fake remorse to get her to stay. And that all abusers must be physically violent towards their spouse - the threat of violence, or emotional manipulation don't count as abuse.

In reality, many abusers have borderline personality disorder*. People with borderline personality disorder can love others, in fact their love is generally too intense rather than the opposite. They feel everything way too intensely, and can't control their reactions. And one of their biggest fears is being abandoned.

Abuse typically involves a build-up, the abuse, and then a 'honeymoon period' where the abuser is apologetic and loving. Typical portrayals have suggested that the honeymoon period is manipulative. That's true for some abusers, but it's not true for borderline abusers. When they apologize and try to make up for what they did, they really are sorry about it. But they have no idea how to stop themselves from doing it again.

The idea that all abusers are cold, unfeeling monsters is a dangerous one. Because when it's obvious that he really does love her, that he's not a cold, unfeeling monster, then people tend to assume he can't be an abuser. No matter what he does. Especially if he never actually hits her, if his abuse consists only of threats and emotional abuse.

One big reason why people perpetuate this myth is to convince abused women to leave the relationship. She often stays because of the love, and because she pities him and wants to help him. If you can convince her that he doesn't love her and she can't help him, presumably, she'll leave.

But the thing is, a person doesn't need to be cold and uncaring to be a danger to you, and someone you're not able to help by staying with. Borderline personality is a hard condition to treat, and a hard condition to live with. And the person must realize something is wrong with them and want to change in order to make much progress in actually changing. Many borderlines think their reactions are just to be expected, especially since borderline personality disorder is typically caused by abuse.

And fiction writers should stop buying into the myth that abusive behavior is romantic, and the kind of thing an ideal lover does.

* Note: This doesn't mean all people with borderline personality are abusers. The traits of this condition make abusive behavior more likely, but not guaranteed. All borderlines are unique individuals, and they'll express their problems differently.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Disabilities and Self-Improvement

I've noticed more and more that society seems to think disabled people have an obligation to 'self-improve', to try to minimize or completely overcome the effects of their disability. Failure to do so meets with various stereotypical reactions.

The first is pity, believing the person is 'giving up'. This is based on the belief that being disabled is a terrible state. If you are not trying to get out of that state, you have resigned yourself to unhappiness. This is probably the most common reaction, directed at all kinds of disabled people.

The second is to think the person is lazy. This is probably for much the same reasons that poor people are stereotyped as lazy - so that instead of admitting that they need help, we can abandon them and blame them for it. It's especially common to think laziness if the disability is undiagnosed, or if it is inconsistent in its' effects, or if it tends to make things harder instead of making them impossible.

The third, which I've seen only with behavioral conditions so far, is to think the person is looking for an excuse to engage in bad behavior. I'm sure this one is true in some cases, but overapplied. A specific form I've seen a lot is the idea that autism spectrum conditions can be an excuse for someone to act like a jerk. (Never mind that jerks and autistics act totally differently, and that typical autistic behavior is only offensive if you misunderstand the reasons for it.) I've also seen people claim that ADHD is a diagnosis applied to spoiled brats instead of disciplining them. I suspect this originates partly from guilt that you've treated a person badly for disability-related traits (it's seen as acceptable to bully a weirdo, but not a disabled kid) and partly from misunderstanding the reasons behind disability-related behaviors. And partly from the few individuals who really do use a behavioral disability as an excuse.

There are a small number of disabilities (eg pedophilia) where failing to overcome the condition carries a potential for real harm to others. In those cases, I think the person does have a moral obligation to try to overcome their disability, at least as much as is necessary to prevent harm to others.

But most disabilities cause no harm to others. And most, if properly accomodated, don't even cause harm to the person who has them. Many can be dealt with just as well or better by changing the person's environment, instead of changing the person.

And many times what gets lambasted as failure to overcome a disability is in fact realistic adjustment to that disability. For example, I've heard of several people who can walk with difficulty, used to walk full-time, and now use a wheelchair or scooter to get around. Many of them, when first making the transition, were accused of 'giving up', when in fact they simply wanted to be able to get around easily.

I'm of the opinion that we should not expect any more effort from a disabled person than we would from a non-disabled person. Some people will exert tremendous effort to reach a goal they find personally important, such as Olympic athletes. Others will decide that they'd rather have a life than reach that particular goal. Why shouldn't we view overcoming disability the same way?

And the cool thing about discovering that you have a disability is learning to try differently instead of just trying harder. For example, instead of exerting your full effort to learn to read in school and still falling short, a dyslexic person could get teaching that suits their learning style and allows them to learn easily. Instead of spending an inordinate amount of effort on a basic skill, you can get accomodations so you can direct your attention to more important pursuits. Instead of fighting to force your brain into an activity it's not ready for, you can learn to follow the thermals and get much more done with less effort. These are the reasons why we indentify disabilities, and seeing the disability merely as something to be overcome interferes with this goal. (Incidentally, most self-diagnosed people self-diagnose largely for this reason too. Many disability coping strategies can be implemented even if you don't have an official diagnosis.)

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Punishment, Revenge and Deterrance

There are three concepts that people tend to conflate. They all involve doing something nasty to someone because they did something nasty themselves. But the motivation is different.

Punishment is a psychological concept. Basically, if you engage in a behavior and it results in something unpleasant, you're less likely to do that again. The motivation behind administering punishment is to reduce the future frequency of that behavior in that person. An example would be if a parent catches a kid stealing a cookie and decides to put the kid in time-out, hoping that the kid will refrain from stealing cookies in the future.

Deterrance is a bit like punishment, except that it's not the wrong-doer's behavior that they're intending to change, instead it's an onlooker's behavior. This is also a psychological concept - if you see a behavior result in a bad outcome for someone else, you're less likely to imitate them. An example would be if the parent puts the cookie-thief in time-out in full view of a younger sibling, hoping that the younger sibling will refrain from stealing cookies.

Revenge is an emotion-driven action. It's not about changing anyone's behavior, instead, you're expressing the anger and hurt that the behavior caused, trying to make yourself (or someone else) feel better by causing equivalent suffering in the perpetrator. An example would be if the kid took the last cookie, that the parent was planning to eat, and the parent got upset at being deprived a cookie and decided to put the kid in time out for that reason.

Obviously, the same action can serve all three purposes. But it doesn't always do so. For example, some actions prevent the person from being able to repeat the behavior - life imprisonment and execution are two examples. These could still deter others or serve as revenge. Sometimes people really don't mind the person's behavior but feel that it should be punished anyway, such as some of the hilarious antics that children engage in. Sometimes no one else knows what the consequence of that action is.

In addition, since both punishment and deterrance have purposes, they could fail at their purpose - maybe the person is insensitive to punishment or unable to control the behavior, or others assume they won't be caught. Psychopaths are usually insensitive to punishment, for example, and drug addicts have strong drives to do certain actions which overwhelm their fear of punishment.

Revenge is purposeless. In my opinion, purposelessly causing suffering in others is morally wrong, no matter who they are. It's wrong when the perpetrator does it, and it's wrong when someone does it back to them. So if the only reason for providing a negative consequence is revenge, then you shouldn't do it