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The Whippet #22: You have no right to do this to me

McKinley Valentine — 10 min read

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Good morning Clusterwinks! I hope you're feeling perky.

I’ve noticed that I’m increasingly uninterested in providing sources (links, citations) for the things I say. (The Whippet is different. Bear with me.)

I used to think, well, if I’m claiming something, I’d better back it up. And if you’re in a debate, sure that makes sense. Debating (like at school) is a game, with rules and a winner.

But winning a debate is hardly ever my goal any more. I just want to tell you about something I found interesting or useful, in case you find it interesting or useful too. If you don't, that's okay!

An example (a real one from reddit the other day):

Them: “Vitamins in skincare are bullshit, you can’t just rub vitamins on your face and think that will somehow get inside the cells, it’s ridiculous.”

Me: “Not sure about all vitamins, but Vitamins C, B5 (niacinamide) and most famously A (retinol/tretinoin) are pretty thoroughly studied as being absorbable and improving your skin’s appearance (I won’t say ‘good for your skin’ because wrinkles aren’t bad for you, even ‘improving’ is a bit dodgy but anyway, they work)”.

Them: “Source??”

This is not an obscure or controversial fact, there’s a million pubmed studies and metastudies that you can find by googling. To win that debate with the redditor and anyone reading it, I would have to provide a source. But why do I care what that guy thinks? If he’s not interested enough to google it, then it seems a silly thing to waste more of my energy on. (And if he does care, any source I provided would be inherently biased anyway, so he would want to look for himself.)

If I come across a fact or idea that’s Huge If True (either because it would be super cool or because it challenges an existing belief) then I look into it more. If I don’t care enough to look into it more, then I guess I won't find out. But that's no one else's responsibility.

All of this is fine, but as soon as you stop viewing every disagreement as a game to win, you realise how intensely everyone else views it that way. So often if I post something hyperbolic on Facebook, people will say “You can’t phrase it that way, you catch more flies with honey, etc”. i.e. the assumption is that I’m trying to change minds (and I’m doing badly at it). It’s really, really hard to make people understand that I don’t really care if they change their mind or not.

I think it’s cool that there's a snail that makes its own iron armour [scroll down]. I think you might find it cool too! But if you were like “oh yeah, why should I believe that?” I would just… shrug.

If you’re a political activist (and I’m not) then okay, it is your job to change people’s minds. But even then, it’s probably not a 24/7 job that you have to exhibit through every single action and word you take. You’d be allowed time off, right? Why shouldn’t a person preach to the converted in their spare time? “Eating that ramen isn’t going to change anyone’s mind you know!” “I know, I’m just… having dinner with my friends? This activity is not an attempt to change anyone's mind?”

It’s such an arrogant assumption to think you know exactly why a person did or said something and what effect they intended!

It is a huge burden to feel responsible for other people’s actions. As soon as you start to really try and change someone’s mind, you begin to feel responsible for what they think – you start to get mentally and emotionally entangled. Who do you want to be mentally and emotionally entangled with? Your loved ones? Sure. Internet strangers who don’t believe in Vitamin C? Really?? I'm not even saying 'pick your battles' I'm saying 'why does passing on info have to turn into a battle?' I'm not gonna push you to watch an action film if you don't like action films and I'm not gonna push you to learn about Vitamin C if you're not interested in Vitamin C. (People who push their friends into watching films they say they're not interested in: stop that. Help build a culture of consent.)

So much of anger is really frustration, and frustration = someone isn't doing what you think they should do. (This makes sense: parents legitimately have a huge responsibility for their children, and legitimately need to corral and control what they do; parenting is pretty frustrating by all accounts.)

But you're not responsible for what strangers do or fail to do, because you didn't argue with them well enough. You've just got too entangled. Consider freeing yourself of this burden.

(Again, activists, science communicators, etc. do take on that responsibility, but it’s a sacrifice that they’re making for a greater good, it’s not pleasant. Emotional labour = work.)

Anyway, watch for it this week: people interpreting almost everything (remotely controversial) that anyone says as though it were a calculated move in a debate, and then responding through that lens. Try to imagine some other possible motivations the speaker might have.

(and if this all seems really holier-than-thou, please know that my keys fell out of my pocket while I was running for the tram this morning and I yelled "You have no right to do this to me" at them)

Postscript: reasons I provide sources in The Whippet.

  1. To give credit to the original writers
  2. Because I’m trying to create something you will like, and part of that involves making it really easy for you if you want to find out more information about something.

Iron-armoured snail

The Scaly Foot Gastropod lives at the bottom of the ocean around hydrothermic vents. It absorbs the iron sulphide that comes from the events and converts it into the outer layer of its three-layered exoskeleton (the middle layer is organic, and the inner layer is aragonite, a crystal lattice made of calcium carbonate).

10 Most Talented Snails

Also on this list is the adorably named Clusterwink, a snail which a) lives in a group with its friends and b) emits a flashing blue-green light when it's distressed. Cluster + Wink.

"Its shell diffuses light better than any man-made material ever. The clusterwink has a light-emitting organ, and the shell’s scattering effect is so good that every part of the shell lights up. The crystalline structure converts a pinprick of light into a beacon. In the film industry they use diffusers to scatter light to illuminate shadows. Science is now looking for a way to duplicate this effect so that we can have ultra-efficient lampshades."

Stasi training video for covertly searching an apartment (8:53)

"In 1984, the Stasi -- East Germany's notorious secret police -- searched the flat of an auditor to determine if he'd leaked files that put the country in a bad light to Stern, a West German magazine, published in Hamburg. They recorded the clandestine search for posterity, and used it as the basis for a training video explaining to other secret police operatives how to search a dissident's home without alerting them that they were under suspicion."

Word of the day: ruderal

Adjective. "Able to thrive on disturbed or broken ground, or among waste (Latin rudus, rubble). Used esp. of plant species."

Maybe this is you?

I am very interested in positive uses of the word 'weed'. A weed is a word for a plant that is not growing where people think it should grow. There is nothing wrong with this plant - the dandelion is very nutritious and the fact that it thrives anywhere is surely praiseworthy? - it's just not keeping in its right place.

There is a term for the opposite of a weed - 'volunteer'. A volunteer plant is one that a gardener did not plant or intend to grow, but it's desirable, like basil or a hydrangea.

I have an immediate, probably unfair, hostility to volunteer plants. No one likes someone bustling in and offering help you didn't ask for.

"You can always tell people who live for others by the anguished expressions on the faces of the others." (from CS Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, I think).

Take pride in your weediness! Down with volunteer plants! Thrive on broken ground!

weird microfiction on twitter

Would your dog eat you if you died?

MAYBE, but not for the reason you would think. This is so interesting but obviously skip if that's best for you.

Dogs who eat their owners a) often have other food available or b) it's so soon after death that hunger doesn't make sense as a motivation.

"The pattern of scavenging didn’t match the feeding behavior of canines in the wild. When dogs scavenged dead owners indoors, 73 percent of cases involved bites to the face, and just 15 percent had bites to the abdomen. Only 10 percent of those cases involve wounds to the head.

"By contrast, canines scavenging outdoors have a well-documented pattern, opening the chest and abdomen to eat the nutrient-rich organs early on, followed by the limbs.

"It’s tempting to think that if you’re close to your dog and have treated it well, you’re off the hook if you die.

"But dog behavior isn’t quite so clean cut. None of the case studies indicated any prior history of animal abuse. On the contrary, several reports noted that the owners had very good relationships with their dogs, according to friends and neighbors.

"Instead, consider a pet’s psychological state: “One possible explanation for such behavior is that a pet will try to help an unconscious owner first by licking or nudging,” Rothschild writes in his report, “but when this fails to produce any results the behavior of the animal can become more frantic and in a state of panic, can lead to biting. From biting, it’s an easy jump to eating”

The Nat Geo article goes into more detail, but the summary answer is that anxious dogs who get bad separation anxiety are more likely to eat you if you die.

Image via They Boot Too Big For They Gotdamn Feet facebook group

Solicited Advice

Intergenerational etiquette

"I go to a lot of writers' festival events, and because I run a literary podcast and blog, I take copious notes on my phone - it's faster and can be transferred to word docs, etc. But often older people assume I'm on Facebook and think I'm being really rude to the speakers, and tut me or tell me to put my phone away. How do I handle this?"

Oh this is so tough. I was thinking about this a lot, and the only thing I could come up with was to find out what speakers at these events think - because they matter more than the audience. I asked Nic Brasch, an award-winning children's book author and Chair of Writers Victoria, who speaks at these kind of events all the time:

"A really, really good question.

It used to give me the shits seeing people on their phones until I realised that almost all of them were either taking notes or tweeting about the event (which is also good). I think most speakers now realise that's what's happening - but audience members are likely to be in an age bracket where they would not consider the phone being used for this.

If I was the person, I would approach the speakers as they come on and just tell them that's what she will be doing on the phone - and ignore the audience members.

One way to get the audience members to realise what she has been doing (and educate them) is to stand up at the end to ask a question, and refer to her phone to quote something one of the speakers said."

I think that is permission to go ahead.

(Also! Plug for Nic's podcast The Garret, in which they interview very famous mostly-Australian writers about the craft of writing. YOU SHOULD INTERVIEW MARGO LANAGAN, NIC, SHE'S AMAZING.)

But to some extent the question is really "what do you do when you have been unfairly judged, and you are not able to defend yourself" (giving a long explanation of smartphones while a speaker is talking WOULD be rude). And I think that's just something you have to kind of wear. At the moment, your sphere of judgement is relatively limited - you usually do have an opportunity to explain yourself.

But if you were to, say, publish a book (I don't know if this something you want to do, but given the podcast it seems like a fair guess), and that book got any readership outside your immediate peers, you would have to deal with this. You wouldn't want to be one of those authors who personally responds to every single negative Amazon review. Some people would badly misunderstand your intentions and purpose, and you would have to figure out a method for letting this go. So maybe think of this as practice?

If you want solicited advice, send questions to or just reply to this email.

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