This is our truth, tell us yours
I’ve had a couple of ‘why do I bother’ moments with Twitter in the last couple of days. Forgive me in advance if I talk about them, since they seem to me to illustrate some important points about social interactions, and how they work.
The first ended well- the second will, I suspect, not end well.
The first was the classic Twitter rant by another user, retweeted into my timeline. It was a classic of its kind, the ‘don’t call your rubbish sleep habits insomnia’ rant that can rankle with those of us who are, despite our best efforts at a rigid bed time and sensible sleep habits, insomniacs. (Incidentally, I don’t call myself an insomniac in the same way I call myself a man, or anything like that, but it’s a feature of my life. I wrote about it here.) Tweets that call out people who self-diagnose, or turn an atypical symptom into a syndrome, will inevitably also be read by those who have the illness or syndrome in question.
If I had a pound for every time I’ve read a ‘you’re not depressed you’re just pissed off’ rant on Twitter, and the ensuing spat as depressed people explain that no, really, they are depressed, I’d be able to fund a really good research programme into depression. Or insomnia. In this case, I pointed out I do have a diagnosis of insomnia, and a strategy for managing it agreed with my doctor, which has changed as we’ve looked at what works and what doesn’t. The Twitter user who re-tweeted the original rant was lovely, and we parted on happy terms. This was a very grown up conversation, between two grown ups who were able to converse in a sociable way.
This morning my timeline got invaded by someone who wanted the whole world to know that he thought it was wrong that psychologists had helped in the CIA’s torture programme, and that it reeked of raw, exposed sadism. According to the user in question (who is, apparently, a qualified counsellor) sadism is ‘The enactment of violence in the service of managing uncontrollable feelings.’
Now there are two obvious points that need to be made here. To be a safe and consensual sadist who has sex with other people, like me, you can’t afford to have uncontrollable feelings. To be safe for the other, the masochist, or bottom, or submissive, you have to constantly check that you are in control, and that you are capable of taking responsibility for your own behaviour and the other’s safety.
The second point, inevitably, is that to be a torturer you have to disregard consent, which is central to my sex life. Torturers don’t do informed consent; they are specialists in disregarding consent and using violence to achieve their ends, not mutual sexual release. Just as my belief in the centrality of consent is a choice, so their disbelief in it is a moral choice, and that is why we can and should treat them as criminals.
Now, a further point spills out from that point about consent. If an individual suffers from uncontrollable feelings, are they morally culpable? It’s an issue that lawyers have tangled with for hundreds of years, not helped by semantically bizarre formations like ‘managing uncontrollable feelings’. Something that is uncontrollable is just that, uncontrollable. It’s a word I would rarely use, because it places someone, not on a spectrum of ‘hard to control’ to ‘easy to control’ but ‘out of control’. I dare say I’m coming across as a pedant here, but getting people to see that their feelings are not uncontrollable, but simply on a spectrum of easy to hard to control where the individual can actually have some influence would seem to me to be a key point for a therapist, or counsellor.
Apparently, by telling the original poster that I was troubled by his equation of torture and sadism, I was inserting myself into his dialogue, and making it all about me. His friends joined in, making it clear that they thought torture was such an important issue that I was obviously missing the point and being a dreadful bore quibbling about language while they were putting the world to rights.
I think torture is an important issue. I think it’s important we understand what it is, and what it isn’t. Torture is not consensual. Some people may torture for sexual pleasure, and they are criminals. The CIA however, don’t torture for sexual pleasure (even if some of their individual operatives may get a kick from the way they earn their pay). They commit torture because the USA government, and many of its citizens, believed that the end justified the means, and that it was necessary to seek out information to enable them to pursue their war against terror. Far from being about uncontrollable feelings, what the CIA did in its secret prisons was about the coldest of rationalizations.
Pointing that out seemed to me to be a useful contribution to the conversation. It didn’t end well. My bad, it seems. However, it makes an important point for me. I have no reason to believe the person I addressed on Twitter is a bad therapist or counsellor, even though I think he reacted in an immature, childish way when his language was questioned. We all have bad days. If I thought he didn’t realise how incongruent his reaction was, or doesn’t accept my gentle caveats about his language as being about more than just me being a language pedant, I might worry for his patients.
However, at heart, I think he’s just fallen into the Twitter trap of not stopping and thinking. I think back to my first example, 850 words ago, and realise that I might have over-reacted, and that the fact it ended in a mature, grown up way was because my Twitter friend responded in a mature grown up way. In this second case though, I think it was appropriate to respond, to intervene, and to call someone out for their imprecise, troubling language because how you respond to the torture committed by the CIA depends entirely on whether you think it was the product of uncontrollable feelings, in which case it’s a medical problem, or a calculated and deliberate abuse, in which case it’s a criminal problem.