For a time this community intimidated me. I was in somewhat unfamiliar territory. Reading your impassioned cries for understanding and accurate analysis of ideas I’d never really thought about has been moving and enlightening for me. Some of you have been through things I’d rather not imagine. Your stories fiercely bring to mind the fates of some of my closest friends; they remind me of challenges faced and horrors narrowly avoided in my own efforts to “pass,” even as I worried I was completely mad.
I have spent a lot of time watching and learning from the conversations on this site, fumbling as I discovered that some elements of my previous experience in community management do not apply here — it would be an obvious injustice to apply blunt tools of moderation to this intricate arrangement of individuals. I consider myself an anti-oppression agent at heart, thusly I have been extra careful about excluding anyone from the conversation unless their comments have been unabashedly hurtful.
Today I will tell you five things I have learned, and how I would like us to be doing things differently.
1) We are an Intersectional Community. This site beautifully, in my opinion, brings together career mental health workers along with advocates, consumers, survivors, and ex-patients. We are home to a conversation with far-reaching implications about race, class, gender, sexuality, science, oppression, and human nature. As a space where multiple cultures collide, we are bound to encounter opposing beliefs and struggle to empathize with each others’ roles and experiences.
My hope is that these intersections can consistently nourish us, making us smarter and more kind through looking with an open mind at the way our beliefs clash with others’. There is only one way I know of that this can happen, which is that we really listen to one another. We must take the time to acknowledge the merits and intelligence of what others are saying and how they came to say those things, even when we completely disagree! When writing, this sometimes means taking a breath and sincerely choosing words like “I wonder…” and “What about… ?” and “Another point of view might be…” Rather than making authoritative statements about why someone else’s truth is invalid.
2) Shaming is not productive. I have never seen a conversation on this site enriched by bullying, badgering, sarcasm, character attacks, gratuitous and redundant arguments, long emotional diatribes, gang-ups, or any other form of communication that serves to diminish, exclude, disregard, disdain, attack, or humiliate another individual. I’ve had lengthy conversations about this with some of you, and I recognize that a spare few of you will vehemently disagree with this thing I’ve learned: My view is that we simply cannot in good conscience condone any form of communication which intends to emotionally satisfy one party at the expense of another. This kind of abuse feels much like the failures of communication and empathy that I see associated with the practice of biological psychiatry and the phenomena that get called “mental illness.”
While I have heard of no direct benefit ever coming to anybody due to this sort of commenting, I have heard the opposite countless times now: Very intelligent, skilled, and caring people are unwilling to participate in a conversation with us out of fear of these attacks. Most painfully for me, detractors of Bob Whitaker and this site use the aggression in our comments as a reason to disregard our mission entirely. We want to run a site that people are able to explore and participate in without fear of the fanatic jack-in-the-box, sitting on its springs, waiting to pop up and rip someone a new one the moment they offer a thought that doesn’t match the survivor-approved gold standard of word-choice and understanding.
3) Oppression is real, violent, and damaging. I believe that the actions of forced drugging, lying to patients about science, misrepresentations of data, stigmatizing use of pseudoscientific labels, and corrupt collusion between academic psychiatrists and the pharmaceutical industry are huge problems. People with positions of power over others have a very real, legal potential to do harm to individuals who pass under their care. These are realities that deserve to be exposed and questioned.
4) Given the reality of oppression, we have very hard questions to address. Here are several to chew on: To what degree can emotional distress be tracked and remedied through the body? Is healthy food important? Exercise? What about supplements? Why? Can science help us find better ways to support peoples’ biology? What drugs are helpful, used in what way? To what degree can emotional distress be tracked and remedied through interpersonal relationships and other environmental factors? To what degree do power imbalances contribute to and exacerbate the problems we are trying to solve, and how do we make support available without these imbalances? What are reasonable boundaries on acceptable behavior? When ought we impose them, for how long, and in what way? What are kind, effective, and practical ways of responding to physical violence and other extremely disruptive behavior when it does occur? What is the relationship between confusion, anger, trauma, drugs, and violence? What is the most helpful way to advocate for people who have been damaged from years of psychiatric maltreatment? What about those who are just getting their first diagnosis, or about to get one? In what immediate, effective ways can we reduce harm? How, in our everyday life, can we create a world better equipped to support those in emotional distress and heal all manner of interpersonal crises? How can we create a world where fewer people experience such distress in the first place?
These are only a sampling of the difficult territory we tread as a rich, intersectional community. I bring these up in particular to highlight the final point…
5) Nobody has the answers. One of the scariest things in life, in my experience, is all the uncertainty. When it comes to emotional distress and social/behavioral crises it is hard to be certain what the causes are and how to be most helpful in response. When someone disagrees with me, it’s hard to be certain whether they’ve really considered my position or not. Are they disparaging and hateful of what I represent, or has it merely not crossed their minds? It is easy to be certain that someone else is stupid, ignorant, or hostile, and then respond pretty much in kind because “that’s what they deserve.” Unfortunately, this approach — where I am certain that I am right and the other person is wrong — teaches neither of us anything new. It creates a hostile atmosphere, and the unborn fruits of our dialogue are lost. This combative, “othering” attitude is, I believe, a significant root of the very failings of psychiatry we would all like to address.
In summary, I am updating our posting guidelines so that our authors and commenters can have a clearer framework for understanding the dialogue here. We are also sending out an updated set of editorial guidelines for authors that reflect these changes and encourage awareness of the range of experiences and beliefs represented by the MIA audience. Please review the new set of values and additions to the guidelines.
The important amendments I want to highlight are these:
We are a shame-free zone. Language that primarily exists to disparage, shame, dismiss, taunt, bait, exclude, or otherwise diminish another person is not allowed on Mad In America. Comments containing such language will be removed, and people who cross this line will be put on moderation. In these cases moderation periods will last longer (at least a week) and temporary bans for repeat offenses will be swifter than before.
We are a certainty-free zone. Benefit of the doubt will be given in all cases. Commenters are asked to refrain from assuming or inferring anything about another person’s position. Errors of omission or misuse of terms are always assumed to be made in good faith. A person’s choice not to acknowledge or respond to specific arguments will not be assumed to be malicious, or a sign of a character flaw, or otherwise held against them. Under no circumstances may individuals represent and attack an argument that is not explicitly made by the person they are responding to. This “strawman attack” behavior is disruptive, unkind, and too often committed in error. When in doubt, ask the other person an open-ended question rather than declaring you know their truth.
We are an oppression-free zone. Statements that attack or assume things about a person based on a label they carry (i.e. “psychiatrist” or “schizophrenic”) are similarly not condoned.
Major changes in moderation:
1) We ask that each comment serve to advance the discussion started by the original article. Low content posts may be moderated.
2) Off-topic comments will be moved to the community forums, where I intend to participate personally in supporting an in-depth interior dialogue among the MiA community. I’ve noticed that a very small number of commenters tend to make many long posts. Sometimes these are in the context of exclusive personal exchanges, or discussion of one’s personal story and feelings unrelated to the article. These comments, while valuable, veer far from the original topic of the page. In order to welcome more on-topic discussion of individual articles, I am asking that the MIA regulars please make use of the discussion forums to carry on these conversations with each other, continue long-running arguments, and so forth. Reference links can be made back and forth between forum topics and blog posts to help guide any reader who wants to participate the “insider” conversation. I will be personally making this happen with posts I deem too gratuitous or off-topic to be a blog comment. The forums are also an appropriate place to express personal feelings about discussion happening in blog comments or MIA in general. We can use them to support each other in our growing understandings and in our efforts toward kind and effective communication.
3) Moderation will be made more clear and transparent. We will send a copy of moderated posts to the new Moderation Forum along with some information about why the action was taken. A link will be provided from the original comment. The reason for moderation will no longer be stated in the comment itself.
One final thing I want to emphasize is that we consider all conversations on the site to be “eye-level,” meaning that nobody is higher than anybody else in status or authority in this dialogue. We seek to provide a forum outside the daily power dynamics of helper and helped, professional and patient, and so forth. On our site, people from all sorts of backgrounds participate in candid, open dialogue. In this spirit, we address one another as equals, aiming to strip away the assumptions, shame, blame, and other prejudices that we might have developed in our everyday roles.
As always, these measure are imperfect attempts to realize a space where healthy, civil, intelligent conversation can occur between a wide range of individuals.
I recognize that some of you whom I have communicated with personally may feel alienated or uncomfortably limited by the new structure. Some of you would prefer that Mad In America be primarily an advocacy site. Maybe you are less interested in civil conversation and including anybody who doesn’t fundamentally agree with your position already. If any of you decide to step away that seems very understandable to me, though I’ll be sorry to see it. I believe that every voice is important to this dialogue. I hope that together we are creating a space where each voice can be at its most potent: By being heard in a conversation that generously welcomes all those who would benefit from hearing what you have to say, without sacrificing for a moment the clarity of your message.
My colleague Laura Delano had this to add:
When we attack each other here, we in fact replicate the force and harm that’s been done to people by the mental health system. Words can be weapons just as syringes and restraints can. When we attack someone else with words, we become no better than those who harm people against their will in the name of “treatment.”
My colleague Kermit Cole put it this way:
We all want to make the best of our time on earth; making sense of ourselves, others, and our world in the process. It’s a miraculous achievement when anyone pulls it off, and I guess what I hope for here on MIA is that we all do our best to help each other out in the process.
Thank you for joining us in this experimental and, we hope, paradigm-shifting community.