This post is for the Carnival of Aces, Round 3.
I am not a particularly community-oriented person. While I’m certainly not asocial, and I can get intimacy from multiple people simultaneously, I can never seem to get much intimacy out of communities themselves. The larger the community, the more I fall back away from it. At its extreme, a community can become just a sea of names and faces I don’t know, moving so fast I can’t keep up. When that happens, I will usually leave. Unless there is a very compelling reason for me to stay, I see no point in being in what essentially amounts to a crowded room. My voice is easily overlooked, so unless the format of the place is such that I’m like… a panelist up on a stage with a mic, or unless we’ve been split into small discussion groups, I feel like I won’t be contributing much, if anything. If there’s already that many people offering support, then it’s not that big a deal if I leave. It’s better, then, to go find a place where I can contribute.
Which is why blogs work for me, but forums don’t. A blog isolates and elevates a single writer above the sea of faces, so that I can focus on them, and it encourages a sense of introspection which I think engenders a much more intimate experience for the reader. I feel like I know the people whose blogs I follow much better than I ever knew anyone on AVEN, even back when I joined it in (I think?) late 2004 (which was back when it was relatively small, as you can see here if you scroll down to the graph). There’s a sense of continuity, since their words aren’t mixed in with discussions that die and get buried at the back of the page, never to be dug up again, but collected over time, in a format that’s easily accessible once the moment of the post passes. On a blog network, my issues with finding intimacy within communities are to some degree resolved. The problem is, it’s only the writers that I can get to know. I only vaguely know my own readers. Most people don’t comment, and of those who do, few comment more than once, maybe twice. I have a sense of what you all like, based on what gets linked around. I have a sense of what people, including people outside of the community who don’t follow me but just happened to stumble across my blog, are interested in. I would like to hear what others have to say, which is why I allow guest posts here, and why I just recently set up a formspring where people can ask me questions completely anonymously. If you’re interested in guest posting here, please do get in contact with me!
A little while back I posted about how I think Rachel Maddow was wrong to say that people have a responsibility to come out, and there were a few people who disagreed with that post (in the comments and here), so I thought I’d clarify what responsibilities I think people do have to their communities, because it seems like people are disagreeing with what they think I said, but not with what I actually meant.
Do people have a responsibility to participate in any one specific community, at a very basic level? No. I think that if for any reason a community makes you uncomfortable (or worse), or even if you just have no interest in it, it’s perfectly fair and reasonable to stay away from it. Just because you’re asexual doesn’t mean you need to torture yourself trying to keep up with AVEN, for example. I personally only go there if I get linked to a specific thread; otherwise, I avoid it. If AVEN were absolutely the ONLY option for asexual communities, I (theoretically at least) just wouldn’t participate in any asexual community. I would be part of other, non-specifically-asexual communities, sure. If I had no problems specific to asexuality, I might never have a reason to join a community devoted to asexual issues. But since I have had some very serious issues both directly and indirectly caused by my asexuality, in reality, if I found that the only community that existed to discuss asexual issues was AVEN, I would start a new community. Not everyone has the time or resources to do that, so I wouldn’t say people have a responsibility to start a new community, either.
The thing is, people don’t NEED to feel a responsibility to join a community. They will do it because they WANT to be part of a community. Humans are a social species, and generally speaking, we naturally want to be part of communities… the only question is, which ones? Once they are actually part of the community, people may feel a responsibility to maintain it, sure. And that’s a good thing. But initially, prior to actually joining a community, how many people join it just because they feel obligated to do so? To clarify, I’m talking about PURELY SOCIAL communities, not charities or political groups. Those are different and the degree to which a group is oriented towards either one will increase the sense of obligation that people feel about participating. I’ll get to those in a minute. But to put this more succinctly, perhaps it would be best to use an example. So, what I’m saying is: would people, for example, join a community about discussing, say, Sherlock Holmes… because they feel obligated to do so?
People join communities because they are interested in them, or to be more precise, because they are interested in doing what that community offers. There are cases where people join communities not because they are interested in them directly, but because they are interested in something else related to them. For example, maybe an asexual person wants to find other asexuals in their area, but it’s a small area, so there are no groups for that. So, they go to their local queer/GLBT group, to see if maybe any other asexuals have had the same idea, or at least to hopefully get some support from the group itself. Or, say a person is interested in a certain political goal, like getting same-sex marriage legalized. In order to achieve that goal, they join a community, even though they may have no interest in actually being in that community otherwise. Or, perhaps the least direct, say a person wants other people to have a good opinion of them. So, they want to uphold an image of being a moral person. They know that joining a charity group would be a good way to do that, so they feel obligated to do so. Most likely, they’d join whatever group other people, especially people in high regard by their community (like a pastor), say they should join.
So where are asexual communities in all this?
You’ll notice I didn’t say “the asexual community,” because there isn’t just one community that everybody belongs to just by virtue of being asexual, just like there isn’t really a “the queer community” either. An asexual person who doesn’t like asexual communities could very well just drop out of them entirely. I could easily imagine a person who finds a lot of the discussion that goes on in asexual communities very annoying, perplexing, and counterproductive to their personal goals. We tend to assume that all of us want asexuals to become more visible, but does that mean that all visibility is good visibility? What if a person thinks that asexuals spend far too much time trying to answer questions they know nothing about, doesn’t find the idea of “what constitutes sexual attraction?” particularly mysterious, and think that words like “zucchini” give outsiders ammunition to claim that asexuality is ridiculous? What if a person thinks that their own coming out would be detrimental to other asexuals, because for whatever reason they think it will go so badly that whoever they come out to will just say something like, “Asexuals, ugh. I met a person who thought they were asexual once. Completely ridiculous.”
Do you think that person would feel that they have a responsibility to come out? I don’t. I think they would be more likely to think they have a responsibility not to come out. They’d probably avoid using the word asexual to describe themselves to others, even assuming that they continue to personally identify with it. The idea that coming out is generally beneficial rests on the assumption that coming out for asexuals would be like coming out for atheists: that is, that it would increase acceptance of asexuality, and decrease anti-asexual prejudice, by virtue of just spreading awareness. I hope that does turn out to be the case. But so far, that’s still an unproven hypothesis, and it’s good to keep in mind that not everybody believes it.
The problem with making a statement like, “Asexuals have a responsibility to come out,” even if it is qualified by adding “if and when their personal circumstances allow it” is that it doesn’t take into account that people have different values, goals, and circumstances. And different ideas about how to achieve those goals. You can certainly make the case that it’s best to come out, and explain why you personally feel like it’s your own responsibility to do so, but that won’t necessarily resonate with everyone. There are circumstances where coming out could have a very negative impact, and I think it’s best to keep those in mind, because I think saying that everyone should do it can be harmful.
And here, finally, we come to what I think is the strongest, most basic responsibility people have not only to their communities, but to all other people: Do no harm. This is very broadly applicable. It’s not just about not going around calling yourself an ex-asexual and saying that asexuality is bullshit. It’s a simple rule that applies to all sorts of things, which you’d arrive at by considering what goals have the most value, and what things are counterproductive to those goals. These counterproductive things can include being passive as something negative happens, and can also include participating in a community where something negative is going on, without criticizing it or after criticizing it to no effect. Leaving a community that is engaging in, for example, a lot of racism and misogyny, can be a good thing. In most cases it is probably better to speak up with criticisms of what is going on if you can, but if changing other people’s behavior via criticism is hopeless, then you can stop participating in that community, and by doing so, you would be fulfilling your responsibility to do no harm.
I think that supporting one another is just another extension of “do no harm.” We know that asexuals have a tendency to be isolated, depressed, suicidal, etc. as a result of social backlash against being asexual, including being erased. Doing nothing to help will just increase those tendencies, and thus it will be in effect, doing harm. So, we should each try to support each other in some way, if we can do so without causing great harm to ourselves.
So by saying that we all, as asexuals, do not have a blanket responsibility to come out, am I saying that we don’t have any responsibilities? By saying that we don’t have a blanket responsibility even to participate in a community, am I saying that we have no responsibilities to each other at all? No. I’m saying that’s surface-level, that’s based on a very particular mindset, a particular set of circumstances, values, and goals. I think we should, by all means, support one another, to whatever degree we can reasonably do that. I think part of that also includes being mindful of others’ circumstances, and not pushing them to do something that would be detrimental to them by making blanket statements about what we have a responsibility to do. I think supporting one another includes criticizing statements and actions that are hurting some sub-section of the community. It includes getting out of places that are not supportive, but destructive. I am not saying we shouldn’t try to create communities, that we shouldn’t stand up for each other. On the contrary, I’m saying we should. I just think that we don’t need to make up a list of surface-level responsibilities. Rather, I think in situations where we are advocating something like coming out, we should, instead of just saying we have a responsibility to do it if we can, we should say that we have a responsibility to support one another and not harm each other, and explain how coming out can be a way to fulfill that goal… while keeping in mind that in some cases, it may not be.