Fake Vulnerability, Risk Aversion and You
A while back I wrote an article about my dad, who died several years ago. As many as several people liked it a lot; as a result, I ended up having several conversations about the article itself on a meta-level. People were interested to know about the process of writing an article like that - what it felt like, what effect it had on me, etc.
For the record, it wasn’t an incredibly easy article to write. Any time I go into emotional areas when writing, I’m more worried than you might think that I’m being disingenuous and using whatever topic “just for internet points” or similar. When you add those kinds of worries on top of the normal feelings you might have digging deep into a personal wound, it adds another element of difficulty different than those you might feel if you wrote an article about small, heavy objects or something.
I enjoyed those conversations, but within them one theme popped up several times: people complimented me for being vulnerable.
I’m pushing back a bit on that because in most senses of the word I wasn’t vulnerable at all. Nobody was lying or trying to misrepresent things, but they still got it almost completely wrong. This is going to be a nit-picking article of the kind some people find annoying, but it seems important to me to talk about why.
The usual definition of vulnerable is a bit circular - it usually uses the word “susceptible” in explaining that vulnerability is being open to harm. Implied within the definition is that, usually, something described as vulnerable is especially so. A fortress is technically vulnerable to attack in the sense that anything is, but nobody describes it that way unless they’ve found a hole in the wall.
In describing me as vulnerable for writing an article, people are essentially saying I’ve opened myself up for damage; that I’ve rolled over and exposed my soft underbelly for attack. They are saying that by relaying a story of a time I was hurt I’m putting myself at the mercy of others and trusting to an unusual extent in the goodwill of others to keep myself safe.
This is not true, though. I was never safer. I have never been less vulnerable than when I posted that article.
If that seems questionable, think about it a bit with me. Imagine you are a commenter-type and that you aren’t afraid to speak your mind in my public comments, and you have just read a heartfelt article from an adult saying, essentially, that he misses his dad. You then scroll down to the comments and see something like this:
Sorry-not-sorry, but is this seriously an article where you whine about your dad being dead the whole time? First: he sounds like an asshole. Second: get it together, you blubbering loser. Nobody wants to hear about your deep goth feelings on the subject.
You know what would happen to that guy. The comments would rip him to shreds. There would be more comments on that one post calling that guy an asshole than the article got in general otherwise. This is true to the extent that I have to make clear that’s not a real comment I got because otherwise you might actually go find it right now and make sure that guy has been properly punished for his crimes.
More importantly, I myself know all that. I knew it before I wrote the article. The only way I’d get significant pushback on something like being sad a relative had died is if it came from people who already hate me for other reasons - say, having the wrong take on a controversial subject. When I wrote that article it was with the full knowledge that the worst that could happen to me is that it wouldn’t be a very good article and not many people would read it, which wasn’t what I was going for anyway on that piece.
I was never less vulnerable than I was writing that article - by the nature of it, I was inviting protection from others rather than attack. When people use the word vulnerable to describe that type of writing, they mean something different. They are usually referring to an emotional piece of content, sure. They might even mean it was difficult to write. But they don’t genuinely think that it’s something that would make its writer more likely to come to some kind of harm.
Western society is risk-averse society. Almost everything we do has some connection to minimizing the chances we come to harm, no matter how minor. This aspect of our culture is so intense that we will actually kill hundreds of thousands or millions of people for sure to avoid a small chance of harm to just a few; the FDA is dragging its feet on every aspect of vaccine updates, for instance. We can’t cut corners, since that introduces risk; since we can’t introduce risk, we accept certain harm.
That’s not just true of pharma product releases. If you look around various types of writing, the strong inclination is to avoid anything like a real risk in terms of the kinds of messaging a writer will put out. I’m not cutting myself out of that criticism; there’s things I don’t write about because it would be too much heat for too little benefit. I’d like to think I don’t do this a lot, but that might very well be wishful thinking; I know for a fact that I sometimes choose less controversial topics because I assume you-as-a-reader are “tired of the political stuff”, which is a form of that.
It’s very, very easy to stay centered in the Overton Window and never really take any true risks of losing face with your audience. I could easily settle into a center-left, unconventional-takes-on-conventional-beliefs pattern and never expose myself to any danger at all. I’d have to do some research to find out who would be best to point the finger at if I wanted to make specific accusations of this, but I think we’ve all seen it; some people are just thoroughly respectable and never deviate from that.
What would an actually vulnerable article look like, in the sense that it opened me up for actual criticisms? I thought about that a bit this week. I can’t write an article that criticizes people for not taking risks if I myself am not willing to take some risks, after all; if I’m going to talk about real vulnerability, I have to be willing to show what that actually is.
Here’s a statement that’s actually vulnerable in a number of very minor ways:
On Friday, I went to an event with my family. One of us needed to be there earlier than the others, so I dropped them off and left; while dropping them off, I noted that there was a dead pigeon on the ground.
After returning to the same parking lot and participating in the event, I left and walked back to my car with my family. While walking back, I fully stepped on the same dead pigeon that I had seen earlier in the night. Dead pigeons, it turns out, are difficult terrain; I completely lost my footing to the sound of breaking pigeon-bones.
I badly rolled my ankle and wasn’t able to walk normally for a day or so, and still can only do so with a certain amount of discomfort.
This is a funny story, but it also paints me in a bad light. For one, it sounds like a lie - this isn’t a normal thing that happens to normal people. Even though you can’t disprove the story it hurts my credibility with you when I tell it; I’m spending significant amounts of currency from my you-trusting-me bank account even if you do end up believing me.
It’s also a story that paints me as clumsy, forgetful, physically awkward, and (for some) kind of being a wuss; there aren’t that many people going to urgent care to get x-rays for dead-bird-related injuries. On top of all that, there’s no gain for me here; it’s a gross story that I’m associating myself with, and it’s super-likely nobody enjoyed it.
With that said, that’s still not much of a risk. It’s probably a bad writing choice, but people get over that kind of thing. Now consider this (also true of me) statement:
I was raised in such a way and around a certain set of people that encouraged me to think of women as unserious thinkers that wouldn’t be interested in most kinds of what I consider to be serious thought, and who wouldn’t be that great at that kind of thought if they were.
This means there have been times in my life when I have been visibly surprised to find women I knew in high school went on to be chemists, whereas I would not have been surprised in the same way to find out the same thing about a man I knew.
This is a bad reflex and not something I intellectually think to be justified, but I still have to be actively aware of how I think about the women I’m talking to and actively adjust how I behave to keep myself from artificially restricting the kinds of topics I’ll talk about with them, or assuming they don’t know things I might give a man the benefit of the doubt on.
See how that’s worse? That’s way worse.
This isn’t the kind of statement you can get away with completely unscathed. I mention that I am aware of this reflex and that I try to adjust for it, but having the attitude at all is considered pretty bad. There’s a certain number of women who are reading this that are slightly hurt or offended that I think this way (whether I take steps to “fix it” or not), and they aren’t wrong to feel that way. It is, as the kids say, a bad look.
Now, that said, there’s reasons why I might want to bring this up; the most prominent among them is that this isn’t an uncommon mindset at all. I might want to warn women that this is something some men in their lives deal with, so they have better context for interacting with people. I might want to comfort men with similar biases towards women (or anybody with similar biases towards anybody) and have a conversation about how to be fair even in the face of conditioning and history which prompts you to be unfair.
That leaves me with a choice. I can either talk about this flaw that I really do have and open myself up to alienating some people, or I can cover it up, talk about the issue in less effective ways, and not do as much good.
To put it another way: I can be vulnerable here in a way I think will do some good, or I can defend myself and do less good. But I can’t do both.
I like to think that I don’t filter myself to the point where I lose all usefulness to my readers, but the temptation to do that is strong. I probably do filter out some useful stuff to protect myself. I don’t want to pretend like I’m flawless here, even if I’m a little more willing to step outside the bounds of acceptable speech than some.
Now think about people who are like me to a lesser or greater extent, spread out over all public dialogue. How many useful conversations are we missing because people very reasonably try to protect themselves from flak related to their un-armored positions?
How many useful lessons do we miss when a spouse won’t talk about the real hurt they feel from emotional/physical neglect from their spouse? How many babies have been shaken because people won’t admit there were times when that was a real temptation for them? There’s dozens and hundreds and thousands of subjects like this where candid talk paints you in a really unfavorable light.
Consider that I’m a pretty good writer. I am pretty confident that I can minimize the damage I take from any statement I make. Even here I have a bunch of little tricks working behind the scenes to ensure that you probably won’t end up hating me for whatever I say. But how many people are like me? How many people, lacking elegant phrasing, face even greater risks from honest vulnerability?
Somewhere, there’s a guy who is going to write something this year that makes him look bad. Like, really actually bad; he’s going to get seriously dented because he was honest with you. But he’s still going to write it because he thinks it will do someone somewhere some good.
Somewhere else, there’s a guy who is going to write an article about the pain he felt when his dog was stolen. He’s going to do so with the full, sure knowledge that he’s completely safe in doing so; if anything, he’s securing a force of people who would protect him from people who would hurt him.
We both know which one will be described as vulnerable, and which one won’t. One guy will get points and one guy will pay a cost, and we pretty much know which is which.
There was a time when the usage of “vulnerable” had to do with real risks - when men writing articles about their failures in traditional masculinity did open themselves up for ridicule, or when someone who mentioned their own problematic relationship with drugs might do so not knowing if there’d be serious repercussions.
But that’s not how it is today - we’ve let vulnerable devolve from a description of practical reality to one of a certain kind of writing style. We don’t want to (or at least don’t) typically reward actually risky vulnerability, but we still want to feel like we do, so we reward a faux version of it we’ve all agreed to use as a substitute in a shared-fiction sort of way.
Without putting too fine a point on it, this is an incentive we control. This is a lever we can apply to a weight we choose and can use to encourage certain kinds of behavior simply by being careful what kind of vulnerability we actually reward.
Yes, bad things are bad, and flaws are flaws. But admitting those flaws to work towards correcting them is good, especially when obscuring them would prevent the necessary first step of acknowledging the problem at all.
This doesn’t mean glorifying the flaws themselves; as one beta-reader pointed out, some level of social disapproval for flaws is beneficial - it’s the main driver we have to push back on bad behavior. But with that in mind, it makes sense to put some thought into the balance of the two.
We can only correct the wrongs we can see. In some cases, it’s worth it to protect the few who are willing to risk themselves to show us what we can fix.