Coco doesn’t pop

I finally got around to watching Coco. If you’ve watched it and you love it, do us all a favour and skip this blog; I don’t want to be the person going around groaning that People Are Having Fun Wrong. And, for the record, this isn’t a blog about Why Coco Is Bad; I honestly don’t understand that kind of thing, because taste is subjective. But the movie failed to click with me, and I think the reason why is relevant to other people and situations, hence this blog.

One of the reasons it took me so long to get around to watching Coco is that my friends issued many warnings about it. I’m a notorious marshmallow; when it comes to watching anything that affects me emotionally, I fall apart so comprehensively that a movie can become a very draining endeavour, requiring much emotional aftercare. As the subject matter in Coco is basically the story of my life, my friends’ concern made a lot of sense.

Coco is the story of Miguel, a kid who loves music in a family which, for relatively valid reasons, is basically music phobic. At the ripe age of 12, he is put in the position of having to choose not only between his passion and his family, but literally between his passion and his life: his family’s opposition to the playing and listening of music is so severe that he has to choose between life and music. There are other issues at play that are not only important to the story, but personally relevant to me: the toxic matriarchies that can develop as a result of paternal failures (check), how the children of neglect and abuse normalise and perpetrate that neglect and abuse (check), the cruelty of bureaucracy (check), how doggos can be magical even when they look anything but (CHECK). The main subject of the story, however, is Miguel’s predicament.

I realised that something was going wrong for me very early in the movie. I met Miguel, discovered his plight, and my only emotional reaction was mild vexation that he could have gotten that good on the guitar at that young an age, particularly as he was presumably self-taught and played an instrument made out of scraps. I didn’t relate to him, not even a tiny bit, and that didn’t change all the way through the movie. The only character for whom I felt anything was Héctor, who desperately wants to go home and can’t. Just thinking about him brings on my allergies. Miguel does nothing for me.

That fact worried me a lot, because Miguel’s life was mine, growing up. My belonging to my family was conditional on my performance, and could be withdrawn at any point if I failed to meet standards. Not only nobody gave a fuck about whether the life I was forced to live was ensuring my emotional well-being, but I was repeatedly put in physical danger  because my caregivers prioritised keeping up appearances over ensuring my safety. Essentially, I had little or no value for them beyond that of an accessory: I was something to put on show to demonstrate what a good family we were. If I failed to perform that function, I would be punished or discarded.

When I felt nothing towards Miguel and his plight, I worried that I’d burnt out a circuit. Yes, your family’s love is conditional. Yes, they don’t care about your happiness. Yes, they will shower affection on you when you’re meeting a set of criteria, and reject you when you don’t. Yes, they’d rather have you dead than fail to meet their standards. What’s the big deal? That’s what life is. Thinking that I’d lost the ability to feel that pain really worried me, because I don’t actually want to be permanently broken. Then I remembered the objections some friends raised about Harry Potter, and I worked out what was actually going on.

Harry Potter bothered some of my friends because they found him unrealistic. They could relate to being deprived of parental care at an early age, and to receiving grossly inadequate care from their assigned caregivers; plenty of people who’ve gone through the care system can. What left them cold was how normal Harry was despite of that. He didn’t show any of the behavioural and emotional problems that children in care so often suffer from. He was a normal kid who just happened to have a grossly abnormal background; for people in the know, that didn’t tally.

Miguel doesn’t resonate with me because he is a normal kid with an abnormal problem – as is, the issue of his family’s conditional love has been superimposed on the personality of an otherwise normal child. In my experience, that’s not how it works. Some problems change you, for a while if not for good. They run all the way through you, like the writing in a stick of rock. They’re not something you only deal with when you’re in that one specific situation: they become a part of you, and they leave hurts and scars that can affect all aspects of your life.

I can’t relate to Miguel because I don’t understand him; in fact, I understand him even less than I do those people who’ve never lived that life. The problem isn’t that I’m so broken that I can’t feel his pain, but that his pain sits on the outside of him, like a coat that he can put on and off. Everything I know about life says that that’s not how it works.

To the best of my knowledge, I’m the only person I know to have had that reaction to Coco, and that kind of scares me. It makes me feel isolated, because the people who think that Miguel makes sense as a person can’t possibly understand me, and I don’t think I have the words to bridge that gap. It also makes me worried for the kids who grow up like that – and there’s a ton of them. I worry that this kind of misrepresentation will create unreasonable expectations for them, that it will cause people to think that they understand them while they’re actually totally missing the point. It’s a common issue: people often superimpose other people’s problems on themselves while failing to internalise them, and come up with solutions that would be perfectly brilliant, if only they didn’t hinge on a person not actually having that problem.

Popular media isn’t about bringing on a better understanding of the human condition, though; it’s about selling a product to as many people as possible. Harry Potter would probably not have sold half as well had the protagonist being unpleasant. Nobody wants to read ‘Harry Potter And The Uncontrollable Rages, ‘Harry Potter And The Disciplinary Trial For Petty Theft’, or ‘Harry Potter And The Avoidance Of Reality Through The Abuse Of Substances’. And it’s not just that HP was specifically aimed at children, and some subjects are deemed not-kid-friendly (even though those same kids may routinely brush against those issues in real life, and not discussing them actually deprives them of the tools to navigate them… but never mind). A character has to be somewhat relatable, and thoroughly fucked-up people tend to fail in that respect. If they ever take the limelight, it tends to be as Terrible Warnings, like Bruce Robertson in ‘Filth’. They’re not there for us to identify with them; they’re a spectacle for us to goggle at.

I’m glad Harry Potter and Coco didn’t do that. I’m just sad and scared that they didn’t do more about revealing the inner struggles of people living certain lives. Yeah, I’m sounding really corny. Whatever.

Shortly after watching Coco, I watched Next Gen. I found it entirely by accident, went into it with no expectations whatsoever, and I think I managed not to cry all the way through the opening credits, but I’m not sure. I thought it was gonna suck (having ‘Rebel Girl’ play during the establishment of the protagonist’s backstory reeeeeeeally cheesed me off); instead, it hit me like a ton of bricks. The protagonist isn’t wearing a problem: she has a problem to the point that she is a problem. Her emotional states and behaviours are consistent with her damage. I could totally relate to her reactions and decisions, even the ones which are objectively fucked up, because they make sense to me: they’re how I would have behaved at that point in my life. To a certain extent, they’re how I still behave, or would behave if I didn’t slap the brakes on, because that little girl is still inside me. Miguel, basically untouched by his own experiences, is an alien to me.

Not your problem.

If you are white, cis, het, able-bodied, male, born in this country, and someone who isn’t one or more of the above has a recurring problem with people shouting them down, talking over them, deliberately sabotaging their interactions or their work, or generally treating them like shit… And your response is “I don’t know how you always find those people,” or “You should just act like me,” because they simply must be doing something wrong, because you never get treated like that…. You need to wake the fuck up.

Yes, it is possible that you’ve found the Right Way To Interact With People (TM), and that’s why the vast majority of your interactions go smoothly. However, I urge you to consider the possibility that what is actually happening is that you are not experiencing a problem in the first place.

The reason you’re not exposed to transphobia is not that you’ve found a solution for it; you’re simply not a target for it, because you’re not  trans. In the exact same way, you’ve not found a solution for racism, homophobia, ableism, sexism, nativism, etc. You are not experiencing those difficulties because they are not your difficulties, not because you are better at handling them.

“But being trans is, like, a super fringe state that makes you an extra special target for abuse!” Yes. And being fem is a state that affects about half the world’s population, and still makes you a fucking target. So does having the wrong skin colour, or hair type. So does falling in love with the wrong people. So does sounding or looking like you’re not from here. So does being different enough in body or mind that you cannot function like most people do. Just because some of those traits are ubiquitous, it doesn’t mean that they don’t make you a target.

Some people are very mean to people different from them. Most of us know this. What many of us seem to fail to realise, though, is that some sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism, and nativism pollute most social waters – and, yes, that includes the waters you swim in. Maybe you don’t see those bigotries because they don’t apply to you, so the resulting misbehaviour happens away from your gaze. Maybe you’ve internalised them and just think of them as “normal.” Of course parents will complain if gay people kiss in front of their children. Of course one should speak slowly and loudly to someone who looks vaguely foreign, or uses a wheelchair. Of course black people have more interactions with the police. Of course at that university half of precariously employed instructors are women, but only 1/4 of tenured instructors are women; they hire the best-qualified applicants, and those just happen to be overwhelmingly male. Those aren’t signs of privilege actually being a thing; they’re just the way the world is.

“But Rory Miller said that y’all just need to be assertive…” Yes, no, maybe. Rory organised different levels of force in a progression, and stated that in order to protect yourself against people at one level, you gotta either match or exceed their force. But he also said, repeatedly, that members of marginalised groups face challenges that the majority may struggle to comprehend. He also said that avoidance is the best form of self-defence. He also said that getting stomped hurts, and that going home safe is important. And you know what can almost guarantee a stomping? If you act “uppity” in front of someone who considers them an inferior – and, yes, that includes being assertive at them.

Anyway, you know what? Rory could be wrong. He could be missing something. He could be limited in his understanding of the human condition, because his experience as a gay, trans, black , foreign, disabled woman is pretty fucking limited. The only way in which Rory can learn about different lives is by listening to the people who live them. And while you continue to superimpose your experience on other people’s, to insist that if everyone behaved like you then their life would run just as smoothly, that’s what you’re utterly failing to do.

Once more, with feeling.

Stolen from Jon Mills, head coach blackdogstrength.com and director Vancouver Strength Collective.

 

So, in the spirit of writing more, here’s probably the most valuable coaching and life tool that I have ever experienced. One sentence:

“Your feelings are valid.”

All human action solves a problem, all human emotion is meant to further our survival in some way. If a person feels a certain way, there is a really good reason they feel that way, and validating that is the most important first step to unpacking it.

Valid doesn’t mean correct. Often our feelings are rooted in something that we may have misinterpreted, misread, or lack full data on. The conclusion is based on what the person currently holds to be true (even if they don’t realise that they hold that truth), and acknowledging that is the first step in understanding them. Equally, “correct” is not always important to survival.

Valid doesn’t mean right. Emotions lack morals. Actions are where morality matters. A persons feelings can be completely valid based on how they perceive the world, but their actions based on those feelings may be morally wrong. Equally, the morally wrong aspect may be falsely representing their feelings to get a response. The feeling itself is neither good nor bad in an abstract sense. It just is.

Valid doesn’t mean requiring action. Feelings are not just problems to solve. They are data points that provide us with direction. Recognizing that feelings are not absolute markers doesn’t mean they become less valid. Equally, dealing with emotions often means engaging with them rather than trying to fix them.

What valid means is simple. Your deepest feelings have validity because of how they impact you, and no one should be training you to ignore that. No one has a right to take that away from your or tell you you are wrong.

Starting from a place of assuming everyone’s feelings are valid ways of surviving the world puts you in the unique position to help understand why they feel that way and help folks, and yourself, break out of destructive cycles where an emotion becomes the absolute unchanging truth in itself.

That’s where change happens, and it frees you to judge a persons actions or lack thereof without playing a blame/justification game on their behalf. Accepting that there is a reason that a person may feel that way also allows you to firmly pin down the morality of their actions for what they are by understanding the why and seeing that it was their choice to act that impacted others.

Start from a place of validity, and work from there. It’s a real game changer.

Side note: This assumes a person is relaying their emotions in good faith and not in order to manipulate you. The emotions in that case, if truly how the person feels, are still valid, the action of using them to manipulate a person is where the ethical issue comes up.

Secondary side note: If you are actively working on your own behavior, starting from a place of “your feelings are valid” is a great foil to prevent you unconsciously gaslighting folks.

 

(My note: It’s rather fascinating how so many of the theories downplaying the validity of feelings, or actively classing them as something one should try to eradicate in order to arrive to valid conclusions, was generated by men who were socialised to have the emotional granularity of potatoes. It is doubly fascinating how so many of such theories are still held as valid, even though they have been discredited by modern neuroscience. Looks like the strictly rational folk aren’t all that rational, after all…)

Heuristic

When I was a wee child, my mom taught me that when nettles are in flower, they don’t sting. There isn’t a grain of truth in that statement, but I believed in it for a while because it worked. You see, there is actually a whole class of plants called dead-nettles which have leaves that look a bit like nettle leaves, but lack the nettle’s ability to sting. They have much more showy flowers than “real” nettles. Therefore, if you see a plant that looks like a nettle to the untrained eye but has a large, obvious flower, you can touch it safely and it won’t sting you. My mom’s statement is bullshit, pure and simple, but it works, kinda. You can use it reliably in a specific context and for a specific purpose (i.e., deciding whether it’s safe to touch “flowering nettles”). For any other intents and purposes (e,.g., which plants to pick to make nettle soup), it fails abysmally, because it is predicated on a falsehood.

The same is true of a lot of other models and theories we embrace because they work, kinda. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has got holes you could drive a truck through. The triune brain theory has been debunked so comprehensively that it’s a miracle it’s still around. Still, ComCon, which is predicated on Maslow and the triune brain, works; but it works as a specific tool, to do a specific thing.

ComCon is a heuristic technique, and a damn good one. The same is true of a ton of other tools designed to help us get along with people, like NVC. They work, in the appropriate settings, but you can’t use them to produce neuroscientifically valid models for people’s decision-making. On the other hand, you also can’t use neuroscientifically valid models to calm people down enough to put down the kitchen knife, or stop dismembering an organisation’s budget. In the moment, we  need the appropriate heuristic technique to bring about the desired resolution. We just can’t turn around and decide that our favourite heuristic techniques are scientifically valid, however well they work in their context, and use them out of context. That’s not what they’re designed to do, so they will fail us – if you can call it a failure.

There’s a place for science and a place for heuristics. For me, that’s OK. However, it’s so often impossible to have this kind of conversation without people bringing out the pitchforks (how dare I piss on the thing that saved their life?!?!), or chucking out the baby with the bathwater (if it’s not scientifically valid, it ain’t worth shit, even though it plainly works).

Heuristic techniques are useful. Science is useful. They are useful in different ways. What’s the problem?