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How to Write Essays Super Good (or at least a bit more better)
By Tim Squirrell
This brief guide is intended to provide you with basic tips which will allow you to succeed in undergraduate essay writing. If you follow the advice presented here, your essays will probably be quite good. If you don’t, they might still be alright, but they probably won’t be as good as they could have been. Follow it if you want. It’s your choice. I’m not forcing you or anything. I’m not your dad.
For the terminally lazy:
- Find 10-20 relevant books and articles from the reading list and/or Google Scholar searches. Well referenced Wikipedia or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy articles are your friends for both understanding and writing about a topic (read and cite the references, not the articles themselves. Obviously.).
- Skim the relevant sections for relevant quotes.
- Write down those relevant quotes.
- Have a think, put the argument and essay together.
- Your essay is done.
Obviously this doesn’t cover everything. That’s what the next 2000 words are for. Stop being so lazy.
Summary: read the reading list, don’t read books cover to cover, find additional articles in bibliographies of reading list articles, skim abstracts for relevance, write down notes with page numbers and quotes. Read critically.
Unless you’re Foucault (and you’re not Foucault), then the foundation of any good essay is a solid set of references. This isn’t just so that you can look good and your tutor thinks you’ve done the reading. It’s because, no matter how clever you are and what percentile of the country you came in your school leaving exams, your ideas still aren’t original. Trust me. You might think that you’re the first person to discover moral relativism, or situationist perspective on human behaviour, or discursive constructions. Spoilers: you’re not. Someone has done it before, and they’ve almost certainly done it better. That’s not to say that you can’t have cool ideas, or express those ideas in interesting ways. You just need to make sure that you cite the people who came up with those ideas originally, and ideally show how you differ from or improve upon them. The only way you can do this (and consequently, the only way to get a decent mark) is to do some reading.
- Look at the reading list. If it’s incredibly long, you probably won’t want to (or be able) to read it all. However, that is not an excuse to not read any of it. Look through the list, identify if there are any readings marked as essential. Read them. If there aren’t any essential readings, pick a few which look interesting and relevant, then read them.
- Read some more. If the reading list is really short, you’ll need to go beyond it. If it’s long, this is still relevant. Look through the reference lists of the papers and books you’ve just read. See where their ideas came from. Mark out a few of the most promising-looking readings. Read them.
- There is a difference between reading to understand the topic, and reading that you plan to reference. It is totally fine to use Wikipedia, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, lecture notes etc to familiarise yourself with the key arguments and concepts. It is considerably less fine to cite them.
- Books. Do not read whole books. It’s a waste of your time. You won’t remember any of it, it will drain all of your energy, and you only get one reference and viewpoint out of it. Read the intro and conclusion so that you get the gist of their argument. Pick a chapter from the contents page which looks like it’s relevant to your essay. Read that. As above, find relevant references and follow them up.
- Articles. Read the abstract first. Does it look like it’s relevant? If not, don’t waste your time. If it does, read it. Check the bibliography as above.
- Read critically. For the sake of all that is holy, read critically. This is absolutely essential. Don’t just stare at the pages and absorb them, bovine-like, for the purposes of regurgitation into your essay. Think about:
- The central claim the author is making. Usually there is only one, perhaps two. Summarise it in one sentence if you can.
- What is the frame of their argument? When in history is it set? Who are the key actors? Are they responding to another author? If so, what is the argument they’re responding to? Try to position their argument in context. This allows you to:
- Critically assess the claims made. This obviously doesn’t just mean ‘say they’re wrong’. They might well be wrong, but you’ll need to find reasons for it. Generate a list of three reasons for each line of attack you want to take. Scrap the weakest two. If you think they’re right, why are they right? Are there other authors who corroborate their claims? Are there logical reasons to prefer their argument?
Make sure you take notes on everything you read. Put page numbers in those notes. In fact, write down a few potentially useful (and ideally flexible) quotes verbatim. Using them makes it look like you’ve actually read the text, rather than just picking a page at random and hoping that it happens to contain the right argument or that your examiner doesn’t know the literature at all well. I still handwrite quotes in my notes, and I’m working on my PhD. There aren’t many ways in which I’d recommend being like me. This is one of them.
You don’t want to get penalised because you didn’t reference your readings properly after you’ve put in all that effort to make sure that your arguments are founded in the literature.
Answering the Question
Summary: identify key terms in the question, define those terms, question the question (what are the assumptions behind it?).
Some questions are straightforward. They might ask you to ‘critically assess’ some claim or concept, or ask you a simple question which you’ll have to answer in a complex way. Other questions aren’t so simple. They’ll make a statement and tell you to discuss it. They might ask you to compare and contrast two different ideas, or say which of two theories is the more accurate. We’ll talk about both types of questions here.
- Identify the key terms in the question. If the question is “what is the best solution to the demarcation problem?”, you’re going to want to identify what you think the examiner means by the terms ‘solution’ and ‘demarcation problem’. How are you going to define and operationalise those terms in your essay? This is essential, because your argument has to have a clear definition of the terms you’re using in order for it to be coherent and responsive. This doesn’t mean you should use lazy constructions like “I am going to define ‘demarcation problem’ as ‘the question of how we can define ‘science””. That’s a perfectly reasonable definition (if you can defend it, and you should give a reason you’ve chosen a certain definition), but you need to be a little less clunky. Something like “When we talk about the problem of demarcation, we refer to the question of how exactly we can define ‘science’ as a sphere of human activity which is somehow special”, will do just fine.
- Question the question. You’ll hear this quite a lot, and you’ll probably wonder what on earth it means. It’s important to understand it, because it can be the key to getting a high mark. Every term in a question is ambiguous. Every question has hidden assumptions behind it. You can question these assumptions. For example, in the question about ‘the demarcation problem’ above, there are assumptions that there is a single problem of demarcation, as well as a single best solution to that problem. Sometimes it’s enough to point out that these assumptions exist, and then to proceed with the essay by clarifying the definitions you’re using and the assumptions you’re working with. Sometimes you might think that the assumptions are fundamentally mistaken, or disguise a more important question. In that case, you’ll need to point this out, and then proceed to explain why, and to make your arguments within the essay using your revised understanding of the question.
- If the question is “X statement. Discuss.” then you have, broadly, four options on how to answer it – see below. Try not to hedge your bets: this isn’t AS Level Critical Thinking, you don’t need to give both sides equal weighting and say “ooh, it’s a really tricky question and there are great arguments on both sides”. Have opinions.
- This is true, and that’s great
- This is true, and that’s awful
- This isn’t true, and it should be true
- This isn’t true, and that’s fine.
- How are you going to relate your argument to the existing literature? Who are the key authors you plan to draw on? Make sure you know their arguments reasonably well and have armed yourself with flexible quotes from their work. If you can, familiarise yourself with the people who think they’re wrong and awful. Figure out if there are arguments which are unresolved and see if you can make a contribution towards resolving them.
Once you’ve clarified all the terms, you can start to put together your arguments and write the essay.
Summary: tell me everything you’re going to say in your introduction, structure your points like you’re in primary school, don’t bring new material into the conclusion.
Ninety nine percent of the structure of your essay is exactly the same as you learned in secondary school. You might think you’re too good for Point, Evidence, Explain. You’re not. Especially if you think you are.
- Introductions: start your intro with the central claim of your essay. If I’m reading it, I want to know within literally five seconds what you’re trying to convince me of.
- Next, think about what you need to prove in order to make that claim. What might be the immediate negative reaction of someone reading your central claim? How can you defend yourself against that response? Ideally you want to be able to split your burdens of proof (the things you need to prove in order for your argument to be true) into a few different points. These will be your paragraphs.
- From here, write down what you’re going to argue, and in what order. It is genuinely fine (indeed, good) to say “First, I will prove x. Next, I will go on to show that y. Finally, drawing on Bloggs (1999) I will argue that z.”
- The final part of your introduction should tell me what conclusions you’re going to draw, or at the very least say “I conclude by examining the implications of my argument for theory/author/other-argument”.
- This is to say, if you’ve been taught that your essay should unravel as you go, and I shouldn’t understand your whole argument until the very end, then you’ve been taught wrong. Don’t do that. I should know exactly what you’re going to argue by the time I’ve finished your introduction. This isn’t an Agatha Christie novel, it’s an argument. Save the twists and turns.
- When thinking about your argument in the introduction, consider the tips above regarding questioning the question and defining terms. You can either do this within the confines of the introduction, or you can say something to the effect of “First, I will define what it would mean to be able to solve the problem of demarcation, querying the definitions of these terms and showing how their intrinsic ambiguities may create difficulties in argument.”
- Body: PEE on your essay. It sounds infantile. It is infantile. Do it anyway.
- Point: what are you claiming? This is also known as the topic sentence. At the end of the first sentence of each paragraph, I should know what to expect from that paragraph. Don’t tantalise the examiner. It’s an essay, not a terrible surprise birthday party.
- Evidence: who has said this thing before you said it? How are you corroborating the point you’re trying to make? Please don’t say ‘I just thought of it’. Find someone who’s said it before. Are there statistics which back up your argument? If so, where are they from? If there’s more than one piece of evidence, all the better.
- Explain: why does the evidence you’ve presented prove the point you’re trying to make? I’ll go into this part of arguing more in the next section.
- One final thing: in most essays, there should be a development of thought from one paragraph to the next. In some instances your arguments may genuinely be discrete units, but in most instances they should flow in some way. Try and play around with your structure such that your body paragraphs are in the order that best allows the essay to feel fluent and smooth.
- Conclusion: do not put new things in your conclusion. It’s not big and it’s not clever. We’re not just saying this for our health. If you’re adding new arguments in your conclusion, it’s not a conclusion.
- Recapitulate your argument. Readers are stupid and have terrible memories. What did you prove in your essay? How did you prove it? This is like doing your introduction all over again, but with slightly nicer words.
- Synthesise your claims. What are the implications of what you’ve proved? Do the strands of your argument come together to prove that Immanuel Kant was full of nonsense when he wrote the Critique of Pure Reason? Do they leave the field open for a new line of enquiry into the semiotics of phallic imagery in male-female initiation messages on contemporary dating applications? Why should we care about the things you’ve written? Repeat your central claim, tell me why you’ve proven it. Synthesis often involves thinking about the state of your field or of a society at that moment, and trying to show how your argument might apply or be useful elsewhere. It means bringing together all of the things you’ve proved to make more far-reaching points (but don’t overreach – this isn’t going to change the face of your subject forever. You look silly if you say that.)
Summary: why is it true? Why is it important? Structure: claim, counter-claim, rebut counter-claim. Don’t be mean to your opponents.
This is the stuff that actually makes up your argument. If you perform poorly at this, you might as well pack up and go home. Luckily, it’s really not that hard.
- Why is it true? If you’re making a claim, you need to tell me why that claim is correct. Think of a potential response to your argument, perhaps from an author you’re arguing against. Write out that response, then tell me why it doesn’t defeat your argument, or at least why it only mitigates it.
- Why is it important? In the context of the question you’re answering, and the frame you’ve provided for your argument, why should I care about the point you’re making at this point in the essay? Once you’ve proven (using PEE) that your argument stands, I want to know the significance of it.
- Structuring arguments: to create a really decent paragraph, you ideally want to follow one of two structures. Remember that at each step within each structure you need to use PEE.
- Claim -> Counter-claim -> Rebuild Claim.
- Foil (the claim you’re arguing against) -> Refutation (your reasoning as to why they’re mistaken) -> Rebuttal (their plausible response to your argument) -> Re-refutation (finally putting their argument to bed).
- Finally, make sure you formulate every claim in the strongest possible terms. Don’t make your opponent look like they have no arguments, or take the weakest version of their argument. Think about the strongest possible response to the claim you’ve put forward, then beat that. It will make your argument stronger. If you can’t beat it, find another argument.
Summary: get Zotero. Reference properly. Cite the originator of an idea. Go beyond the reading list.
Okay, so you’ve written an incredible essay. You’re ready to hand it in. You’re going to get an 80.
Not so fast, hot shot. Your reference list is a mess, you haven’t cited half your sources and half of your bibliography is Wikipedia pages.
- How to reference: this is totally dependent on your department and university. They will likely have provided a style guide. Read it. Follow it. Don’t lose marks.
- Make sure that when you’re citing, you cite the original person who came up with the idea, not some random who’s also citing them. This is a classic error. Don’t make it.
- Get Zotero, or Mendeley, or Endnote. You will save yourself literally days over the course of your university career. They allow you to reference as you write, and you can create and reformat your bibliography and citations at the touch of a button. If you don’t do this then you have only yourself to blame when you’re spending the last days of your undergraduate degree desperately trying to find books on Google so that you can write down their details by hand.
- Go beyond the reading list. This is the single easiest way to get more marks. If I see an argument citing an author whom nobody else has mentioned, and it’s a decent argument, it will make my day. Genuinely. I have a sad life.
- Critically engage. Be aware whilst you’re reading that all arguments and authors are fallible. Think about the text you’re reading and think how you might respond to it.
- Litmus test for whether your argument is pernicious nonsense: see if you can summarise it to a friend who’s in a different subject area. If you can’t, it’s probably not because they’re stupid. It’s probably because it’s a bad argument.
- Read over your introduction when you’re done. Does it still make sense? Often your argument will change over the course of the essay, and you’ll need to alter your intro accordingly.ave you supported every single one of them? If not, sort it out.
- Once you’ve written the whole essay, read over it again. Look at every premise you’ve used and claim you’ve made. H
- Life tips (these are ideal habits, do as I say not as I do):
- Don’t do all nighters. They’ll mess up your sleep pattern, you’ll ruin your entire next day, and you’ll likely produce work that a 5-year old would be quick to disown. Do your essays on time, or early.
- Once you’ve done your essay early, leave it a day or two. Come back to it. Proof-read it. Don’t just look for typographical errors. Are you still sure your argument makes sense? If not, rewrite relevant parts.
- Lots of people say that you should write in chunks of 500 words as you’re reading. This is one way of doing things, and it works for some people. I prefer a different method. If you have a week to write an essay, spend the first 3 days or so reading and making notes, then spend a bit of time thinking over your argument, write it all in a day or so (you’ll likely find this easiest because you can get into the rhythm of it), then take a day off, come back and proof-read it before you hand it in.
One final thing: it bears repeating that your ideas are not new. Unless you’re working on a Masters thesis or, at the very least your final undergraduate dissertation, it is vanishingly unlikely that you are the first person to think a particular thought and publish it. What you can do is synthesise old ideas into interesting arguments. Do that. Get good marks. Be (briefly) happy.
Nearly 100 days in, it’s probably time to reflect on some of the ways that being back on SSRIs has affected my life. Continuing the theme of practising what I preach with respect to tackling mental health stigma, I’ll try to walk the tight-rope of Emotional Honesty without falling into the shark-infested waters of Too Much Information; as always, though, I may well fail. Please don’t hold it against me. All the standard caveats apply: this is only my own experience, people with mental illness all experience them in unique ways, please don’t take this as representative of everyone else’s experiences.
Over the last three months, I’ve had my dosage upped twice. I started on 50mg of sertraline per day, which is the same dose they give to little old ladies. I’m a 6’4″, 23-year old man weighing just under 90kg, so I’m not too concerned about having to go up a bit. I was moved up to 100mg pretty quickly, and then 150mg just under two weeks ago. As the dose has gone up, so has the therapeutic effect, but the side effects have followed along with it.
I think this is the thing that bothers me the most. It’s quite hard to understand if you’ve never experienced it, but I’ll give it a try. Start with the common conception of depression as feeling ‘sad all the time’. That’s an inaccurate depiction, as pretty much any depressive will tell you. (On a side note, isn’t ‘depression’ a rubbish way of describing it? A depression is just this temporary dip in the land, something shallow and gentle. Depression isn’t that. It’s rough and raw and grating. It’s a deep sense of unease within yourself, a gnawing sadness and emptiness which holds you in its grip and refuses to let you get out of bed. It’s a pair of hands holding your eyelids open and fixing your gaze upon the space on the wall, stopping you from looking anywhere but there, stopping you from thinking about anything but the utter emptiness and meaninglessness of your own existence. Melancholia is a much better word. Depression is a misnomer.) There’s sadness, but most of it is emptiness. You just can’t find the impetus to engage with the world. You’d rather stay asleep than have to cope with the drudgery of life – if you’re able to sleep, that is. It’s a painful nothingness that demands to be felt.
Anti-depressants, for me at least, allow me to live in spite of that emptiness. It would be a lie to say that they get rid of it. I’ve written before about the way that they allow you to bounce back more easily from your lows: they let your brain divert from the broken railway track that leads into the canyon below and onto the siding of relative comfort. But that doesn’t mean they make you happy. They facilitate you living in a way that allows you to achieve happiness by other means. You can drag yourself from your cave of self-pity to the gym and harvest those delicious endorphins. You can make yourself go to work and produce things which provide some degree of contentment. You can put on your Normal Functioning Human Adult face and grin and trick your brain into thinking it’s entirely unforced.
There’s a trade off, though. You lose the intensity of emotion you get with depression: whilst you had to live with gnawing guilt at how appalling a human being you were, at least you had that feeling. It might sound ludicrous to say that being able to feel negative emotions is a positive: who wants guilt, anxiety, sadness, anger? Surely we’d be so much better off without them. The problem is that SSRIs seem to erase your capacity to feel those emotions, at least to the extent that you’re used to. But when they’re gone, they’re not just replaced with happiness and sunshine and rainbows and visions of ambrosia. Instead, in situations where you know you should feel those things, you’re left confused.
A thing happened the other day that should have made me intensely sad. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t cry. I knew that I should be sad, but nothing was coming. I was emotional foie gras. People talk about being emotionally constipated, but I don’t think I’ve ever really understood exactly what it could mean. It’s like a phantom limb which still wants to be felt: you know there should be something there, but it’s just a ghost of what it was. The object is gone and now all that’s left is the shadow and a series of increasingly tenuous metaphors and similes. It’s frustrating because sometimes you need to feel an emotion in order to exorcise it, and it leaves you unable to console your conscience in the way you’re used to.
I used to be wracked with guilt. All of my teenage years were characterised by a constant nagging feeling that I was wrong, that the things I was feeling and doing and experiencing were incorrect and out of sync with what I should be feeling and doing and experiencing. It got a bit better as I approached my twenties – I think there comes a time when you begin to realise that you’re not the only one who feels that way, and there’s a certain comfort in that – but now I can’t really feel it at all. I used to constantly worry about the effects of my actions on others; the empathy I felt was painful in its intensity. It’s not that I don’t care, now. I still think about it a lot. It’s just that now I have to force myself to remember what it was like to be that empathetic, to care so much about how others perceived me and to make sure that I’m as kind to others as I can be. Perhaps I overcompensate, but I’d still rather that than hurt people through callousness. I’m an ancient fridge with a jaunty sign scrawled on the front. The light is broken, but I still work.
In short, I still can’t sleep for shit. I’m no longer waking up like clockwork every 90 minutes, but it’s gotten to the point where I genuinely cannot remember the last time I slept through the night. This morning I was woken up at 5 by someone pretending to be a fucking bird, of all things. I went back to sleep, but then I woke up every half an hour or so until I finally gave up at 8. If you haven’t experienced insomnia, I envy you. I don’t think there’s anything quite so frustrating as going to bed knackered, only for your brain to decide that now is exactly the time to mull over the day’s events and all the things you need to do tomorrow and who you might have upset and whether anyone really loves you. That’s then compounded by the constant waking, such that you don’t even know whether you’ve had a good night’s sleep or not. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy of shite: you worry that you’ll wake up, so you wake up, and the trench of insomnia is dug deeper and deeper until there’s no path but that one. I have a few temazepam left, and they help a little when you get to breaking point, but it still doesn’t stop the middle-of-the-night waking, and you feel slow as hell the next day.
I wish this would go away. I don’t know if it will. The doctor has suggested using a low dose of a sedative SSRI at night to try and knock me out. We’ll see if that works.
Obviously, this bit will involve some discussion of my sex life. If you came for this (heh), enjoy, you filthy animal. If you don’t want to ever imagine me in any sort of vaguely carnal scenario, probably skip this bit (Mum and Dad, pls. Also, religious family members, maybe you guys too (soz)). I include it because I hope it might help other people who are struggling with similar problems, or those who might want to understand it better.
So I mentioned the last time I wrote about antidepressants that they make sex take longer. Sexual dysfunction is the most common side effect of SSRIs, and is probably one of the major reasons a lot of people come off of them in the long term. I can imagine that if they make getting an erection difficult or reduce your libido to an unacceptable point, that can be really hard (or not, as it were). It can introduce a significant degree of tension into relationships, make one night stands impossible, force you to out yourself to people you might not necessarily want to talk to about your mental health, or be a source of further depression because sex is – let’s be honest – an extremely important part of a lot of people’s lives.
I’ve noticed that as my dosage has increased, it’s gotten more and more difficult to finish. One tricky thing is trying to separate out the physiological and psychological factors from this. There’s certainly a degree to which it’s in my mind: I worry that I can’t, or won’t, and that acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It can induce guilt as well: you don’t want to feel like a burden, or make your partner feel like they’re doing something wrong, or that you’re not enjoying it. The solution, I’ve found, is just to be as communicative as possible. I’ve asked people before about when they tell people they’re dating about their mental illness; I personally find it imperative for me to tell someone before the first time I sleep with them, because it helps to ease my anxieties about this. Obviously there’s an extent to which people don’t tend to mind sex going on for longer, but the difference in your own experience can make you pretty self conscious, and you find yourself apologising a lot and generally just making the whole business a lot more awkward for everyone concerned. Top tip: don’t sleep with people who are shit at communicating or empathy – in life in general, but specifically if you’re having trouble with this kind of thing.
Fortunately I haven’t had the effects on my libido that other people often get, but it’s made drinking on dates quite difficult – I’m not sure how SSRIs combine with alcohol in terms of sexual dysfunction, but it’s not something I’m massively keen to find out, particularly now I’m on 3x the initial dosage.
If anyone wants to talk about this further, I’m pretty open and happy to chat. I don’t think it’s something we ought to keep in the dark (as it were).
After a pretty rocky start when I could get the room to spin with nothing more than a couple of pints, this is back to nearly normal, for better or worse. I’m no longer the world’s cheapest date, but at least I can drink without worrying that I’m going to be paralytic after three glasses of wine. What’s also nice is that the changes in tolerance were quite unpredictable: sometimes I could drink like a fish and be fine, other times I’d quickly have to stop. Now there’s a greater degree of consistency to my capacity. Sorry, ladies.
Overall, I’m still very happy to be on the drugs. I haven’t hurt myself since I started taking them, and suicide is now out of the question. I tell myself the latter is for philosophical reasons – I think there’s nothing after death, and as long as life is a net positive then I’d rather have the nothing happen later rather than sooner – but I think my capacity to think in that way is probably facilitated to some extent by these meds. For all the annoying side effects, I’m still not tempted to take myself off them just yet. As always, if anyone wants to chat to me about this, please feel totally free to shoot me a message on facebook or by email.
A friend recently told me that they weren’t comfortable with the idea of going on SSRIs to deal with their depression because they didn’t want to have to constantly worry about whether the happiness they were feeling was ‘authentic’. They (and a lot of people) might not get much happiness naturally, but they’d rather that than have to concern themselves with whether their feelings are truly theirs.
This seems a pretty common concern for people considering medicating depression. I have a few thoughts on it. Fundamentally, I’m uncertain that ‘authenticity’ is a productive or positive way of framing our discussion about antidepressants, but saying that straight off the bat isn’t super helpful, so let’s reach that conclusion organically.
A lot of what antidepressants make you feel is a complex product of expectations and chemicals. We’re really not sure exactly how they work, and for people with mild or moderate depression the evidence for their efficacy is pretty mixed. For a lot of people taking SSRIs can mean they’re effectively taking a placebo, so what they think we’re going to feel is a crucial factor in what they actually feel.
As such, the authenticity question is a much greater problem for people who are concerned about it. If you’re scared to go on antidepressants because you think that the happiness they’ll make you feel isn’t real (whatever we mean by real), then, in the immortal words of South Park, you’re gonna have a bad time. This is particularly bad for the kinds of people who tend to be candidates for antidepressants (i.e. depressed people), because we have a tendency to overthink things in creatively shitty ways. This includes emotions: happiness is rarely the child of introspection, and if it is introspection’s offspring then it’s the kind that’s kept in a cupboard under the stairs and is only let out for family gatherings and birthday parties. Whilst depression obviously isn’t something which can be cured just through the power of positive thinking (thanks, mainstream media!), it’s also not totally impermeable to changes in our thought processes. If you’re not constantly worrying about the authenticity of your feelings, then those feelings are considerably less likely to be the kind that perpetuates the cycle of bullshit that characterises depression. People who come on to antidepressants not caring about the aetiology of their emotions – people who just want portable dark cloud of acid rain and existentialist angst perpetually hanging over their head to fuck off – are less likely to have these issues. That means they’re much more likely to draw greater benefit from the drugs.
But the problem with this whole line of reasoning is that it presumes that antidepressants make you happy. That’s not my experience, and from talking to various other members of the Depression Mafia (or Melancholiati, if you prefer) I know it’s not their experience either. SSRIs, rather than making me happy, usually help to blunt the worst of the lows that I would normally feel. If my thoughts are a train, and they normally speed down the tracks towards the broken bridge over Nihilism Valley, antidepressants can act to conveniently shove the train of thought into a disaster-averting siding (though the siding may well lead straight over a cliff into the Sea of Shit and Sorrow and Staying In Bed Until 1).
That is to say, quite a lot of the work done by SSRIs is in maintaining neutrality, rather than promoting happiness. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: neutrality makes it a lot easier to take advantage of opportunities to feel happiness in a way that you wouldn’t be able to normally, because you’re stuck in bed staring at the space on the wall the entire morning because you can’t bring yourself to muster even enough energy to flop onto the floor like a fish with a deathwish.
Framing SSRIs as ‘happy pills’ is counterproductive: if people with depression go on them hoping to feel happy, then not only are they going to be let down when they learn that the pills don’t work that way (which in itself can make depression worse, as you begin to feel like nothing can make you better), but they’re also susceptible to all the concomitant concerns about the authenticity of their happiness. Because so much of the effect of antidepressants is contingent on expectations, it might help quite a lot of depressed people (and those who love them) to change the way we talk about SSRIs and similar drugs. They’re not happy pills. They’re normal functioning human being pills.
This is a bit of a downer to write. As someone who’s written about mental health a decent amount in the past, sometimes in a way that I’m uncertain had a net positive effect, it’s difficult to write about our discourse in a way that isn’t totally positive. I certainly don’t want to discourage people from talking, and writing, and speaking out in a society which is often ignorant or misunderstands the issues. That said, our conversation could be better. It could always be better. Stigma is a huge issue when it comes to mental health, but it’s not an issue which is uniform or which can be tackled simply by talking as much as possible. We need good talk. A diversity of voices, telling their stories, calling out the bullshit, recognising the fallibility of our own beliefs, understanding that not everything can be explained, and that sometimes the invocation to ‘just talk’ can hurt more people than it helps. So here’s some chat about the different types of stigma and the limitations of our current strategy, the one that I call ‘just talk’.
Mental health has enjoyed an increased exposure in British discourse over the last couple of years. I was sitting in a staff room in a school in Leith the other day, getting ready to judge some kids who were going to argue with each other about something significant, and I couldn’t stop staring at the two posters on the noticeboard (in amongst the adverts for teaching unions and exhortations to STAY AT HOME for 48 hours after you’ve had the winter vomiting bug) telling me just how many people have thought about killing themselves and that more people need to talk to their mates about suicide*. When I walk down Edinburgh’s main drag, I’m periodically confronted by billboards reminding me that a man kills himself in Britain every two hours, thanks to organisations like CALM. So many of my friends (and acquaintances, mostly-strangers, frenemies, etc) have written articles about their experiences of mental ill health, told their friends, come out to their families, campaigned for better provision of services for those who struggle every day against chronic illnesses of all kinds.
It’s nothing short of fantastic that there’s increasing recognition of the pain and constant internal struggle that mental illness visits upon the lives of one in four of us every year.
The benefits of talk
But either in spite of this coverage or because of it, we’ve been lumped with a narrative that says that the main issue – possibly the only issue – with mental illness is stigma, and that this stigma can be eradicated if we, as individuals and as a society, are prepared to have a conversation about mental health. It says that talk solves.
There’s an extent to which this is true. When something is totally taboo, nobody talks about it, many people don’t know it even exists, and simply exposing it to discursive daylight can be a big positive. The issue gets more exposure, letting people know not only that a problem exists, but that people they know and love are affected and they should probably take it seriously. It gives (a limited degree of) comfort to those affected: you know you’re not alone, that other people are suffering too, that what you’re feeling or experiencing is a legitimate problem, you’re not just (as it were) going crazy. You might seek help which you wouldn’t otherwise have done, either because you didn’t know it existed or because you didn’t know it was something for you. You might come out to their family or friends, gaining vital nodes in your support network, finally managing to convince yourself that telling others doesn’t simply make you a burden, that a problem shared is, if not a problem halved, then at least a problem rendered less intractable.
This may simply be a result of living in the liberal, coddling (some would say cloying) bubble of university campuses for the last four years, but I reckon I’ve seen an increase in all of the above recently.
The problem comes when we say that all we need is talk, that because everything is getting better with talk, that’s all we need. If we keep talking about it, the stigma will just melt away like the Wicked Witch of the West. But stigma isn’t just one thing, and there isn’t any one conversation-based panacea which can eradicate it in all its forms.
Taboos, misunderstanding, moral opposition
I think stigma comes in three broad forms. First, taboos. Nobody talks about it, people suffer in silence, society at large is unaware that it is a problem or to what extent the problem exists or to whom the problem occurs. This is the kind of stigma that talk (mostly) solves, because something something sunlight best disinfectant.
Second, stigma takes the form of misunderstanding: when we do talk about a subject, but we hold misconceptions in our minds. We might not understand exactly what the problem is, how severe it is, how it happens or to whom. In many cases these misunderstandings arise as a (kind of unavoidable) side-effect of talk. We live in a society which talks far more about sex than we did in generations prior, but as anyone who’s ever ventured into the inner pages of Cosmo can tell you, that doesn’t mean that we understand it perfectly or that there are no ridiculous myths. We talk so that we can get rid of a taboo. A lot of the stories and accounts we produce this way are likely to be simplistic, or unrepresentative, because nobody can represent the whole diversity of human experience, no matter how articulate they are, how brave they are. And because stigma means that such accounts are likely to be few and far between, often we think that the single article we read in the Atlantic is representative in all its detail. And then we talk, and we spread misinformation, playing a game of stigma Telephone, distorting the details and giving rise to all kinds of bullshit.
I’ve read a number of articles about men’s mental health which can be summed up like this: “men make up 75% of all suicides, men are taught emotional stoicism, societal support for men with mental illness is inadequate and they are unlikely to seek it, suicide provides them with a unique form of control over their lives so they kill themselves. If we talk about male suicide, break down stoic norms of masculinity, and encourage people to get treated/seek help, then we can solve this problem.” At best, these explanations, however well-intentioned they may be, are incomplete. They don’t account for the diverse reasons that men choose to take their own lives, they don’t give any reasons for the gender gap, and they don’t give any real reason that talking about the problem would help solve it for those men who have sought help and found it ineffectual.
At worst, this is actively unhelpful. Why? Because of what and whom it excludes. The men for whom suicide is compelling not because it provides them with control, but simply because they can’t push the thoughts of death out of their head. The men who have sought help and found it wanting. The men who have been through every avenue of treatment, had counselling, been given prescription drugs, and still find the everyday weight of living unbearable. The women who may also feel unable to seek help, who may also have been socialised into not expressing their negative emotions, not being a burden on others. The people who have been talking about their mental health for years, to friends and family and doctors and counsellors and strangers and who still find themselves unable to pull themselves out from under their duvet until 3pm because their head won’t stop screaming at them that they’re worthless and life is hopeless and everything would be better if they had never existed but, failing that, at least they can remove themselves from the world now.
We don’t just need talk to eradicate this kind of stigma. We need good talk. We need complex, intricate accounts of personal experience, coming from a diversity of sources, and a recognition that no one person’s story can perfectly substitute for everyone’s (or anyone’s). We need active efforts at myth busting: recognising the differences between self-harm and suicide, the diversity of reasons (or lack of reasons) that people suffer from mental illness and its consequences, the spectrum of efficacy along which ‘help’ can fall. We need to clarify that sometimes these things resist explanation, that they can’t be explained, and that if that is your experience then that is also legitimate, and that you shouldn’t feel pressured to provide a perfect explanation of why you feel this way. We need to understand that sometimes just talking can be harmful, if it comes from a position where you don’t have the lived experiences or insight to contribute in a way that doesn’t homogenise and simplify the conversation.
The third kind of stigma I call moral opposition. This is where there’s not just a misunderstanding of an issue or trait, but viewpoints and discourse which make life actively worse for those affected. Because it’s active opposition rather than passive ignorance or misunderstanding, this kind of stigma is both important and really hard to tackle. In terms of mental health, moral opposition commonly occurs in a few areas, usually those which are also the most misunderstood. Suicide, self-harm, harmful narratives surrounding ‘willpower’ and ‘positive mental attitudes’: all suffer at the hands of self-righteous op-ed pieces and articles shared by those people you used to know in secondary school who have turned out a bit racist and really like the LAD Bible. I still cringe inwardly when I remember being interviewed about my experiences self-harming on BBC London, talking about it as part of a constellation of symptoms and a coping mechanism and a sign of a deeper problem, only to be cut off and told that they ‘couldn’t endorse it’. I thought just talking would help, and I was really wrong, and it really hurt.
Such deep-rooted stigma can only really be tackled by presenting complex, informed and relatable narratives in places where large numbers of people are likely to read them. Achieving this combination of factors is nigh impossible without serious influence. It’s not a problem which can be solved through ‘just talk’, but we can mitigate against it. For every column of bile about the way the internet is encouraging teens to self-harm, there needs to be a clamouring of voices calling out the lies. It’s difficult and tiring and emotionally knackering, but informed communities can help to stem the rising tide of effluent, even if we can’t drain it altogether.
*(As an aside, it’s really strange just how much adverts like that can affect you as a person who regularly thinks about that kind of thing (don’t worry Mum and Dad, not in a serious way, I’m ok) and how that makes you so aware of all the other adverts about alcoholism and cancer and sexual assault and how much they must invade the consciousness of people for whom those are salient).
This is the original, longer version of a letter which appeared in The Observer on February 22nd (and can be read online here). It also contains more signatories, since people were still adding their names when we sent the letter off. If you wish to add your name, please leave a reply right at the bottom and we will add you.
We are deeply concerned about the inaccuracies of and politics behind the signed open letter published in the Observer on Sunday 15th February, which calls universities to account for ‘silencing’ individuals following the cancellation of Kate Smurthwaite’s comedy show at Goldsmiths, University of London.
The letter presents several examples of ‘no-platforming’ and ‘bullying’ which are not fully evidenced by the facts. We believe that this is part of a worrying pattern of misrepresentation and distortion that serves to benefit some of the most privileged and powerful outside…
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I don’t really mind if you read this, it’s mainly for my own peace of mind following an interesting week. I don’t think I’ve ever had quite so many people send me hate over the internet – I’ve been called everything from a ‘bell’ and a ‘dickhead’ to ‘moronic’ and a ‘patronising snob’, I’ve had an article in a student newspaper call for my expulsion, and the better half of a hundred copies of The Spectator sent to my work address, sporting a cover story on the ‘new enemies of free speech’. If I’m honest, I’ve mostly found it all quite amusing – I think there was only one point at which the whole thing got a little too much and started to upset me, but I started learning a while ago that you just can’t take anonymous comments too seriously.
So I thought I’d recap what happened, and then chat a bit about where I think we went wrong. This week there was going to be a debate in Christ Church, Oxford. For those unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of Oxbridge, they are collegiate universities – that is, when you go to study there, you are put into a college, which is where you eat, sleep, socialise, have pastoral and academic support etc. The debate was to be run by an organisation called Oxford Students for Life (OSFL), and the motion was ‘This House believes Britain’s abortion culture hurts us all’. There were two speakers, Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill, both quite prominent journalists.
When the JCR (Junior Combination Room – essentially the elected representatives of the student body of a college) got wind of the event, they lobbied the college to reconsider holding it, on the basis of the threat to the emotional and mental wellbeing and safety of the students of the college. A couple of other groups in Oxford, including an ad hoc event set up entitled ‘What the fuck is ‘Abortion Culture’?’, said they would turn up and protest. The college decided that there was not enough time to adequately address the safety concerns, and therefore decided the event would not go ahead in their premises. OSFL attempted and failed to find another venue at short notice, and so the debate did not happen.
Ironically enough, this was, on the college’s end, nothing to do with protecting student welfare. The reason they didn’t allow the debate to go ahead was, I was informed last night by a Christ Church student, because the college requires rooms to be booked three days in advance, and OSFL left it until two days before their debate to do it, meaning that what was seen as an excuse – ‘not enough time to address safety concerns’ – was actually college bureaucracy in action. In her article for the Independent, Niamh McIntyre gives a better explanation of this.
Regardless of exactly why the college shut it down, the result was that both Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill were very unhappy. Tim published an article in the Telegraph saying that ‘Free speech is under assault on campus’, and Brendan O’Neill wrote a leader article for The Spectator called ‘The Stepford Students’, which referred to his opposers as ‘the new enemies of free speech’. A number of people, myself included, noted the irony in their claim that their free speech was being suppressed coming from articles in the national press. Neither Tim nor Brendan appeared to appreciate the joke.
My role in this little fracas came in two parts: first a twitter spat, then an article. Beware when clicking the first link – reading the entirety of a twitter argument can be both incredibly time-consuming and harmful to your sanity. Essentially I tweeted some criticism of Tim Stanley’s article, and then various people got upset at this because I’m currently the President of the Cambridge Union, a debating society which has the slogan ‘promoting free speech and the art of debating’.
As a person in this position, the argument went, I ought to believe in absolute freedom of speech, and not try to shut down any kind of debate. To me this seemed interesting and possibly counterintuitive – I think that a person in my position has to think critically about what exactly free speech consists in within any given circumstance, and what it really means to give somebody a platform, either as an individual or in a debate. Over the course of the two-or-so years I’ve spent working at the Union, I’ve thought an awful lot about our role in facilitating debate, in running events which are controversial enough that people want to come but without being irresponsible in their subject matter, their framing or the speakers invited. As a society with limited resources – time, money, and most importantly student attendance – we have to consider carefully what debates we’re going to hold each term, who we’re going to invite to them, and how we want to run them.
My article essentially ran along these lines. I said that there are some limits to freedom of speech, without prescribing what they are in any given instance, but listing five factors which need to be taken into account and weighed up when setting up any kind of debate: what might be said, who is speaking, where it takes place, what the subject is and how it’s framed.
This, to me, didn’t seem particularly controversial. I also suggested why it might have been that people had objections to the proposed OSFL debate, based on the criteria listed above: there were only two speakers, neither of whom had ever been in possession of a uterus; the debate was taking place in a college which is also home to people who may have had abortions and aren’t particularly comfortable with the idea of this debate going on in their home; and the framing of the motion wasn’t particularly good, assuming the existence of an ‘abortion culture’. Some people also had a problem with the debate being hosted by a pro-life society.
Again, none of this seemed particularly contentious, but the response was remarkable. If you go into the comments on the Tab article, they are overwhelmingly negative. A lot of people suggested that I didn’t want debates to go ahead if they could offend anyone, or that I was shutting down freedom of speech, or telling people what they can or can’t listen to. I don’t think I was doing any of this. Ultimately I agree with the decision not to host that particular debate in that particular context, but I don’t think any of the criteria I laid out were unfair. Every debate we hold isn’t just an expression of ideas – what is ‘just a debate’ to some people is something which has a very real impact on the lives of others. We don’t just say things in a vacuum, there are very real social contexts and impacts which we ought to take into account when we set up debates.
Where we went wrong
I think we made a tactical error in this whole situation. When Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley published their articles, they framed what had happened as a prioritisation of ‘feelings’ over free speech, what they consider to be a fundamental right. We let them frame it this way, and the entire discussion took place on their terms, where we were the brutal oppressors of the new liberal orthodoxy, the foaming-at-the-mouth PC brigade who want to shut down debate and never let anyone be offended by anything.
It’s not about free speech. That was where we went wrong. This whole thing is not in the slightest bit about free speech – that is, the right to say things without fear of the state shutting you down. Freedom of speech is just a legal right, and when you invoke it – to paraphrase xkcd – you’re saying that the most compelling thing that can be said for your position or debate is it’s not literally illegal to say or hold it. There are two things that we are actually talking about here – or rather, which we should be talking about.
The first is what it means to privilege a particular person’s speech. When we give someone a platform, particularly at a prestigious institution like Oxford or Cambridge, we lend a degree of legitimacy to their point of view. Whilst this may not matter if, for example, you’re a high-ranking politician who is legitimised by elections they have won, it does matter for other people. There are an awful lot of people who would love to take part in the debates we hold, but we choose not to invite them to speak for numerous reasons: they’re not an expert with the requisite experience, they don’t have anything particularly interesting to say, or sometimes they just have horrifically offensive opinions which we don’t want to give the privilege of a platform to.
A number of people over the past week have recommended I ‘read J.S. Mill’s On Liberty’, in order to rectify my views. What they’re thinking of when they say this is an idealised Millian arena, in which all opinions can be presented and challenged, and the bad ones will be refuted and the good ones accepted. The problem is that this arena doesn’t exist. Sometimes the people with the ‘good’ opinions aren’t very good at expressing them. Sometimes people use tricks of rhetoric to get an audience to support their otherwise heinous views.
Moreover, debates can have greater capacity to do harm than good. First, there’s the problem of political asymmetry: if, for example, we hold a debate about the repatriation of immigrants, then there is a greater capacity for harm to occur to sometimes vulnerable immigrants if the debate goes against them than there is for any benefit to accrue if the debate goes the other way. It’s far more likely, for example, that the Daily Mail will publish an article entitled ‘Cambridge students think we should send them back’ with the former result than that they will publish anything at all with the latter. Debates like this can play into already existing biases about particular groups of people, often vulnerable people, which the audience hold, in order to make it even harder for them to achieve equal status.
The Liberal Orthodoxy
The second thing this argument should actually be about is the ‘orthodoxy’, and power, and privilege, and oppression. When Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley get to claim, from the pages of national media outlets, that they are being oppressed and their free speech squashed by the new liberal orthodoxy of students, we know something is wrong. They are the orthodoxy. What students do best is to challenge the firmly held beliefs of the generation above them, and that is exactly what we are doing. We are challenging the notion that debates happening in formal contexts have no ramifications past the end of the evening. We are challenging the claims of privileged men to have the right to speak wherever they want, whenever they want, on whatever topic they want.
Finally, we are challenging the idea that all weakness is bad. Brendan O’Neill in particular despises weakness. He is absolutely right that quite a lot of students now want the right to feel comfortable, but he is totally wrong when he says this like it’s a bad thing. Absolutely we should feel comfortable in the places we live and study, in the places we have made our homes. There are some students who are more vulnerable than others, for a whole host of reasons: they may have had emotionally traumatic experiences, they may be suffering from mental illness, they may be from backgrounds which don’t have the privilege of sending people to top universities regularly, they may just be fragile – but that’s okay. We, as students, are beginning to realise that there is more to life than just discussion. We’re beginning to realise that we don’t need to be ashamed of our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We’re beginning to realise that sometimes we have to prioritise the emotional, mental and physical wellbeing of our friends and colleagues over the ability of privileged people to come in to our homes and say whatever they like.
If that makes me an enemy of free speech, so be it.