Antidepressants aren’t Happy Pills: on SSRIs and authenticity

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.

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What’s it like being on antidepressants?

Note: This post contains discussion of depression, self-harm and suicide.

I went back on antidepressants just under a month ago. This is the third time I’ve been on them. When I was first diagnosed in 2012 I was put straight on venlafaxine, which is a heavy duty SNRI*. I never found it hugely helpful. It blunted my mood, making me unable to feel the kinds of highs I’m used to, and made my self-harming behaviour worse. I can’t quite remember what it did to the kinds of suicidal ideations I used to have, but I’m fairly certain it didn’t make them go away. I ended up taking myself off them. Then, in the first half of 2013, I went on citalopram, which is an SSRI and is usually more of a first-line antidepressant**. Again, it wasn’t a panacea, and I ended up taking myself off them in the summer.

Now, a solid three and a half years later, I’m back on. Why? I can’t sleep for shit. I wake up about five times a night because my brain, like some kind of bizarro headmaster tasked with planning the school day, doesn’t seem to understand that time exists in increments other than ninety minute blocks. Then, when I do wake up in the morning, I can’t get out of bed. Unless there’s something that I need to do, somewhere I need to be, I just stay there. It doesn’t matter how motivated I was the previous evening, how determined I was to launch myself into the next day screaming the lyrics to Eye of the Tiger. When I wake up, it’s genuinely like a different person has taken control of my body and won’t let me out of bed. Morning Tim doesn’t think that life is worth living. As the sort of wanker who likes to go to far-flung places and argue with strangers at the weekend, I often find myself saying ‘non-existence is utility neutral’. We usually take for granted that getting out of bed and doing the things we do is a net positive. Morning Tim doesn’t believe that’s true. He’d rather sleep forever, because unconsciousness is a blissful reprieve from having to get up and fucking live.

I thought it might just be the winter. I’ve recently moved up to Edinburgh and, whilst we’re on the same latitude as a lot of Scandinavia, we don’t seem to have nearly the same level of cultural understanding of seasonal depression and similar conditions. I thought the lack of light (and the cold and the rain and the wind and the difficulty making new friends) could be the issue, and that it would all get better when spring came.

No such luck. When I started self-harming again I knew it was probably time to go back to the doctor. He was very nice (and quite concerned when he saw the marks on my torso, because it looks a little bit like I’ve been using my stomach as a makeshift tally chart, as though I’m doing a zero-budget remake of Memento). He put me on 50mg of sertraline per day and prescribed me some zopiclone, a sleeping pill. I went back a week later and he gave me temazepam, a stronger sleeping pill, because I was still waking up in the middle of the night like a rooster with performance anxiety.

I thought that, in an attempt to navigate the thin line between useful stigma-reducing writing that helps to normalise the use of antidepressants, and cringe-inducing oversharing, I would post something about my experiences with SSRIs over the past few weeks. ‘Eight Things you Won’t BELIEVE Antidepressants do to your Mind and Body’, if you will. (‘Number seven will SHOCK you!’).

Obviously these experiences are deeply personal, and they certainly won’t reflect the myriad lived experiences of other people living with depression and other forms of mental illness. But it’s a start. If this is helpful for people who might not understand what antidepressants do or why people take them, or for people who’ve been on/are currently on them themselves, then I’ll chalk it up as a success.

1. The first weeks are difficult (who knew?)

When you first go on antidepressants, you’re often told that they may take a little time to have an effect. For some people, this two to three week wait is agonising: you’ve taken all the action you can take, and now all you can do is sit back and hope that it works – that the fog in your mind clears and that you’ll be able to function like a normal human being again.

One of the deepest frustrations of depression is the disconnect between your desires and your ability to act on them. At a really deep level, you wish you could be happy (or at least feel something other than gnawing emptiness), and you sometimes even know the kinds of action you should take if you want to be happy. But the bridge between those desires and the ability to make your mind in-the-moment act upon them is gone. It’s been burned. The hope of SSRIs is that you can start to rebuild that bridge, and that even if it’s never going to support a six-lane motorway (, either cut this comma or put another one or put another one between ‘that’ and ‘even’ to make it a subordinate clause) you might at least be able to get some foot traffic passing over it. But that rebuilding takes time, and in the meantime you’re left wondering: is what I’m experiencing right now just what I would be experiencing without the drugs? Have the drugs started working already? Am I only experiencing this because I expect to feel something?

2. Expectations are a bastard

The struggle with the placebo effect is compounded by mental illness. If you expect to feel better, and then you do feel better, it’s entirely possible to then roll back all or some of those effects if you start to think that the reason that you’re feeling better is because you expect to. It’s a circular clusterfuck of meta-expectations and reflexivity, like an entirely mental Human Centipede.

This means that it’s incredibly difficult to separate out the provenance of your feelings and any side effects you might have. This gets particularly tricky when it comes to alcohol and sex, two areas where expectations and anxieties already temper our experiences in a variety of fun and deeply frustrating ways. We’ll get on to that.

3. Bouncing back is easier

I had a bit of a setback the other day. A thing happened that would normally probably lay me low for a few days, and I possibly would have ended up hurting myself because when I’m in a state of complete melancholy, that just seems like the thing to do. As it was, I felt pretty awful, but today I’m sat in the office writing this rather than wallowing in a marinade of my own self-loathing, and I avoided treating my body like a prehistoric cave wall entirely.

One of the things I’ve noticed about antidepressants is that they put a floor under how low your feelings can go, or at the very least they elasticate those feelings: even if you go low, you end up bouncing back up far more easily than you would under ‘normal’ circumstances.

4. I’ve stopped self-harming

This is probably a big one. Of all the stigmatised aspects of depression – not seeing people, not keeping appointments, not being able to work or articulate yourself properly, being overly despondent, staying indoors or in bed all the time – there’s little on the same level as self-harm. I have vivid memories of being immediately shut off from an interview I was giving on BBC London because I wasn’t unequivocally negative about self-harm (it’s obviously not great, but it’s one of a constellation of symptoms of a deeper pain rather than being something which ought to be condemned in and of itself, and it can be a coping mechanism for people who have nothing else).

Most of my scars aren’t too bad, but there are a few situations in which people have noticed them and it’s been a bit awkward (usually for them rather than me – I’m always completely open about how they got there). Even if I’m not getting odd looks in the gym changing room, I still feel somewhat self-conscious about the marks on my abdomen which look like a small child’s attempt at Roman numerals. So the fact that I’ve managed to avoid any further encounters with razor blades is a huge plus. Here’s hoping it continues.

5. It’s totally screwed my alcohol tolerance

Now I’m not saying I’m a heavyweight, but I used to be able to, as it were, bosh a large quantity of pints and be pretty much fine. Two bottles of wine would get me pretty wankered, but I probably wouldn’t have a hangover the next day.

No longer. The week after I restarted SSRIs I went out and had a couple of pints. Lying in bed later on the room was spinning a little bit. A week later I had my first hangover in a long time.

It seems to work both ways: I get drunk more quickly, but sobering up also takes less time. Weirdly though, alcohol also just affects me differently. I’ve only got a sample size of a few occasions but on one night after consuming what wasn’t really a large amount, I just felt weird. I can’t quite place the feeling, but it just felt wrong in a way that I’m not used to.

I’ve noticed previously that alcohol is a bit of an emotional Russian Roulette when I’m on antidepressants. I’m glad that I’m now a really cheap date, but the randomness of the effects is pretty infuriating.

6. My sleep problems haven’t gone away

Sleeping pills, it turns out, might be able to knock you out for a decent period, but they can’t stop me from waking up several times a night. They also only give you a week’s supply at a time, because apparently they’re super addictive, which means that I’m now back to attempting to put my head down and snooze like a normal person. I still wake up constantly, and bizarrely my jaw seems to be clenched the whole time I’m sleeping, and it makes getting up in the morning a (H?)herculean task, because if there’s one thing Morning Tim loves, it’s an excuse to be able to make me sleep longer. “Oh what a shame you woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep last night – guess it’s time for another three hours now 🙂 🙂 :)”.

7. Sex is different

The most common side effect of antidepressants is change in sexual function, so it would probably be remiss of me not to talk about sex at least a little bit (in a further ill-advised exercise in navigating the usefulness/oversharing line).

Once again, it’s really hard to separate out the aetiology of any changes: do they come from the drugs, or my expectations of what the drugs will do? A lot of people have changes in their libido from SSRIs, but then a lot of people’s libido fluctuates naturally over time anyway. It’s not that I don’t want to have sex now, because I still do. It’s just that the desire is kind of tempered a bit, again in a way that I can’t quite articulate yet. SSRIs also make it a bit more difficult to, well, do it – in a variety of ways, but mostly they just desensitise you somewhat. This seems to be a continuation of a general theme: a lot of what antidepressants do for me is stopping me from feeling some of the worst of what I would normally feel. This sits uncomfortably with the fact that a lot of depression stems from feeling nothing at all – but that nothingness isn’t neutral. It’s an aggressive emptiness, a melancholy which yawns and threatens to swallow you whole. The drugs help negate that. If the trade-off is that they make sex different – not worse, per se, just different – then I think I’ll take it, at least for now.

8. It’s not a panacea

Whilst I certainly feel a lot better than I have been – I have relatively normal amounts of energy, my thoughts don’t drift to death and existential emptiness too much more than is natural for a philosophy student, etc – SSRIs certainly aren’t a cure-all. The techniques I learned through counselling a few years back, combined with my own ‘on-the-job’ experience of treating my own depression, have helped me a lot this time around, and without them I doubt that the drugs alone would have done a huge amount. If you’re considering going on antidepressants, probably also think about counselling if that’s an option open to you. I went through four counsellors, and none of them were exceptional, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t incredibly helpful for other people.

What’s particularly interesting is that the physical side effects of antidepressants serve to reify the mental effects. It’s often really hard to know that they’re doing anything – you just put them in your body once a day and hope, like a multivitamin or a fish oil tablet (except without the aftertaste of Satan’s belly-button lint). When you get side effects, in spite of the fact you know they might only be happening because you expect them to happen, they help you to know that the drugs are doing something. That in turn makes it easier to see the positive effects they’re having upon your mental health. And that, I hope, is mostly a good thing.

*Seratonin Noradrenaline Reuptake Inhibitor – less common than SSRIs, which are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. They do essentially the same thing, but they also hit noradrenaline. We’re not sure exactly why SSRIs work, but their mechanism of action is essentially keeping the levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter) artificially high by stopping it from being degraded in the junctions between neurones. This means that they keep stimulating electrical impulses in neurones for longer.

**I’m uncertain exactly why I was given the more heavy-duty treatment first. I think it might be in part due to the fact that I presented with reasonably serious symptoms (they balk a little bit when you start chatting suicide, who knew?), and also because I first went to the doctor in Cyprus, where I lived before I started university, and where medical practices aren’t always exactly the same as they are in the UK.

“Just Talk”: the Limits of Tackling Stigma

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).

 

You do not have the right to ‘offend’

On the 5th March, I spoke in a debate at the Oxford Union, against the motion “This House Believes that Free Speech Always Includes the Right to Offend. We lost. Catastrophically. A full, much funnier, write up of the event is on its way, but in the meantime, here’s the rough text of the speech I gave.

I have two jokes for you. The first comes from a piece by Frankie Boyle, entitled ‘Offence and Free Speech’. It goes like this:

The thing about that paedophile ring at Westminster is that they weren’t even the worst MPs. There were people in Parliament who were to the right of MPs that STRANGLED KIDS. And they actually did more harm than paedophiles. I mean, the nonces tried to do harm in their own little way, but Thatcher fucked ALL the kids.

The second comes from a lovely website called Sickipedia, and it goes like this:

What do you say to a woman with two black eyes? Nothing, you already told her twice.

Both of these jokes are offensive in the sense that they can shock, appall and cause personal upset. On the level of rights and freedoms, only one of these jokes matters.

What I’m hoping to convince you of over the next few minutes is that framing this debate in terms of ‘offence’ is an error. It is an error because it obscures the difference between the personal upset which might be caused to a person in a position of privilege by a joke, or a comment, or an insult, and the contribution to oppression and prejudice and structural inequalities which is made by comments aimed at people from groups which are marginalised in society.

First, I want to address some of the points made by Brendan O’Neill in his speech. I want to talk about the idea that any restriction on speech in the name of preventing harm, where that speech is not actively inciting violence, is somehow paternalistic or infantilising. Brendan in particular has a shtick about this. ‘Students of Britain,’ he says, ‘rise up against your censorious leaders! You’re being patronised beyond belief. You’re being infantilised. So buy the Sun, play Robin Thicke on college radio, invite the EDL to speak, talk about abortion, make sexist jokes, indulge in banter, hold debates on transgenderism, and do anything else you can to kick against the pricks who think you are babies who must be kept away from sexy or shocking or silly words.’

Two responses to this: One, no, I’m not the only one saying these things, it’s just that I’m the one who gets invited to speak about them at the Oxford Union and I wonder why that is. It’s almost as if entrenched structural privilege is a thing. Most of the people saying these things are from marginalised groups, and the free speech absolutists are, by and large, privileged white men.

Two, why is having a thick skin such an important trait to you? what is so important about being able to take insult after insult that you fetishise emotional fortitude so? why can’t you embrace the reality that some people in society are weak, they are vulnerable, they are hurt in ways that go beyond the temporary emotional by things that you say?

Let’s talk about how we have come to be in a situation where ‘offence’ is the operative word in situations where speech is discussed. How have we got to the point where any and all protests against the harmful effects of a particular speech act can be dismissed with the wave of a hand and an apocryphal Voltaire quote? How has it come to pass that we have ceded the authority to obviate any need for arbitration of speech and expression, either by ourselves or by others, to smug Stephen Fry GIFs?

A tentative answer – and those of you playing student leftie bingo, please keep any noise to a minimum – comes from neo-liberal individualism. When we’ve been told for so long that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and families, we come to believe that not only is there no need for social cohesion greater than that required to facilitate the functioning of business, but also that there is no such thing as identity politics – or that, if there is, it is something pernicious, something which undermines ‘rational discourse’, something JS Mill certainly wouldn’t approve of. We’ve been led to believe that the only kind of harm that matters is individual harm, that the only offence which has any importance is individual offence, that there is no need for a politics which encompasses the very real prejudices, conscious and unconscious, historic and present, which give rise to structural oppressions in our society.

This, I put to you, is a fundamental mistake. [Only if Brendan et al say this: last time I spoke to Brendan, he quoted Martin Luther King, telling me that he wanted to live in a world in which people were judged by their character, and not by the colour of their skin]. I, too, would like to live in that world. But it is not the world we live in. You have to be intentionally looking in the wrong direction not to see the very real, everyday acts, both small and large, minor and viscerally violent, which are perpetrated against people from marginalised groups, and which perpetuate their marginalisation.

Only by recognising that oppression and harm happens on a structural level, and it is contributed to by every offensive joke, no matter if it is ‘ironic’; by every throwaway remark about rape, or domestic violence, or mental illness; by every racist cartoon and every dog-whistle xenophobic immigration panic Daily Mail article and every Unilad facebook post; only when we recognise that, can we begin to understand why ‘offence’ is not the right way to frame this debate. What to me is personally upsetting – and I’ve been called an awful lot of things in recent months – is to others actively oppressive.

Instead of focussing on ‘offence’, we should be focussing on material harm, whether that be physical or psychological – and there really isn’t that much of a distinction between them. This has all been said before, in much more eloquent terms, by Katherine Cross of Feministing. She says, ‘Being made to fear for your life is not the same as feeling hurt by speech. Losing your job as a result of stereotypes or harassment contained in speech is not the same as feeling personally offended by that speech. Being shot by the police because of ideas about your skin color transmitted through discourse is not the same as merely being offended by it. Being outed against your will is not the same as having your feelings hurt by it. It is the deeds that flow from words which concern us, and which cannot be contained by the concept of offensiveness.’

These are the kinds of material harm with which we should concern ourselves. Speaking out against these acts, which happen every single day, across the world, is a radical expression of free speech. Some people will tell you that the most important thing we can do is to listen to views we consider vile and toxic, as though inciting racial hatred or transphobia or misogyny is some kind of victory for Enlightenment values.

I think J.S. Mill would be sick to his stomach if he were alive to see the kinds of people who have appropriated his ideas today, and the ends to which they have put them. Never mind the fact that the ideal Millian arena in which good ideas will always beat the bad ideas just doesn’t exist. Never mind the rhetorical tricks and flourishes and seductive prose that awful people use to convince ordinary people to join them in hatred.

Instead of celebrating the most down-punching, prejudiced, bigoted acts of speech that can be summoned up in the name of ‘free inquiry’, we should be celebrating the up-punchers, the radicals who offend those in power, the non-conformists who refuse to be cowed by bullies who wield ‘the Enlightenment’ and ‘robust public debate’ as sticks to beat them with.

Yes, we should have freedom of speech. Yes, we should have debate, and argument, and vigorous disagreement. But we have to recognise that not all views are created equal, that you do not have a positive, protected right to hurt people, and ‘offence’ does not begin to cover the damage which our words can cause.

Student political protest is under threat, not free speech

genders, bodies, politics

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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The ‘New Political Correctness’ tastes of privilege and desperation

I had an email from The Spectator the other day, asking me to come on their podcast and discuss the latest work vomited directly from the mouth of professional Brendan, Brendan O’Neill. It’s on ‘the New Political Correctness’, which is apparently A Thing now. I’m not certain a) how it differs from the old political correctness, or b) whether it means anything other than ‘common human decency extended to more people than just straight white guys’, but there we go. I agreed, because someone has to try and convince poor Brendan of the error of his ways.

They sent me the articles, one of which, ‘An A-Z Guide to the New PC’, is essentially an excuse for Brendan to gleefully type ‘nigger’ and ‘tranny’ and get away with it. To quote Tom Slater, who works for Brendan’s pet hate machine Spiked, ‘someone should tell them that satire is supposed to be funny’. The other article, by Damian Thompson, begins by telling us that ‘transgender … includes transvestites and transsexuals’, before whining that nowadays one has to ‘patiently master the racial nomenclature that tripped up Benedict Cumberbatch’, because it really is awful that we can’t just talk about Orientals and Negroes anymore. The triptych of turgid tripe is rounded off by Rod Liddle lagubriously lamenting the fact that some people desire gender neutral pronouns. The whole thing would be quite funny if it weren’t for the fact that I can picture in my mind the hordes of Spectator readers nodding along and tutting at the arrogance and censoriousness of today’s young liberals.

Here is a bunny to take your mind off of the mental image of Rod Liddle, Damian Thompson and Brendan O’Neill in a hideous ecstasy of righteous privileged anger

I wasn’t aware that the podcast, which you can listen to here, would include both myself and Brendan talking at the same time until they Skyped me. I hadn’t expected to come face to face with Brendan until next month at the Oxford Union, when we’ll be debating ‘The right to free speech always includes the right to offend’, so it was a little bit of a shock. I haven’t listened back to the whole thing because I like the sound of my voice probably about as much as Brendan does, but a few things stuck in my mind.

He kept referring to me as Mr Squirrell, which was a little jarring – possibly because he thinks my name is funny, possibly because he didn’t think we’re on first name terms yet. I disagree – when someone writes an article lambasting you and referring to you as a ‘censorious leader’ of students, I think you form a certain connection.

Then there was his strange insistence that he’s a ‘progressive’, and he’s upset by the fact that today’s left-wing students don’t see everyone on earth as ‘equals’ and judge people based on their character rather than the colour of their skin. ‘See,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘You hate Martin Luther King, so really you’re a racist!’ I’m quite happy to judge people entirely on the content of their character when society starts doing that too. When people who’ve been systematically marginalised and oppressed because of the colour of their skin, or their gender, or their sexuality, are raised up to the same level of prosperity that middle class white men enjoy now, then I’ll happily judge people and their words and actions entirely on the basis of their character, rather than their background. But we’re not there yet. We’re so very far from there that pretending we are is nothing short of delusional or, as Brendan put it, ‘literally insane’. It’s a weird day when I get to play the pragmatist and accuse someone of being idealistic, but it happened.

I’ll let you listen and judge for yourself – there’s no doubt that Brendan (or Mr O’Neill, if he prefers) is a good speaker, and he has in common with some of the other right-wing pundits the ability to spin a seductive argument and reframe the debate in such a way that it almost seems like he’s on the moral highground. But if you peel back the thin veneer of intuitively appealing idealism and faux-egalitarianism, you can see it for what it is: a man from a dying breed of privilege, raging against the dying of the light.

The podcast is here, if that’s the sort of thing you’re in to.

Let’s Talk About Recovering from Depression

Time for some good old-fashioned introspection. This is going to involve some chats about things like depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts, so if that’s not your bag, it would probably be best to turn back now.

I had a piece in mind about a week ago. It was going to be a retrospective on depression. I was going to talk about how weird it is to look back on a time when I was so lonely and tired and sad that cutting my arm open with razor blades was a normal thing to do and suicide wasn’t just an abstract concept but a very real idea that passed through my mind at least once a day. I was going to do a really clever thing where I would take that alien feeling I get looking back and relate it to what it must be like for someone who has never suffered from depression to try and understand it. It was going to be a little bit emotional, but ultimately it was going to be written from a position of detachment, from a point of view where those feelings were firmly in the past.

I can’t write that piece right now. I can’t get that feeling of detachment. I feel too close to the way I felt back then, a couple of years ago, when I was Bad. If you’re reading this and you’re a friend/family member, don’t worry: I’m fine. I don’t have depression again. I haven’t cut myself for over a year and a half and I intend to maintain that streak. But for the last couple of weeks or so, I’ve been feeling some of the Bad Things again. I can’t get out of bed in the morning. I find it harder to enjoy the things I normally love. Today I broke down and cried for very little reason at all.

So instead of the piece about how hard it is to empathise with someone who’s going through depression if you’ve never been there yourself, you’re getting this instead. This is a piece about the blurred lines between feeling awful and being depressed, and how hard it can be to negotiate those lines. This is a piece about how, as someone who’s suffered from depression, it can be hard to just feel sad without worrying that you’re slipping into a depressive episode again. It’s about how the emotions you feel don’t seem to have any legitimacy anymore unless they’re framed in terms of an illness. It’s about, I think, being a recovering depressive.


The problem with mental illness is that in many cases the symptoms which characterise it are just exaggerations of normal behaviours and emotions, extremes of things that flash through our minds daily. Obviously this isn’t the case with self-harming or suicidal behaviours, but the sadness, the feelings of loneliness and anxiety and stress and despondency – all of those are things that every person feels, to varying degrees. One of the major reasons for the stigma that surrounds mental illness is that there’s often quite a fine line between just being really sad a lot of the time and being depressed, or between being careful what you eat and becoming obsessive about your diet and appearance, or between having a stressful life and chronic anxiety.

The temptation for people who’ve never been diagnosed is to dismiss themselves – and others – as people who just couldn’t have depression, because their lives are too normal, their conditions too good. Depression is for people with real problems. But that’s not how it works – depression can hit anyone. Part of the problem is that once you’ve taken on the label of someone who has depression, it’s very hard to get rid of it, both in your own mind and in the eyes of other people. It’s an illness, but it’s also something which is with you a lot of the time, which affects the way you behave and how you respond to things and what you feel, and that can make it seem like it’s part of your identity.

So when it goes away, it’s confusing. You might not have depression now, but will it come back? If it just went away for no well-defined reason – not drugs, not counselling, not therapy – then it’s hard to know whether (or indeed when) it might return. In the meantime, it’s hard to deal with negative emotions. When you were A Depressed Person, you could write off extreme sadness or the inability to get out of bed or just plain existential despair as part of The Illness, something which you shouldn’t really be feeling and which normal people don’t have to endure. But now that it’s gone, how do you deal with those times when you’re feeling down for no real reason? How do you deal with those days when your brain just won’t let you get out of bed? How do you deal with the dark times in the middle of the night when you want to go to sleep but you can’t because your mind won’t stop thinking about the future and the universe and your inevitable death and your total and utter insignificance in the grand scheme of things?

It’s a question I’m trying to answer for myself. I think part of the answer is that a little bit of the depression never really goes away, and you kind of have to accept that. You’re always going to be someone who’s susceptible to these kinds of things, who might end up depressed again. But I think part of it is due to the way that being depressed gives you a label for all of the awful things you felt, and it’s just really difficult to deal with those things when you no longer have a neat little box you can put it in. Sometimes we just feel terrible and there’s nothing we can really do about it other than watch terrible horror films on Netflix and eat tubs of ice cream. The difficulty comes in recognising that those emotions are things that humans from time to time have to feel – and you, as a recovering depressive, may have to feel them more than most.

Recovering from depression, like any mental illness, isn’t easy. There are days when I feel exhausted and hopeless and just really, achingly sad. But I think in part it’s a numbers game. The days where I’m able to do the things I want to do and I’m able to enjoy those things vastly outnumber the really bad days, and I know enough about myself now to know how to pull myself – or get others to help me – out of the murky gutters of sadness.

I’m not sure that depression ever really goes away, but it can get better. A lot better. If anyone reading this has suffered from depression or any other mental illness, I’d love to hear from you – whether it’s about recovery or the illness itself. Comment below, hit me up on twitter, whatever. Let’s chat.


The image for this article is a blue bunny because there are no images for articles on mental illness which aren’t banal or offensive. Blue bunnies are neither of those things.

The Union’s Diversity Problem

The Cambridge Union has a diversity problem. Rather, it has several diversity problems. It doesn’t have enough female speakers. It doesn’t have enough speakers of colour. It doesn’t have enough speakers from underprivileged backgrounds. It doesn’t have enough speakers from the left. I could go on, but you likely get the picture: the demographics at Union events, term after term, are skewed in favour of moderate or right-wing middle-class white men.

I’m going to talk about the Cambridge Union because that’s the one I had the privilege of being in charge of for a fleeting six months, but I would imagine that the majority of my observations are reasonably salient for the Oxford Union, or any large society which hosts speakers and/or debates on a regular basis.

The diversity problem operates in different ways for debate speakers and individual speakers, so I’ll talk about them in turn.

With regard to debates, the first problem is that there are fewer women and people of colour in positions of influence than there are men. This means that, at the base level, there are usually fewer women whom we are able to invite than there are men. Researching speakers for debates is a surprisingly difficult process – you’d be surprised how quickly you run out of names to invite for any given topic. Quick, tell me who I should invite for a debate about atheism – let me guess: Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams, Justin Welby, AC Grayling, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Tariq Ramadan, Peter Hitchens? Maybe a couple more. Any women? Maybe one or two, but they’re hardly the first names that come to mind. What if I told you that you’d be incredibly lucky if even one name on that list said yes, and you have to get six speakers, and you still personally have two or three more debates to fill? It’s hard.

Then there’s the fact that, in my experience, women are far less likely than men to say yes to an invitation. This is conjecture, but I would wager that it’s partly because women are less willing to speak in public, for reasons that can be summed up as ‘patriarchy’; it’s partly because women are less willing to engage in the adversarial activity of debating – patriarchy again; and it’s also because the women who are famous enough in any given field tend to get invited to quite a lot of stuff (because there are so few of them, and lots of places all have the same idea) and they obviously have limited time and energy and willingness to engage with snotty students.

Left wing speakers are also less likely to say yes to invitations than right wing speakers. This might sound like an odd one, but it’s not if you think about it. In 2013, Owen Jones publicly rejected his invitation to the Cambridge Union after they invited Marine Le Pen to speak – the Union is perceived as a bastion of privilege and conservatism, and the more right wing speakers who come, the harder it is to get lefties to speak. There are also fewer viable left-wing speakers, full stop – believe me, they are genuinely just really hard to find these days.

With regard to people of colour, Cambridge is an incredibly white institution, and whilst in many instances there are people of colour saying the same things on the same topics just as well as (or indeed better than) white people, one of the problems is that the majority of the people in our social network, and the majority of the people whom we think to invite, are white. The voices of non-white people in Britain tend to be, if not silenced, at least ignored or dampened in favour of white voices.

This isn’t a reflection on the committee of the Union – they’re a diverse bunch, from left to right, fairly well gender balanced (though this varies from term to term), and often with a relatively high diversity of socioeconomic and racial background. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a bunch of privileged white guys sitting in a room deciding to invite other privileged white guys to speak. The people who run the Union really care about its reputation, about its image, about the quality of events that they put on, and a large percentage of them are committed to improving the diversity of backgrounds from which speakers come. They organise events which specifically hope to attract speakers from backgrounds which aren’t white, Oxbridge-educated and male. These events almost invariably suffer from poor turnout.

The problem is, and this leads into the section on individual speakers, that the Union has a limited budget, limited time and limited student attendance. On any given night in Cambridge, there are half a dozen great events going on, and those events have to compete not only with each other but with the pulls of sport, the theatre, work and drinking. This severely limits the capacity of the Union to put on events with speakers whom they can’t guarantee will pull a crowd. In my term we hosted a large number of events like this, and the few people who came really enjoyed them, but it was time consuming and incredibly stressful – every single one was a last minute scrabble around to attempt to get people to come and make the room not look empty so that the speaker wouldn’t be embarrassed or angry. Small societies with dedicated memberships can afford to host a relatively unknown MP with an interesting idea, because they have a smaller room (I know it’s strange, but it’s a genuine factor), they often have a budget to provide food and drink to attendees because they host fewer events, they have the time to negotiate with individual speakers exactly what they want to talk about rather than just rushing to put the event logistics together, and they don’t have the reputation of the Union to live up to – when speakers come to the Union, they often see it as quite a big deal and expect a good turnout. As much as we’d love for a huge crowd to come to every single event, it just doesn’t happen, and wishing it would won’t make it happen.

When Julian Assange was invited for the second time to speak at the Cambridge Union, the argument from the Women’s Campaign was that rape survivors don’t get such a prestigious platform, and the Union should invite a rape survivor to come and speak about their experiences. The problem is that such an event would be, whilst doubtless interesting and moving and socially worthwhile, really poorly attended. Ultimately the Union committee has a responsibility to respond to the demands of its members, but it has an extremely disengaged and, dare I say it, apathetic membership. Most people don’t care about what the Union does as long as there’s at least one interesting debate each term and a headline speaker they’ve heard of. I’m not sure anything can really be done to change that – I certainly didn’t manage it.

In recent terms the Union committee have become conscious of the diversity problems and have worked hard to rectify them. The tracker used for inviting speakers has a gender column which is used to keep track of the gender ratio of speakers, and days of invitations are allocated specifically to inviting solely women. This term, the Debates Committee (responsible, oddly enough, for organising debates) spent their first three weeks inviting only women. There are regularly debates on feminist issues, now usually framed not as ‘is feminism good or bad?’, but as ‘what should we do about x issue which is relevant to feminism?’. When I was President, if there was a debate which was becoming male dominated I would attempt to make sure that the last spot/s went to female speakers, and this term there are no all-male debates and they’ve implemented the same policy as I did. It all sounds terribly like positive discrimination, and frankly it is, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud that the people running one of Cambridge’s most important institutions, a notoriously conservative one at that, are developing the social conscience required to make them (or, indeed, us) take steps to rectify the wrongs perpetuated by uneven societal power structures.

It’s not much. There are still huge problems with diversity at the Union. But there are people inside, doing their level best to change it, a little bit at a time.

Blogging my Research: Steroids, Lies and Natural Limits

One of the main things I have to do this term is produce a 5000 word research paper on some topic in the History and Philosophy of Science. For those who aren’t familiar with HPS, it is, frankly, vast. Our department at Cambridge has staff and students working on everything from the history of visualising embryos to the question of whether there can be a science of human nature to the narratives of sperm. It’s a wonderfully stimulating environment, but much of the time I find myself confused and quite ignorant of the subject matter of other people’s research.

For my part, I’ve studied (though not done any research in) modern history of science, technology and medicine, metaphysics and epistemology (fancy ways of saying ‘what stuff is there in the universe?’ and ‘how can we know about that stuff?’) and the ethics and politics of science. The last of these fields is the one that I really love, and that I’m hoping to be able to do a PhD in, but even this is a huge field, encompassing far more subjects than one person could ever hope to fully study and understand in a lifetime.

Last term I did a literature review on how laypeople might be able to discriminate between experts and non-experts, or between experts who say conflicting things. It’s a real problem which faces a lot of us, a lot of the time: the news has two ‘experts’ in international relations on to talk about the latest developments in the Israel/Gaza conflict – who should we believe? You’re browsing Wikipedia and you come across a subject that you’re unfamiliar with – should you just take it at face value? It also has a lot of relevance in policy-making: if scientific experts give conflicting accounts of what the evidence says, how can politicians and bureaucrats figure out who to believe without having to become scientists themselves? In courtrooms, we specifically appoint expert witnesses on both sides of the cases, asking them to give accounts which deliberately conflict with each other – but at the end of the case, the judge or jury have to decide who is right, and they’re hardly qualified to assess forensic evidence directly.

Instead, in most of these cases we rely on indicators which don’t have much to do with the evidence itself, but with the people giving it: do they give good arguments? When their opponent challenges them, are they able to come up with a swift and unhesitating rebuttal?  Do other experts agree with them? Do they have qualifications which suggest they might be experts? Do they seem a bit slimy, a bit Nixon-ish? There are all kinds of ways in which we decide who to trust in these kinds of situations, and it turns out that most of them have very little to do with the evidence in front of us. This has implications for really important topics, from climate change denial to the possibility of imprisoning people for crimes they never committed.

That’s a little bit of what I did last term, without the really detailed stuff about different accounts of knowledge and the reasons that trusting someone’s qualifications or the agreement of other experts might not be a good idea. What I really want to talk about right now is the research that I’m working on this term. Our course says that you have to do research in at least two different areas, and because I did ethics-y, politics-y stuff last term, now I have to do something different. One of my main hobbies is going to the gym, picking heavy things up and putting them down again. It’s something that I do most days of the week, and I’ve been doing it on and off for quite a while – though you probably wouldn’t know it to look at me. When you get involved in a hobby, you inevitably end up reading about it a bit, and so I’ve spent some time lurking on fitness forums and reading around the topic of weightlifting.

There are a few things I’ve noticed through this reading. One, a lot of people lift weights. Like, a lot a lot. It’s probably one of the most common things for young men, particularly at university, to do. There’s an interesting (though fundamentally flawed and quite classist) article on Vice which touches on the gym culture in modern Britain, and it does seem self-evident that there are more people going to the gym than ever before. Second, steroid use is widespread. It’s much more common than you’d ever think, especially at the upper levels of bodybuilding and weightlifting. All of the men with incredible bodies you see on the covers of Men’s Fitness?

mensfitness

Yeah, steroids. Steroids combined with an awful lot of hard work and likely a strict diet, but steroids nonetheless. One of the biggest cons in the fitness industry (and it is an industry) today is to sell men the idea that they can achieve naturally (and quickly) what can usually only be achieved with steroids, or at least many years of lifting.

Third, and this is the real problem – people lie about steroid use. There are massive disincentives to admit to the use of performance-enhancing drugs. One, they’re prescription-only, and much of their use is at least nominally illegal. Two, they’re illegal in nearly every kind of athletic competition, but there are a lot of ways of getting around drug tests. Three, a lot of the elite bodybuilders and fitness models rely on sponsorship from supplement companies and other businesses in the fitness industry for their income, and steroid use doesn’t sell. These companies want men to believe that these bodies are achievable without the use of drugs, without having to inject testosterone or dianabol into yourself every day for eight weeks at a time, with the minimum of effort and discipline and, most of all, with the use of the particular fat-burning/muscle-building drug that they’re selling.

steroids

It is nearly totally impossible to achieve the kind of physique in the picture above without the use of performance enhancing drugs. But bodybuilders either refuse to admit to steroid use, or just outright lie about it – this guy for example:

kalimuscle

This guy, Kali Muscle, claims that all you need to get as big and strong as him is Pepsi and Instant Coffee.

Given that it’s really easy to beat drug tests in competitions, and given that large numbers of strength and physique athletes make false claims to being ‘natural’ – to not using steroids – how can we tell whether they’ve actually used performance enhancing drugs?

The short answer is we can’t – not definitively, not in every case. But there is what many consider a good indicator, and this is where my substantive research starts to come in.

BMI, as you likely know, stands for ‘Body-Mass Index’, which attempts to give figures for a ‘healthy’ weight based upon a calculation of your weight in kilograms divided by your height in metres squared. Doing this with various people at different heights and weights creates a graph like this:

BMI

This index attempts to classify people’s bodies as ‘underweight’, ‘normal’, ‘overweight’, ‘obese’, and ‘morbidly obese’. It was devised by Adolphe Quetelet in an attempt to measure the health of populations, and it was never intended to be used as a diagnostic tool for individuals. However, it is used for this purpose – or at least, for telling people that they may be at increased risk of developing certain conditions.

BMI is notoriously inaccurate for athletes. Muscle is denser than fat, and it is perfectly possible for an athlete to develop enough muscle that they are considered overweight, or even obese, on the BMI scale. This means that the scale simply doesn’t work for them as a diagnostic indicator. It fails to take account of the difference between muscle and fat.

Enter FFMI. FFMI stands for Fat-Free Mass Index, and it’s calculated by taking the lean body mass of an individual – that’s all of their mass, excluding fat – and dividing it by their height in metres squared. For maximum accuracy, this is then manipulated slightly to reflect the average height of a man at 1.80m and the fact that there’s a slight positive slope on the lean body mass of individuals as they get taller due to the fact that they also tend to get wider and thicker. This index was first devised in 1990, and was intended to be used to establish the nutritional status of individuals. However, in 1995 a paper was published which compared FFMI in users and non-users of anabolic-androgenic steroids. The findings were particularly interesting: they suggest that there is a ‘natural limit’ at around 25.0 on the FFMI for non-users of steroids, and that figures above this strongly indicate that a person may be using, or have used at some point, steroids.

My research is about how this index came into existence, and how it came to be used to construct the concept of a ‘natural limit’ to the muscularity of the body which is used to police the boundaries between steroid users and non-users, as well as how this limit is negotiated and pushed by people working in the fitness industry now. The idea that there is a limit to what can be accomplished naturally with a human body is fascinating, and there are many other areas in which these kinds of limits have been constructed and imposed – in the ratio of testosterone to epistestosterone as an indicator of steroid-use, in the negotiation of the hormonal and chromosomal boundaries between sexes in sex tests, in the creation of diagnostic criteria for gigantism and dwarfism, and in countless other instances within medicine. It’s a fascinating area, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to try to contribute to it – and to share the results.

Cambridge needs to change, but the work boycott doesn’t make sense

CUSU has passed a motion to protect and support students involved in strike action in Week 5. This action consists of refusing to hand in work – not refusing to do it, just not handing it in- in order to highlight the unnecessary pressure put on Cambridge students by the current system, and to put pressure on the University authorities to introduce a reading week.

I’m not sure how it does this. Generally strike action is meant to have some kind of connection, whether it be literal or metaphorical, with the conditions being protested. Refusing to work for your employer demonstrates that their business could not function without the labour it employs, and therefore they ought to appreciate that labour a deal more. Academics refusing to mark or give lectures highlights the fact that academics do a vast amount of work for comparatively little money.

Yes, that kind of action harms students who are unable to receive lectures that they’ve paid for and which often constitute a large chunk of their contact time, or they’re delayed in receiving the marks which they’ve worked so hard for. But that’s the point of that kind of strike action – it shows just how valuable the work is, and tells the employer that current conditions are unacceptable and they deserve better.

The action proposed by CDE doesn’t do that. There will be two main groups of people harmed: first, students themselves. The majority of students will likely still do their work and hand it in, and so the minority who don’t are going to end up disadvantaged, not just because they won’t have their work marked but also because they’re still going to be doing the work. If there were some kind of symbolic significance attached to this, I could understand it, but I’m failing to see it so far.

The second group harmed are graduate students who supervise undergraduates. These students often put in a large amount of work to try and get their students through exams, and in many cases their continuing ability to get supervising work depends on their proficiency in this capacity. If their students don’t hand their work in, it makes it harder for them to do this.

The main group who are not being harmed are the University authorities – unfortunately, they happen to be the same group who hold the power to restructure term, or at least to give students a fair hearing on how Cambridge could be changed to ameliorate the situation of struggling students. This protest just doesn’t touch them. They have very little extra reason to listen – sure, some students might do worse, and that might reflect badly on the University, but in the long term, that doesn’t do much, and the University of Cambridge is one organisation that thinks very much in the long term.

The people who are commenting to the effect of ‘you have 28 weeks of holiday already, Cambridge is meant to be hard, just deal with it, the real world is much harder’ are wrong, and lacking in empathy. Yes, Cambridge is meant to be hard. That doesn’t mean we should accept conditions that normalise and encourage mental health problems in its students. I’m not convinced that this action, however, is the best way toward changing those conditions.

Finally, I’m aware that the aim of introducing a reading week or other measures is primarily to improve the lives of disabled students at Cambridge, for whom the current system is unbearable, as well as students suffering from mental illness, or symptoms which come reasonably close to mental illness. The fact that the vast majority of students will likely continue to do their work and hand it in rather than engage in the boycott is likely indicative of a large part of the problem – us. One of the major reasons that Cambridge has so many issues with mental health and pressure is that the students who come here are intensely competitive, hard-working and determined. There’s no way around that. It means that they’re unlikely to engage in any action which will undermine their own ability to do well, both here and in life. That’s why I don’t believe this action will succeed.

I totally support efforts to make Cambridge more bearable for the many people who struggle, and indeed fail, every year. I fail to see how this action in particular makes any real headway towards that goal.