Untroll Thursday: Captain Awkward

Inspired by Megan MacKay, Thursdays are #UnTrollTheInternet Day, when we uplift the positive stuff on the internet to remind ourselves that this amazing global platform we share doesn’t have to be a force for vileness.

Captain Awkward is an online advice column which provides refreshingly good advice. It’s not that she tells you to reject all social obligcations and live a free life on a libertarian cruise ship; but she will remind you that it’s up to you to decide whether or not those social obligations are a net benefit or net harm to your health.

I get a little evangelist about her, and have even mimicked her style on occasion.

She’s every “but you have to come to Christmas dinner, it’s family tradition!”-complaining relative’s worst nightmare.

At 830+ letters answered and counting, CA can be a bit intimidating for newbies. Fortunately there is a handy FAQ covering core questions like how to start relationships, end relationships, deal with creeps in your social circles, and avoid the dreaded Darth Vader boyfriend.

Reading Captain Awkward has done wonders for my psychological and emotional health. Another fantastic thing brought to you by the internet.

A reader asks: how do I tell my pushy colonial parents “no”?

With apologies to Captain Awkward.

Dear Boots Theory,

I’m a young, go-getting nation state. I like doing things my way, for my reasons. But my parents just don’t understand that I’m not their baby any more. I’ve moved out, I’ve stopped borrowing their car, I formally declared myself a dominion back in 1907 so they understood I wasn’t happy being treated as “one of the colonies”.

I even live as far away from them as physically possible, but they haven’t taken the hint!

And now, right as I’m celebrating a big anniversary – the centenary of the event which really drove home how much I need to stand on my own two feet and not jump straight into every doomed project my Dad signs up for – it’s all come to a head.

One of my uncles is visiting – I was expected to let him crash at my place even though he’s got more than enough cash to stay at a hotel – and he’s laying the full guilt-trip on me, saying that I haaaaaaave to commit to an armed conflict on foreign soil because it’s a faaaaaaamily event and it won’t be the saaaaaaame if I’m not there. He’s even invoking my cousins, who I’m a lot closer to, because they expect me to be there.

How do I tell him – and my folks – that it’s just not fair to lay this kind of guilt-trip on me, and it actually makes me want to risk the lives of my soldiers in a complex colonialist intervention which is ultimately doomed to fail in its stated goal of Middle Eastern peace even less?


Not Your Goddamned Lickspittle Any More, Britain

Dear Not Your Lickspittle,

A lot of people invest huge amounts of their identity in their family – or at least, a picture-perfect version of “family” which demands everyone play their proper role and nobody dispel the illusion that Everything Is Just Fine. This allows them to believe that everything they do has everyone’s approval and everyone agrees with them.

When you challenge those ideas, you’re going to get a lot of resistance because deep down they know that their old Empire is basically a shell. You’d think a logical nation-state would realise this and find new ways to leverage power in a modern world, but many will just keep clinging to their nostalgia for the Good Old Days and get pretty mean to anyone who threatens them.

The thing is, your parents aren’t going to change. They haven’t acknowledged any of the really clear steps you’ve taken to assert your independence. It doesn’t sound like you’re ready to completely cut them out of your life – and that’s okay, that can be a drastic step for a lot of people – but unfortunately this just means you’re going to have to be the adult and keep asserting your independence.

With your uncle being a guest in your home you’re going to feel a lot of obligation not to “be rude”. But you can politely re-emphasise your boundaries and make it plain that it’s not a topic for discussion. “Actually, uncle, I haven’t decided if I’m going to send troops to combat ISIL yet, and I’ll need to think about that in my own time. I would appreciate you not putting pressure on me about it. Hey, let’s watch some cricket.”

Your family won’t like that answer. You’ll get some pushback. They’ll probably try to recruit your cousins to nag you about it. Just keep repeating “I have to make that decision for myself and I’m not going to discuss it with you.”

It will probably get awkward. But you’re an independent nation state, and they’re choosing to ignore that. This means they are the ones who’ve made it awkward, by trying to guilt-trip you into joining an armed conflict to fulfil their imperialist desires.

They’re the ones who feel insecure about acknowledging that their actions aren’t fully supported by the rest of the world. Only they can learn, and grow, and come to terms with the fact that everyone else has started to realise that Western powers getting involved in Middle Eastern conflicts generally only leads to worse Middle Eastern conflicts, and it’s perfectly rational not to rush into that kind of situation.

Maybe they will, or maybe one day you’ll reach the end of your tether and become a republic. But only time can tell.

Commenters – have you had to deal with overbearing colonial powers? What are your favourite methods for shutting that kind of passive-aggressive bullying down?

The focus on paid work

We talk about paid work a lot in NZ politics. It’s the cure for any societal ill you care to name: poverty, mental illness, economic growth, domestic violence. But the reality is, many people cannot be in paid work. And  it’s not the be-all and end-all of a person’s life.

I was reminded of this by a recent Captain Awkward post about the anxiety created for people who aren’t in paid employment when faced with the small-talk staple of “so what do you do?” or “where do you work?”

There are some great suggested responses, and also a few ideas for those of us doing the asking – what about saying “what do you do for fun?” or “what keeps you busy?” if you’re looking for something innocuous to talk about?

But there’s a wider political point. The focus on paid employment – especially full-time, permanent work – has a tremendous impact on our attitudes and policies. That’s where you get phrases like “the deserving poor” – because we can’t want to help everyone living in poverty, just the ones who make the grade.

That’s what gets dogwhistled by the phrase “hard-working Kiwis” – it’s not a line used to talk about people who volunteer at local charities or are at home raising children with disabilities. When a politician says “hard-working Kiwis”, they’re inviting you to compare yourself to those other people who don’t work hard (and just want a handout, and spend it all on fags and booze, etc etc).

Paid work is important. But so are the many unpaid forms of work which people do. Raising kids. Volunteering at community organisations which provide vital services for families, victims of crime, migrants. Organising local events and helping maintain our environment. Some of those services probably should be provided by the government; they’re not luxury extras. But for now, they rely on unpaid labour, and a lot of the time it’s actually not feasible for it to be done by people in full-time paid work.

It is possible to talk about helping people into paid work – when it’s feasible for them – and about the importance of secure jobs, good wages and conditions, and job creation. But it’s also possible to do that without implying that people who can’t or don’t work are less worthy of dignity and self-respect.