How to kill someone without pulling the trigger

This is a guest post by Taryn Fox. Taryn Fox interned in the summer 2012 GNOME Outreach Program for Women, working on JavaScript developer documentation. She blogs at about her gender transition, recovery from abuse, and alternative spirituality and neurology. She unfortunately does not live in Canada yet.

This post originally appeared on Taryn Fox’s blog in 2013.

Matthew Garrett’s recent post on depression touched a nerve, because I’ve been dealing with it for most of my life and it was especially bad all of last year. I’m trying to arrange to get help, but even that is extremely difficult right now.

I’m going to try to add some things to his post without going on for too long. Specifically, I’m going to address ideas we have and stuff we take for granted that makes the experience of being depressed much, much worse.

The “Just World” fallacy

This is a fancy name for the idea that people tend to get what they deserve. Here in the States, we call it “liberty” and “objectivism” and “reducing dependence on government.” In the Linux and Free Software communities, we call it “meritocracy.”

It’s an extremely convenient belief to have if you’re at the top of your pecking order. It tells you that you deserve to be there, because of how awesome you are. And it tells you not to worry about anybody beneath you, because if they’re deserving they’ll make it eventually. And if they’re not, well, don’t worry about it. It’s their fault, and helping them will just keep them dependent on you. Better to throw them out of the nest and watch their carcasses smear on the rocks, until you find one that can fly like you could.

This mindset stigmatizes being weak or in need of help. It turns being a newb, at life or at Linux, into something to be ashamed of. And when you have this mindset yourself, and are weak or injured, you’re ashamed of everything. You have a desperate need to please others and show that your life is worthwhile. You’re afraid to admit failure, to yourself or to anyone else, because you know that you’ll be destroyed and it’ll be your fault.

Preordained winners and losers

If you aren’t so conscientious, of course, none of that matters. Of course you’ll get the help you need. Of course you deserve it. Ayn Rand herself went on Social Security. My parents have no qualms about getting cheques from the government, via dad’s military retirement. But I sold off almost all my possessions to keep from needing to apply for “food stamps,” which are one of the only reliable social welfare programs here for people who aren’t senior citizens. I didn’t want to be a burden.

And that’s what these beliefs are all about. They take people who care about others, who want to help others, who want to be part of a team and community and work together to do something awesome, and very often make them into nervous, self-loathing wrecks. At their best and most productive, they may have impostor syndrome and depression, may fail to promote themselves and their projects, and may put up with crap no one should. At their worse, they may want to kill themselves, like I almost did a few years ago after being thrown out of the house.

The fact that my parents let me back in an hour or so later didn’t change anything. There was no apology. The status quo, in which this event wasn’t even surprising and I just needed to live with it, did not change. And my family laughed and joked with each other later that day, without saying a word about what’d happened, as I went catatonic right there on the couch. I knew now that I was worthless, and no matter how much reassurance or encouragement I get from others that “fact” is still the core of my being.

I guess what I’m trying to say is,

The idea of “meritocracy” causes depression and kills people

And so whenever I see people glorify it, I know right away that to the degree that they take this belief seriously I’m looking at a good ol’ boys’ network with preordained winners and losers. Where people they like and consider worthwhile get rewarded and get away with anything, and people they dislike get blamed for their “failures” and punished.

This is why there’s historically been so much hostility towards Apple, and towards everything in GNOME and Free Software and politics that tries to make stuff easier for newbs or bring new people into the fold. The people complaining have decided who’s a “real” hacker or gamer or contributor or American, and who’s undeserving of the label. They want the undeserving to run off somewhere that they don’t have to see them, and they close their eyes so they don’t see the smeared carcasses on the rocks.

When you grow up with this mindset and then realize that you’re undeserving, you want to die.

I guess that’s all.

2 thoughts on “How to kill someone without pulling the trigger

  1. Isidore

    This was a really well written piece on something that took me a long time growing up to figure out. Thank you!

    Dealing with the “just world” people got a little easier for me when I realized that it came from a place of fear and not hate. If they believe that the disabled or poor must have done something to deserve that fate, then it makes them feel safer that it will never happen to them because they are doing the “right things” and that doesn’t happen to people who do the right things. Not that it makes their actions any less damaging! It just helps my sanity to think of it as a protection mechanism and not someone actively trying to destroy me.

  2. Megpie71

    As someone with depression: yes. Very, very yes.

    The just world fallacy is one of the most toxic pieces of thinking known to humanity, because it attributes motive to the universe. Something good happens to you, and there must have been a reason. Something bad happens, and there must have been a reason for that. No. Shit happens. Sometimes it’s shit we think of as good shit. Sometimes it’s shit we think of as bad shit. But it happens, and it happens because it happens.

    As per the Babylon 5 quote, I take a great deal of comfort in realising the universe doesn’t give a damn about me. That the world isn’t required to fit my notions of justice.

    The notion of preordained winners and losers is another piece of toxic memetic crap. This one is from Calvinist Christianity and the doctrine of the Elect (my personal nominee for “most toxic meme ever created”). The idea that there are some people who are going to be the “winners” (the “elect”, destined for salvation by a decision of God’s long before they were even conceived) and the rest of us who aren’t (the unconditionally damned), and that if we aren’t winners, there’s not much which can be done about that, is there?

    Problem is, people take this bit of Calvinist theology and generalise from the entirety of the universe down into human-created systems, where the problems are very much human-created and human-fixable. We aren’t yet at the point where we can reconstruct a universe in miniature for study purposes – so we shouldn’t be expecting justice out of the universe, because we don’t know how human justice works out on a galactic or universal scale.

    We can and should be expecting fairness and justice out of our own, human-created systems.

    As per Teresa Neilsen-Hayden, if everyone in your meritocracy looks (and/or acts) similar, you don’t have a meritocracy.

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