Thinking critically about Lost Connections 2: The evidencing double standard

Part 2 of my Lost Connections review. Back to part 1

I spent many years of my life in varying levels of depression. Sometimes it was really bad: the ugly, messy shit, the lying in bed too tired to cry, too tired to sleep, subsisting off a diet of Haribo, because it was closest to the bed. Much of the time, it was less bad than that: a nagging numbness, a constant feeling of a dragging weight, a listless lack of enjoyment of things that ought to be fun, problem drinking, problem screwing, problems all over the shop. The usual. I knew the depression was there, and I knew there would be ways of helping myself out if I’d just go and see a fucking doctor.

Once, back when I was at uni, the head of department gently suggested to me, as I was falling very much behind on my workload, a course of citalopram to get myself back on my feet. I pretended I’d consider it as my brain told her to go and stuff herself, because I’d read the research and knew they weren’t something that would magically make me an effective worker (which, it was transparently obvious, was her motivation for the recommendation!). I tried a couple of courses of therapy, and they weren’t particularly helpful, being too short, and not being all that suitable for someone who, it turns out, is physically impaired at visualising.

I never took meds, because I had a low opinion of them, and felt like they’d probably do more harm than good for me.

Meanwhile, my epilepsy also took a turn for the worse, and last year I began finally dealing with that by taking an anticonvulsant medication called lamotrigine. Now, lamotrigine works pretty well at controlling epilepsy. It also has another medical function: treating the depression symptoms side of bipolar.

And would you guess what? An unexpected side effect of my epilepsy medications was that my depression has subsided. I’ve felt this strange sense of energy over the last year, a feeling that I am no longer dragging an ever-increasing weight with me wherever I go. I’m getting out of bed every day, and eating meals. I’m not feeling a crushing insurmountable despair. The drug I was prescribed for different reasons has, it seems, also treated the depression I lived with for years.

Now you’ve read my story, are you planning on popping lamotrigine to deal with your depression?

No?

Then you, my friend, are a sensible person who understands on some level that anecdote isn’t data. That the experience of one person is not the same as others. That, no matter how much a story may resonate with you, it’s something you’d probably want to research a bit more independently and chat to a doctor before seeing if the drug I take (which has a small chance that it might make your skin fall off) is suitable for you.

I opened this section with a personal story because I figured we might as well start on a level playing field of evidence.

Evidencing is important, and doubly important if you were exposed as a fabricator and plagiarist.

When writing about science, there are certain standards of evidence that are better than others, and certain types of reference where you’d be chased out of any research institute with pitchforks if you put them down. The former is stuff that’s published in journals or edited academic books: meta-analyses, experiments, rigorous population research and the like. The latter is stuff like popular science books, blog posts, asking someone who you reckon knows a bit more about the subject than you do, personal anecdotes, and so forth. I’m pleased to report that Lost Connections contains some of the former. It also contains a lot of the latter.

We also talk about levels of evidence, because that’s important too. All evidence is not equal. For example, a single study containing 20 people is less good evidence than a study containing 200 people. A study using 200 monkeys is less good evidence than a study using 200 people, if you want your findings to apply to  humans. A study which finds a correlation between one variable and another is less good evidence than a study where you manipulate one variable and measure its effect on the other. One study finding something is less good evidence than 15 studies that find the same thing. A meta-analysis is great evidence: that’s where you put together findings from lots of studies on the same topic to check if the results still hold up. When you are looking at the evidence, these are all things to bear in mind.

The funny thing is, Hari understands this… to a point. He is very clear on all of these points when presenting the evidence that antidepressants don’t work very well, and explains them reasonably well. Now, I’m not going to get into a point by point analysis of the early sections of the book and why I disagree with his conclusion that the drugs don’t work, because I covered pretty much all of my problems with it in my post about the extract, and every point besides the first remains in place for me as I read the text in its entirety.

In the psychological sciences, we often reference “in-line”, so it makes it easier to pick up on the references.  APA formatting is pretty standard for if you’re publishing a psychology study: when you’re referencing a statement, you’d name the authors and the date they wrote what you’re referencing within the sentence. They’re preferable to footnotes as it makes our jobs a lot easier to look at a reference quickly and check if you’re citing a journal article or whether it’s a forum post by DongSmoker6969.

Lost Connections uses footnotes. Lots and lots and lots of footnotes. And sometimes the footnote will go to a proper scientific study. Sometimes it will not. It’s a crapshoot, and I will confess that I did not bother checking every footnote, because I value my own sanity. I often just checked the footnote if something seemed a little bit off to me. So, obviously draw healthy scepticism about what I say throughout, because no, I did not check every single reference. I also found Hari’s approach to evidencing particularly irksome as he frequently refers to researchers by their first names, which makes it a little harder to follow who he’s talking about. For example, in Chapter 7, he often alludes to the work of a researcher called John, and so I spent half the chapter thinking “who’s John, and why should I care?”. Flicking back, I finally found it was John Cacioppo, a researcher so well-known they teach his work about loneliness in Psychology A-Level: his work is familiar to many–and I’ll be writing a bit more about that in a later section of this review.

The thing is, though, Hari’s own talk of high standards of evidencing completely collapses as he writes about his own views on the causes of and solutions for depression. There, we suddenly see conclusions drawn from a study involving animals. We see for-profit companies making a profit on selling the idea of a cause of a sickness for which they provide a cure. We see grand conclusions being drawn from one-off studies involving sample sizes of 20, with very non-representative samples.

A substantial portion of what Hari is proposing as “reconnections” to alleviate depression are alternative remedies, be it lifestyle changes, meditation or, indeed, a herbal supplement.

Hari dismisses pharmaceutical interventions for depression, suggesting they’re no better than the placebo, appealing to the authority of Professor Irving Kirsch. Kirsch gives us a suggestion, due to the side effects of antidepressant medication, of an alternative placebo:

“We could be giving people the herb St John’s Wort, Irving says, and we’d have all of the placebo effects and none of these drawbacks. Although–of course–St John’s Wort isn’t patented by the drug companies, so nobody would be making much profit off it.”

I want to focus on this quote because it highlights a lot of problems rather neatly. Firstly, St John’s Wort is not an inert substance. It actually is effective in treating mild-to-moderate depression, and Mind conclude you can use it as an alternative to antidepressant drugs. It affects serotonin levels. However, being not inert, there are also some dangerous problems with St John’s Wort. It has side effects, like any other medicine. And it also interacts with a lot of other medicines to stop them working as well: important drugs such as contraceptives, HIV medications, blood-thinners and heart medicine.

Another problem with herbal remedies is you might get the dose wrong. While pharmaceutical drugs must be tested very rigorously to find the right doses that won’t kill people or make them sicker, this is not the case for herbal medicines. That’s worrying.

You can take St John’s Wort, and it might work for you. However, as with any drug, you should see a doctor so they can make sure you’re doing it safely and you don’t need anything else, to help you.

Of course, St John’s Wort is a herbal remedy that actually works, but we can divide most alternative remedies into two categories: the ones which do work, and therefore, because they’re doing something, can come with side effects and you need medical monitoring; and the ones which do precisely nothing, like homeopathy, which is literally a sugar pill.

Medical professionals’ tendency to avoid alternative remedies is frequently treated as Big Pharma suppressing the secret treatments that really work. And that’s not true. The truth is that they’re often not recommended because they’ll either not do anything, or have an effect that’s wildly unpredictable and possibly dangerous, and therefore, it’s considered better to go with drugs where we know all about safe dosage, side effects and interactions.

The pharmaceutical industry is, of course, not spotless. It’s pretty evil, and I’m eternally grateful to Martin Shkreli for putting a punchable face to everything I hate about it. However, I am highly surprised by the suggestion that nobody is profiting from St John’s Wort; alternative health industry is every bit as lucrative as the pharmaceutical industry, and every bit as evil.

I would imagine the profit margin for the alternative health industry is comparable to, or possibly larger, than that in the pharmaceutical industry. If you’re selling crushed-up flowers or a meditation tape, you don’t have to spend a large amount of money in research and development, testing, and ensuring your remedy is safe. You might sell less of the product, but you’re going to make a killing. It becomes even more unethical when the product is ineffective, as this gives false hope to sick people, which is diabolically cruel.

In the UK, there is a further issue with recommending alternative remedies over what’s available from a doctor: money, dear boy. Here in the UK, the patient doesn’t have to pay full price for medicines, only a prescription fee. Talking therapies are provided free of charge, as are many other services for mental health. Meanwhile, a month’s supply of St John’s Wort would set you back £15, while an SSRI on prescription would be £8.60. Which, by the way, is still revoltingly expensive, and too many chronically ill people are paying through the nose for their prescription medicines. As a patient, it’s probably cheaper for you to stick with the NHS.

I use St John’s Wort as an example here, although perhaps that is unfair, as there is stronger evidence for its efficacy as a treatment for depression than many of the other things presented in the book: for example, I checked the references on “sympathetic joy” meditation. It’s effective. At some things. None of which are treating depression.

Let me provide some concrete examples. I had particular trouble with Hari’s Cause 6: Disconnection From The Natural World. A substantial portion of the evidence presented pertains to bonobos. Now, I hope I don’t have to tell all of you that bonobos aren’t people, and are instead kind of a nicer version of chimpanzees that fuck a lot. We then have a bit of correlational evidence about mental health evidence upon moving from somewhere green to a city, or vice versa. And finally, we have a bit of experimental evidence from a study where people went for a walk in either a natural or a rural setting which found that the walks in nature were superior. A grand claim, so let’s follow that footnote, shall we? It leads us to a 2012 study from Berman and colleagues. The experiment had a sample size of 20 people, which is pretty small, and all of the sample had diagnoses of the same type of depression, which means they’re not very representative of the population.

Had that been a trial for a drug intervention, nobody on this earth would ever be given that drug, and rightly so. Had this been a test of an antidepressant, Johann Hari himself would have noticed that this was not a very good study, and certainly not anything which ought to influence your medical decisions. We see this throughout. For example, we are treated to a dismantling of the serotonin theory of depression, and shown it was a marketing tactic from pharmaceutical companies. This is fair enough. Then, in chapter 7, we are treated to an explanation of how internet addiction is a real thing and very bad, from someone who works at a for-profit internet rehab clinic.

One cannot have it both ways. One cannot take a critical approach to evidence you disagree with, and then turn around and accept evidence–often of a poorer quality–to something that you do agree with. This is called “cherry picking”, and it’s generally frowned upon–indeed, Irving Kirsch, who features heavily in early chapters of the book dismantling evidence of the effectiveness of antidepressant drugs, worked very hard to minimise the cherry picking effect of pharmaceutical companies’ publication of drug trials on the evidence of effectiveness.

Yes, I’m going to take a second to giggle about a man called Kirsch working against cherry picking, because I’ve just read a book I hate and I need a bit of levity in my life.

By all means, be critical of evidence, any evidence. It’s how science thrives and how medical treatments improve. But this rigorous approach needs to be applied to everything you are writing. The high standards of evidencing introduced by Hari at the beginning do not hold up in the slightest when we’re looking at his proposed alternative model, and his remedies.

The evidencing double standard is a vast problem within the text and pollutes everything within. However, the rot is even worse than that: the entire argument presented in the book rests on a strawman, and that’s what we’ll be looking at tomorrow.

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Thinking critically about Lost Connections 1: An introduction, of sorts

I forced myself to read Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression by Johann Hari so you don’t have to.  Following my look at an extract published online, I was cursed enough to get my hands on a copy, and I have a lot of feelings about it.

I’ve taken it upon myself to review the book, to encourage the critical thinking that’s sorely lacking in the media reception of the text. Unfortunately, I’ve been struggling with this task on a personal level, and this is because there is so much wrong with it. It’s a fundamentally flawed text on almost every level, and it’s been difficult to even work out where to begin.

While I’ve always accepted environmental factors as a depressant and stressor, I feel like the experience of reading the book provides a very neat demonstration of the phenomenon.

How do you begin to criticise a book which claims to be about depression–it’s right there in the title!–when for a substantial portion of the book the author isn’t even writing about depression? How do you evaluate evidencing when you, a rando blogger who has a day job and a bit of a life, can’t click everything and check it says what the author is saying it says? How can you even begin to criticise the politics of the text? How do you point out that the book is telling us nothing new?

The book is divided into three sections: poking holes in the current model of depression and its treatment; Hari’s proposed real causes of depression; and remedies (“reconnections”) to alleviate the problem. The central thesis is that depression is a symptom of a sick society, and it’s a message that shouldn’t be damped down, but should instead be addressed using Hari’s proposed remedies.

And, sadly, the case isn’t made very well at all.

Of course, the very logic, that depression is a symptom, much like nausea, is flawed. It can be a symptom, much like nausea. That does not mean that one ought never to take a medicine to alleviate it. It also does not mean that it’d go away under the right circumstances. Indeed, something like nausea often needs treatment, because it’s often unhelpful.

The evidence presented in the first section is reasonably strong, although highly biased and by no means holistic. It also sets up a huge strawman: that the only way that doctors think about depression is pure chemistry. That simply isn’t true. Parts 2 and 3 have a different set of problems, being largely horribly-evidenced, with the bits that aren’t being things which we’ve all already known about a thousand times over.

What the book is is this: a self-help book for a well-off Guardian reader who fancies themselves as clever and educated about science. It’s badly-evidenced, largely inapplicable for the people who need societal interventions the most, and is nowhere near as groundbreaking as it thinks it is. It’s an unhelpful text, which is highly annoying to read if you’re someone who has a background in psychology; if I’d been marking it as a submitted paper, I’d probably fail it.

So I suppose what I’ll start with doing is warn you that this review is going to be five blogs long (including this one). I spent a bit of time dividing the methodological and political flaws into broad themes, and these were the things which seemed most egregious to me. These things are:

  • The approach to evidencing and the double standard
  • Conflation of depression with other mental health issues, and emotions.
  • A false dichotomy as to how depression is thought about: science vs the real problem
  • How we’re not actually learning much new from the text

I will also be questioning the largely-positive critical reception of the book, because it’s kind of annoying to me, but mostly because I want to ask questions about why it’s been so universally popular, and that I suspect there’s more at play than merely a well-oiled PR machine. My thoughts on this are circular, with problems feeding into one another: for example, bad evidencing means that bad solutions are presented, but this couldn’t happen if a false dichotomy strawman weren’t set up to present treatment as either drugs or meditation.

I won’t be delving into any point-by-point takedowns, because I am only human, and it would take approximately a million years for me to pick apart every incorrect reference, every misleading claim, every moment where he seems to have fundamentally misunderstood what he’s supposed to be talking about.

I’ll be posting a blog a day this week to cover the whats and whys of this book, so get yourselves comfortable, kids. Before we get started, I’d like to recommend a bit of reading for you, if you haven’t done it already. I don’t want to retread ground that’s already been trodden, and so here are some things which have already been covered:

Why does this matter? It matters because there is a very real risk that people might stop taking their medicine–something which may well be happening. It matters because it might deter people from seeking help from a qualified professional altogether. It matters because we need solutions that work for the people who need them most, not the people who enjoy moralising.

Please do not use Lost Connections to influence your personal health decisions. Speak to a doctor. The care available to you is better than you think. 

If this were some random internet person’s blog with 40 views, I wouldn’t be spending my time writing a takedown. But it isn’t. It’s a widely-promoted book, and with great reach comes great responsibility. I’d have loved to have not written this series, that someone else would have done this instead. But they haven’t, and so, here I go.

Part 2: The Evidencing Double Standard >

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Five things wrong with Johann Hari’s comeback book that I spotted from the extract alone

Noted plagiarist and wikipedia editor Johann Hari is back, with a book about depression. Yesterday, the Observer published an extract from the book, Lost Connections, which I presume is an early chapter setting the scene for Hari’s main thesis.

As far as I can discern from the extract, Hari is arguing that the environment is the cause of depression, with neurochemical imbalances not being particularly important, and therefore antidepressants not being very good. Now, I’m pretty critical of psychiatry, and very critical of the tendency towards prescribing antidepressants because waiting lists for talking therapies are so interminably long. However, we can’t have these conversations while we’re spending endless hours clearing the Augean stables of awful science, with nary a river to reroute.

Yes, I am calling Hari’s extract horseshit. The ideas, I might be convinced to agree with in part, but there are serious, fundamental flaws with his methodology which mean that it’s impossible to take anything seriously. I am going to assume his extract is representative of the book as a whole, and highlight some of these major flaws, expanding a thread I made on Twitter. Let’s start with a guided example of how Johann Hari is flat-out making shit up. Talking about changing DSM criteria of depression, Hari says:

So, they responded in a simple way – by whittling away the grief exception. With each new edition of the manual they reduced the period of grief that you were allowed before being labelled mentally ill – down to a few months and then, finally, to nothing at all. Now, if your baby dies at 10am, your doctor can diagnose you with a mental illness at 10.01am and start drugging you straight away.

The bolded part is a complete, total falsehood, which is easily refuted by 10 seconds on google. Search “DSM depression criteria”. Click the first link. Or the second, or any, they all take you to the criteria. Now look at the first fucking line of the criteria: “Depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities for more than two weeks.” Hari has made up a fact about maternal grief and the teams who work with those who have lost children, to make an imaginary point.

This research methodology seems prevalent throughout the extract, and there’s five key things I can see from reading a few thousand words.

1. [citation needed]

Footnotes and citations are necessary when writing a book based on presenting an evidence-based argument. This goes for anyone, but is particularly important if you’re a disgraced writer who has a history of fabricating things. Citations are completely absent from the published extract of Lost Connections, despite confidently-asserted statistics, for example: “It turns out that between 65 and 80% of people on antidepressants are depressed again within a year.” Where is this from? Who found it? Is it from an Irving Kirsch study, since Kirsch is mentioned in the paragraph above? If so, which Kirsch study? Where can we read it so we can get context for the figure?

When a number is presented, you link to where it’s found. And you make it clear where you found it. Otherwise, you might be misrepresenting it. Or you could have made it up completely. Where there’s no referencing, take any information presented with an ocean of salt.

2. Reliance on a single piece of research

Hari’s argument that antidepressants don’t work relies heavily on the work of a single researcher, Irving Kirsch. Now, due to the lack of citations, I can’t be completely certain that the research Hari outlines is Kirsch and colleague’s 2008 meta-analysis, but I’m going to guess it was because this is the most famous research into the topic.

Kirsch’s meta-analysis is decent, although it is not as definitively presenting that antidepressants don’t work for most people as Hari presents the research. Firstly, Kirsch and colleagues didn’t find that antidepressants don’t work on the majority of people: they found that effectiveness of antidepressants are more effective for severe depression and less effective for mild or moderate depression. That’s a nuanced difference, and it’s unfortunate that it led to so many “drugs don’t work” headlines from a screechy media, and Hari has lapped it right up.

Secondly, other researchers analysed the same dataset and drew different conclusions. Using different statistical modelling, Fountoulakis and colleagues found antidepressants were better than placebo, at all levels of depression severity. Turner and Rosenthal’s interpretation of the data is different to Kirsch’s, suggesting that certain measures can be more important than disappearance of depression, such as quality of life, which has been overlooked in Kirsch’s study, and to be “circumspect but not dismissive” in considering the benefits of antidepressants.

And one more issue is present in Kirsch’s research: it’s not a look at all antidepressants. It examines four drugs, all of the same type: selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).

3. There’s lots of different antidepressant drugs

“Antidepressant” is a wide category of types of drug, which do different things: Mind’s information lists the drugs, and what they do. Some drugs act on serotonin receptors–the SSRIs which Kirsch studied. Others act on different receptors, or prolong the activity of neurotransmitters, or perhaps make it harder for the body to break the neurotransmitters down: most of these will regulate levels of serotonin, noradrenaline, or both. Then there’s the weirdo drugs which don’t act on serotonin or noradrenaline: the atypical antidepressants, which include drugs like mirtazipine, which doesn’t do any of that, or variants on ketamine, which are increasing in popularity.

Basically, the drugs work differently, and it’s not exactly a secret that different drugs work better for different people: this is one of the first things the NHS tells you in their information for patients.

Hari fails to make the distinction throughout his article, referring only to “antidepressants”, the umbrella term for a diverse range of drugs which act in different ways on the body’s neurochemistry, and which are well-known to affect different people differently. There is no effort whatsoever made to acknowledge that not all antidepressants are the same, and the study he’s citing refers only to one class. This nuance is important. Really, really important.

4. The serotonin hypothesis isn’t as important as you think

Poking holes in the serotonin hypothesis is treated by Hari as debunking the neurochemical basis of depression. That’s a pity, because it doesn’t. There are dozens of theories of depression, both biological and cognitive, and the serotonin hypothesis is but one. It’s also acknowledged it may be caused differently in different people. Genetics, neurochemistry including but not limited to serotonin, interpersonal factors, the environment, the immune system… all of these things and more are believed to contribute to depression.

The dominance of the serotonin hypothesis in the public consciousness is mirrored by Hari’s writing, and presents a grotesquely oversimplified perspective of something which is a lot more complicated than that. The way you’d think it if you were listening to Hari was that science has two cards on the table: a deficiency in serotonin, or the environment, which is a brand-new discovery made by Hari, and definitely not something widely-acknowledged in the scientific literature. This is simply not the case, and never has been. Christ, even a basic A Level in Psychology will teach you that.

Doubt about the serotonin hypothesis does not mean that there’s a vast conspiracy to put people on drugs when really we should be making the world a nicer place. It’s a hell of a lot more nuanced than Hari would have it.

5. Stress and depression aren’t the same thing

Towards the latter end of the extract, Hari discusses environmental factors, and places a lot of emphasis on stress. While stress is acknowledged to be a contributor to depression, it’s a different kettle of fish entirely and isn’t thought to be the root cause of all depression by anyone. Stress is physical changes to the body caused by your “fight-or-flight” responses going on the alert in response to an external stimulus and just keeping on going. Stress isn’t a medical condition, per se, and it’s often advised that it’s managed by relaxation or just taking a break once in a while. There’s different neurotransmitters involved: depression itself doesn’t tend to have increased levels of cortisol, which is the dangerous thing about stress, and the killer. Because it’s different, stress has different symptoms to depression, though there may be some overlap.

Hari conflates stress and depression repeatedly throughout the latter half of his article. This is an enormous problem, because it becomes difficult to follow, and therefore critically appraise, exactly what he’s talking about, and also, to acknowledge that these are different problems, with different solutions, and it seems as though Hari favours the treatments recommended for stress–which may be why he conflates depression and stress so readily.

tl;dr

If this extract is representative for Johann Hari’s comeback book, don’t believe a word he says. The methodology is awful, given how much I spotted just from a few thousand words and a quick read.

It’s a huge shame there’s so much ill-informed nonsense out there, because there are real conversations we need to have about psychiatry and medicalisation, which we can’t have when we’re fighting this crap.

Update 13/1/18: Johann Hari has written a response to criticisms of his extract and research methodology on his blog. He also responds to fact-checks from Dean Burnett, who wrote a very good critical article questioning the conclusions and implications, and Stuart Ritchie, who presented meta-analytical evidence for the efficacy of antidepressants and identified the source of Hari’s “65-80%” figure, which I pulled up in the “citation needed” section of this blog. Stuart’s thread is good and spoiler: the figure came from a self-help book. Stuart has responded to Hari’s response over on Twitter, which, along with his original thread and Dean’s article, are well worth a read.

I’d like to respond to Hari’s response too. Hari neglects to respond to four of the five points I’ve made in this article, opting only to answer point 2: relying heavily on the research of Professor Irving Kirsh. To refute this, Hari got Professor Irving Kirsch to reply. Throughout Hari’s response to Dean, Stuart and I, Kirsch is mentioned or quoted more than 20 times. I don’t think I need to say why this is not a good way of refuting my concerns! I acknowledge that Kirsch thinks his own research is the most solid, and that Johann Hari favours the work of a researcher who unequivocally supports his conclusions. I will say that the criticisms of Kirsch’s meta-analyses still stand, as well as the bulk of meta-analyses conducted by other researchers. I’ll also say that even if a hole had been poked in my concerns about over-reliance on the work of a single researcher, there’s still four other reasons to be worried about the methodology Hari has deployed.

I’m also pretty concerned that there’s only three of us raising criticisms of Hari’s book, and one of us is just some rando blogger (that’d be me!). It’s very telling that media outlets have not been proactively commissioning experts to review the book, as opposed to other journalists. This isn’t just some journalistic circlejerk. There are real-life consequences, and at least one quote from someone considering stopping their meds off the back of the book has been found. To anyone who is thinking of coming off meds I say this: do it under medical supervision. For many antidepressants, you mustn’t just stop taking them, but need to titrate off. You should also be checking in with a medical professional regularly to ensure you are doing it safely, and to see if it’s working for you. This is very important and for pity’s sake DON’T JUST STOP TAKING YOUR MEDICATION.

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OK, Matt Damon, let’s talk about the Hollywood men who aren’t abusers… and their role in enabling abuse.

Content note: this post discusses sexual abuse and sexual harassment

Latest in the string of awful opinions about Hollywood’s structural problems with sexual abuse and sexual harassment comes Matt Damon, who first spouted off about “degrees of abuse”, before being heroically taken down by Minnie Driver, and then continued talking, because nobody loves him enough to stop him, this time saying that we need to talk more about all those oh-so-lovely men who aren’t sexual predators.

Now, I’m not in the business of giving out cookies, but all right then, Matt, you want a conversation about the men who are not sexual predators? Here goes.

Any Hollywood man who is not personally an abuser, but remains silent, is complicit in sexual violence. He is enabling sexual violence. He is also, probably, benefitting from it.

Silence is violence, and what men need to be doing right now is nailing their colours to the mast in support of victims and survivors speaking out. They need to unequivocally side with those who have named their abusers. Those who do not are making it easier for abusers. The only words one of these lovely Hollywood non-predatory men need to say is “I believe her. I stand with her.” No more, and no less. We do not want to hear about your opinions of the accused. We do not need to hear about your opinion of what counts as sexual violence. And finally, we don’t want your silence.

The path to dismantling rape culture needs everyone to explicitly reject it. To stay silent is allowing the problem to continue: it allows abusers to feel like they will not be challenged, and discourages survivors from speaking out.

While we’re talking about the men in Hollywood who are not, personally, sexual predators, we might as well also talk about how all men benefit from a culture of sexual violence. Yes, all men.

Let’s take Hollywood as an example, since that’s what Matt Damon wants to talk about. Sexual harassment is rife there, and many women have found themselves party to sexual coercion. This affects women in numerous ways. Firstly, it tells women that they must make themselves sexually available in order to work, and that they must not reject men, or they will face serious consequences. This benefits abusers, but this mindset forced upon women benefits all men who seek sexual access to women. Outside of sex, the threat of sexual violence also seeps into women’s general attitudes towards everything, and they are less willing to rock the boat in any way, lest it damages them–which means Hollywood remains horribly unequal. Relationally, many heterosexual women think a man who is not a complete piece of shit rapist is therefore a good man. It lowers the bar. “He treats me well” translates to “he isn’t physically or sexually violent towards me”. Professionally “this is a good job” translates to “well, he didn’t sexually harass me, even if I am being paid significantly less than my male co-star.”

So yes. Let us talk about the men in Hollywood who are not predators. They shoulder guilt and complicity, too.

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JK Rowling is complicit in domestic abuse

Content note: This post discusses domestic violence, VAW and sexual harassment

JK Rowling has finally addressed the elephant in the room: that the kids’ movies going out in her name star a domestic abuser. And her response isn’t good. In fact, it’s the very opposite of good.

Based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our original casting, but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.

Rowling says. “Genuinely happy”.

However, the agreements that have been put in place to protect the privacy of two people, both of whom have expressed a desire to get on with their lives, must be respected.

Take the words Amber Heard said about wanting to put the violence she experienced out of your mouth, JK. A survivor wants to move on. And that’s what Amber Heard is: she documented the violence she experienced, and was dragged through the mud for it. Is it any wonder she wants it behind her? Meanwhile, let’s think about the motivations for a man who has been physically and verbally violent towards a woman might want to put it behind him. It’s a little different, isn’t it?

I accept that there will be those who are not satisfied with our choice of actor in the title role. However, conscience isn’t governable by committee.

This is a line as old as time. The mob! The mob!

Meanwhile, David Yates, who Rowling name-checks in her article, and seems to imply agreement with, said this:

With Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something. I can only tell you about the man I see every day: He’s full of decency and kindness, and that’s all I see. Whatever accusation was out there doesn’t tally with the kind of human being I’ve been working with.

“Took a pop”. Well, that’s not feeding “lying bitch” narratives at all. And nice that a man thinks an abuser is all sweetness and light, that’s something we’ve never seen before.

JK Rowling is complicit in domestic violence. There, I said it.

I am not alleging she has personally been violent. I am alleging that her choices and her words will, at best, not reduce any violence against women. At worst, they may perhaps expose more women to violence.

See, JK Rowling is in a position of great power. She has an army of young people following her, young people who listen to her views, and young people who will be influenced by these views. The message that we need to send to young people is that domestic violence, and violence against women on the whole, is completely unacceptable.

That message was finally starting to come out, as women speaking out against gendered abuse is becoming more and more visible. The #MeToo movement opened up an unprecedented door for abusers to finally face consequences for their actions. Those speaking out against abuse have been named Time’s Person Of The Year. Finally, is the tide turning?

Of course it isn’t. With movement comes utterly predictable backlash, from perpetrators and those who enable them. There’s been rather a lot of pearl-clutching over those poor abusers who have lost jobs. JK Rowling has nailed her colours to the mast and become part of this backlash, telling young people that actually, she’s “genuinely happy” to have a wife-beater starring in her cash cow. That she doesn’t think abusers should have to face consequences, and it’s all gone a little too far.

Rowling likes to pretend that she’s objective, that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: this pervades much of the politics she has communicated. In reality, you’re always picking a side. And in this instance, the side she’s picked is the side of the abusers. She can use all of the excuses in the world, but this is the meat of it. With her weasel words, she’s laid it all out, that she believes domestic violence to be acceptable under certain circumstances.

I cannot emphasise enough how potentially dangerous this message is to send to her young audience, just beginning to see that domestic violence is unacceptable, and then seeing a person they respect saying “actually, no, it isn’t.”

I hope this film is a fucking flop. I really do. I hope audiences are wiser than JK Rowling, and will not accept a film showcasing a washed-up perpetrator of domestic violence. I hope that Johnny Depp becomes the cinematic equivalent of the coconut Quality Street. I hope that JK Rowling is wrong, and that all the fuss about him isn’t a gobby few spoilsports, and that more of us think his casting is inappropriate than I fear.

Sadly, we’re up against a lot. We’re up against power, and had a brief little window in which to speak truth to it. I believe that JK Rowling, in her “I hear your concerns and I couldn’t give a shit” statement, may have kicked that window shut, and all who speak with it.

I don’t doubt that by writing this piece I will draw the ire of the “women are lying bitches” crowd. I accept that, because I know that they’re afraid that one day, they’ll feel the consequences of violence against women becoming unacceptable, too.

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Witch hunt.

Content note: this post discusses sexual violence, rape apologism and historical femicides

Picture a witch. The worst, wickedest witch you can. The kind of witch who causes crops to fail, floats in water due to Satan’s power, and all-round causes trouble for men.

Your witch doesn’t look like a powerful white man accused of sexual violence, does she?

So why is it, then, that whenever a powerful white man is accused of sexual violence, his defenders rally around and decry the whole thing as a witch hunt?

In the early modern period, many Europeans were killed in witch hunts. Up to 90% of these people were women (ETA I HAVE BEEN CALLED OUT ON THIS AND I AM WRONG. Read this thread. I have erased trans women in this article. READ THIS THREAD. I just want to clarify my stance that of COURSE when I use the term “women” I am including trans women. Every time. But I can do a lot more to be clear about this. I also always welcome call-outs. I’m trying, but I’m still capable of being wrong. I unconditionally apologise for any harm I caused by blarting my cluelessly cis opinions.)These so-called witches were denounced, blamed and ultimately tortured and killed.

The sort of person who cries “witch hunt!” are devoid of any analysis of what actually occurred in the witch hunts and witch trials. Yes, members of the community would accuse the perceived witch. That’s where the similarities end. See, witchcraft and consorting with the devil is bullshit. Sexual violence is not. Sexual violence is frighteningly common, and a lot of men are very willing to admit to having raped someone if the r-word is never used. When a man is accused of sexual violence by one woman, statistically it’s far more likely than not that he did it. When he is accused by multiple women, it becomes a near-certainty. Contrast that with the likelihood that a gobby woman caused a prize calf to come out looking a bit weird by casting a spell.

The profile of the witch was a working-class woman known for a “quarrelsome and aggressive nature“. When men were accused, they, too, were typically working class. Witch hunts were undeniably gendered, with perhaps a class component involved too. It is a very different kettle of fish to accusations of sexual violence levelled at men powerful enough to believe themselves able to do what they want.

It is not hysteria, nor a moral panic, to level true allegations. And, indeed, it’s well-documented that survivors speaking out encourage more survivors to come forward.

For a powerful white man who is also a creep, perhaps survivors coming forward can feel a little like a witch hunt. I’ve written before, on the topic of trigger warnings, that white boys are wrapped in cotton wool their whole life. The same applies here. These men have not experienced true adversity in their lives. They are pampered and protected from ever feeling even vaguely uncomfortable; thinking about how their behaviour might affect other people, and how other people might be experiencing considerably harder lives, is an alien concept. They project their discomfort onto everyone else, blissfully unaware that for the rest of us, it’s not about feelings, but about material circumstances–because, for them, it’s all about his own feelings.

For a powerful white man who has escaped accountability for his actions all of his life, accountability must feel like persecution. And the threat of being held accountable may feel like a witch hunt for men who are aware that they, too, could be held accountable for the exact same thing.

But it is not the same thing, and it never was. These are people who cannot grasp the facts about what a witch hunt actually constituted. They centre themselves in a massive-scale historical femicide, because they are incapable of imagining the world not revolving around them.

So. Powerful white men are not the victims of a witch hunt when sexual violence allegations surface. But nonetheless, there usually is a witch hunt around this time: of survivors.

A moral panic tends to surface, and a round of denunciations comes. The victims of this witch hunt fit the historical profile: they are women speaking out of turn. If you want to see a witch hunt around allegations of sexual violence, look no further than the survivors speaking out.

Every time, it is the same. The survivors’ behaviour is scrutinised, they are smeared, they are accused of all sorts of horrific acts, they are vilified as “grotesque”. All of it, just like shagging Satan helps you kill fields of wheat, is fictitious. It happens in the media, and I have witnessed it too many times to count in networks I occupy when survivors have attempted to speak out against abusers. The function of this is likely much the same as the function of the historical witch hunts: to keep women in their place and to protect power.

That is what a witch hunt looks like; not survivors finally coming forward about mass abusers.

I write this article, partially because once again a rich and powerful white man has been accused by multiple women, and the old media narratives have emerged. But I also write this, fully in the knowledge that the next time a rich and powerful white man is accused, the exact same thing will happen once again. I don’t believe I’ll break the cycle in writing this down, but it saves me having to comment to the exact same effect on every damn time it pops up.

The real witch hunt is never, and has never been, about the men accused. It’s always been the survivors who have been hunted.

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Hijacking Con Air as utopian anarchist propaganda

Content note: this post contains Con Air spoilers, if you don’t know what goes down in a 20 year old film. It also mentions rape. 

After reclaiming Die Hard and Fight Club for the feminist cause, allow me to explain to you why 1997’s preposterous action thriller Con Air is, in fact, utopian anarchist propaganda.

Yes, really.

Con Air is an all-star vehicle for explosions, bunnies, Steve Buscemi channelling Hannibal Lecter, and a surprisingly progressive presentation of criminal and criminality. I’m going to assume you’ve watched this movie, or at least read the Wikipedia summary, as frankly I cannot be bothered to recount it for you. Basically, a lot of shit blows up, metaphorically and literally, when prisoners on a charter flight hijack the plane with a plot to fly off to a non-extradition country. Nonetheless, the most implausible thing about this film is that they sent a white military man with no criminal record to prison for killing an obnoxious working class guy.

The state is shit…

The view of the prison-industrial complex presented in Con Air is not a rosy one in the slightest. Neither, in fact, is any institution of the state. It is entirely the fault of the state that any of this happened at all.

First, let’s look at what a fucking awful idea it is to pack an aeroplane full of the nastiest prisoners in the first place. The plan, from the state’s perspective, is that they would like to fill up a shiny new supermax prison that they have just built. And it didn’t even occur to them that these nasty prisoners might not want to go to a supermax prison, and might think about saying fuck that shit. There is a long list of people who would not be dead had capitalism and government not colluded to make a lot of money by building a very large prison and having to fly people across the country to populate it.

Now, I get that this is very much a pre-9/11 film, and therefore perhaps inadequate precautions are taken to defend against hijacking. But nevertheless, as soon as the hijacking attempt begins, in effect the state’s action is to hand the hijackers a gun.

Due to shitty communication between state agencies, there are two guns within the cabin of the plane, and the other, too, is swiftly taken by the prisoners. Later in the film, a cache of weapons is discovered in the hold of the plane, including fucking rocket launchers. Every single weapon the prisoners use is a literal weapon of the state, and the state pretty much handed those weapons over.

So, the state supplied prisoners with an aeroplane and a bunch of weapons. Oh, and also a pilot, because nobody at any point thought it would be a bad idea to put a prisoner who knows how to fly a plane onto their sodding plane.

Those are the big fuck-ups, incidentally. We also see numerous safeguarding infarctions, most egregiously the failure to provide a diabetic prisoner with his medication in a timely fashion: that insulin should have been administered long before Baby-O ever boarded the plane.

The state personnel, our personifications of the state, are not all that bright. They are easily fooled, over-confident in their equipment and processes, and unwilling to listen to anything that might suggest they are anything less than total fucking supermen. In reality, they are a bunch of man-children, eager to play with their favourite toys.

The exception is John Cusack’s character, Vince Larkin, who is rightly critical and concerned throughout. Without Larkin, the prisoners’ plan to fly off into liberty would have been realised. It is he who spots the flaws in the staid, conservative state’s response. Larkin has an analysis of the social model of crime, derided by his colleagues. And he saves the day by stealing a car, then a bulldozer, then a motorbike, because laws about vehicular ownership are an obstruction to getting things done.

Our other of-the-state but not of-the-state character is Nicolas Cage’s Cameron Poe, a prisoner about to be released on parole and former ranger. Like Larkin, Poe is perfectly willing to go off the script of the laws of the land in order to save the day, and as well as some assaults, desecration of a corpse, and handling firearms that he is not licensed to handle, he joins Larkin in a spot of theft of a vehicle.

…but people are all right

For a film with a body count as high as Con Air, there is surprisingly little mindless violence on display. Sure, there’s heaps of violence, but the vast majority of it is not mindless in the slightest.

Let’s be clear: Con Air takes place under exceptional circumstances. There is violence, and almost all of the violent acts presented to the audience serve a function. For the most part, the violence is to achieve a goal it is difficult to argue with: liberty. The prisoners want freedom, and they are handed an opportunity to take it rather than live out the rest of their days in a supermax prison. This is why they kill, with the targets predominantly being state agents and those who do anything to oppose the plan.

Violence in Con Air is generally a purposeful act towards a goal. The very literal anarchy following the removal of state forces is not a descent into senseless chaos, but rather, a kind of order emerges as we see the characters work together towards a mutual goal. Together, the prisoners solve problems that arise, such as inconvenient deaths that could have ruined a deception; digging out the plane from the sand; and landing a plane under incredibly difficult conditions. It is possible, had they escaped, that perhaps they would have lived out their time in peace.

Two of the prisoners on the plane are explicitly labelled “criminally insane”, yet their actions appear contrary to the label slapped upon them. John Malkovich’s Cyrus the Virus is a rational man, never committing violence without reason, dedicated only to his pursuit of freedom. Steve Buscemi’s Garland Greene is a serial killer, brought aboard the plane in a mask. When presented with the opportunity to murder a little girl, he does not take it and befriends the child. He appears to end up peacefully, as a professional gambler in Las Vegas.

Some of the prisoners’ reasons for being in prison in the first place are presented to us, and again, they do not always seem irrational: for example Ving Rhames’s Diamond Dog has his crime fully outlined: he blew up an NRA meeting and said they represented the “basest negativity of the white race”. He’s not wrong there.

Indeed, the only particularly mindlessly violent character we see is serial rapist Johnny-23. However, all of the characters explicitly reject his behaviour, and some of the prisoners make it their business to protect a female prison guard from him. Not just our good guys, like Poe and Baby-O, but Cyrus, too, uses threats to ensure that Johnny-23 will behave himself. It is only when Cyrus is not present that Johnny-23 makes an attempt: and is immediately, gratifyingly, taken out by Poe.

DON’T! TREAT! WOMEN! LIKE! THAT!

The characters in Con Air have better politics about sexual violence and dealing with rapists in their midst than far too many anarchist men! They’re also more accepting of trans identities than too many anarchos to mention: when a trans prisoner expresses her gender identity, the characters are quick to accept her.

As if this is not enough, the point is driven home to us at the very end, where money begins to rain on the Vegas Strip. Infinite wealth falls into the hands of the proletariat–and all of the criminality and violence ceases completely. All crimes are crimes of necessity, Con Air tells us.

It is entirely plausible that, had the prisoners’ plot succeeded, everything would have turned out fine. Most of them aren’t just killing for funsies–they’re committing violence for a very specific purpose.

Give me a sequel

Con Air is high up my list of films I’d love to see a sequel to, and here’s why: we need it. The prison-industrial complex has only ratcheted up its game in the last 20 years. How much worse would it be with better weapons and post-9/11 security? Some of the same characters would likely still be in the system. And fuck it, let’s have a women’s prison on that plane: I want to see women committing perfectly explicable acts of violence in the name of liberty, as well as men.

And this time, let’s give everyone a happy ending.

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