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08 August 2011 @ 08:42 pm
On the Term "Mind Reader" and Psi as Sarcasm  
While a substantial amount of the content of this blog is aimed at talking about presentations of psi in fiction, there are nonetheless some important points to be made concerning how we are talked about in real life.

Please see below.

Words are very powerful at framing others' reality and what is OK and acceptable and good and right and proper and beautiful -- and what is not. When folks say "that's so gay," for example, they may not be consciously intending to hurt real gay or lesbian people, but this language has that impact and it should stop. "Well, I never meant it about any REAL gay people" is just an attempt at dismissing and justifying the hurtful speech.

One of the many things I am sensitized to as a real life psi person living in this culture is the way in which psi is used as a form of "rhetorical sarcasm," usually to express the speaker's belief that someone has done something unreasonable, that the speaker finds particularly offensive. I can't offhand think of any other group of people who are invoked, as sarcasm, to say, "you are making unreasonable demands" or "you have unrealistic expectations."

The "unrealistic" element of this is key, because the underlying assumption is that we do not exist -- we are quintessentially "unrealistic."

1. Using people as sarcastic rhetorical devices is not OK

One common example is the expression, "What do you think I am/expect me to be, a mind reader?", which is often used when someone is trying to make a sarcastic point which translates as "What do you expect me to do, the impossible?" or "What do you expect me to be, omniscient?" or "How the hell was I supposed to know that if you didn't tell me?" or "You have no right to be making such negative judgments about others, there's no way you could know such things." (See Part 5 below.)

The premise is that thought transference is not possible, and that there are no real people impacted by the use of this expression. We already know the person who says "What do you expect me to be, a mind reader?" is not telepathic, that's not actually news to anyone. It's sarcasm. It's said in anger, in frustration, it's said to put the other person down or vindicate some alleged "point," to say that what the other person has said or done or assumed is "unreasonable."

It implies that had the speaker really been a "mind reader," the misunderstanding would not/could not have happened, which is completely false. It reinforces the narrative that if people who experienced thought transference were to exist, they would be held to completely impossible standards. (See Part 3 below.) And it hurts when the only time you hear non-psi people even make mention of experiences like yours is in sarcasm or anger. That's even worse than just not getting any messages at all.

It's a close cousin of "What do you think I am, psychic?" Here is a real example:

In a discussion of an unrelated subject in the Livejournal of a casual internet acquaintance, back in 2009 (original post unavailable, because the owner removed it), someone who I do not know made a comment to the effect of, "You can't expect [others] to be psychic."

To which I replied, "You're misusing 'psychic.' ^_^ Psychic/psi people need to pay at least as much attention to the boundaries of others, and their own personal boundaries, as others do. Psi awarenesses do not grant people special awarenesses of others' boundaries beyond the traditional clues -- if anything, it means we have to be extra conscious about attending to where other people perceive their boundaries to be."

The other person replied: "What I'm saying is that people are not mind readers, and if you expect them to be, you are not acting rationally and you will be disappointed. If you do not take responsibility for clearly communicating your own boundaries, you don't get to yell at people for violating them."

While I entirely agree with that last sentence (except in the case of sexual assault), absolutely none of this has to do with psi people, which I established in my response above. There is no need to invoke us as rhetorical sarcasm (and invoke our non-existence; I don't count in "people"?) in order to make that point, and yet when I pointed this out to this person, she did it again, and just changed "psychic" to "mind reader."

Sadly, this person did not stop there. She went on:

"Most people who use the term in this context (eg, "don't expect people to be psychic; you have to tell them what you really want/need") are not talking about the supernatural at all. They may not even believe in anything supernatural at all, and are likely to think you're slightly nuts for bringing it up. I know that I'm definitely having a WTF moment here."

I never said anything about being "supernatural," nor do I need 'splaining to (see mansplaining, whitesplaining defined and explained here) about what people (by which she means people who are not psi) "actually mean" when they use this expression. It is condescending, even patronizing, to try to "educate me" on what this expression is used to "really mean," as if I haven't been dealing with this for years, and then deliver this "education" with rock solid confidence even though she has no idea what she's talking about (I never said anything about the "supernatural").

For extra added 'splaining, she was also compelled to add that "most people" will think I'm "slightly nuts" for daring even to point this issue out, and naturally counts herself in that number of "most people." (And "most people" will think I'm "slightly nuts", just for pointing this out! Look folks, ableism!) She has so much privilege here as a default, non-psi person, that any psi person who steps up to (politely!) correct her is giving her a "WTF moment."

She went on:

"However, since you have, it would seem logical that if someone did claim to be psychic in the literal sense, then they should in fact have a special awareness of what other people were thinking and feeling. That doesn't seem to be the case, leading me to wonder what people do actually mean when they claim to be psychic."

Never mind that this first sentence (with respect to boundaries) is explicitly and exactly what I, an actual psi person (I said "we" above) challenged and corrected in my response to her. What "seems logical" to this (non-psi) person apparently trumps the actual lived experience of the psi person who corrects her.

Her ignorant assumptions about my lived experience remain, however, how my senses "should in fact" work, because that's what "seems logical" (to her). In other words, if I "really" were psi, my senses would work the way she expects them to. And then, since she's never met anyone who's lived up to her erroneous expectations (see Part 3 below), in sentence two, she says that she doesn't understand why anyone would identify as "psychic" (excuse me, "claim" to be psychic), and probably thinks it's a lot of crock. (Does she think people will be lining up to explain it to her, when she thinks she already knows how it's "supposed to" work? Where do you all think she got these ideas about how it's "supposed to" work, hm?)

Yes, our identities and lived experiences are usually framed as "claims." I will cover that one in another post.

For what it's worth, we do have a "special awareness" of what others are thinking and feeling -- this just does not mean we somehow don't need to communicate about boundaries, or check for understanding in general.

My initial attempt at correcting this person resulted only in 'splaining, telling me that "most people" would agree with her, and that her incorrect beliefs about me are nonetheless "logical."

Sadly, this response is typical.

There was no further communication because the LJ owner deleted the post.

Here is another example of psi people being invoked sarcastically, in this case to make the point that "we should not have unrealistic expectations of others":

A blog post on 'nice guys'

"But if you never make your intentions clear, you can't complain that your One True Love didn't read your mind. If she views you as just a friend, she may think you view her that way too. After all, you say you're her friend, right?"

We're talking about guys who never made their "intentions" explicit. But this doesn't mean that the women are unaware of these intentions -- maybe, just maybe, they know but are ignoring those intentions because they are not romantically interested back, but don't want to bring it up and appear confrontational or rude. ("I know you're interested in dating me, but actually, I really don't want to date you, I'd like to just keep being friends. Yes, I mean I'm never interested in dating you -- I do really like how things are going now, as it is. OK? Can we do that?")

But whatever one has to say about "nice guys," none of this has anything to do with real thought transference. Again, we are invoked simply to say, "You can't complain that she didn't do the impossible." Because telepathy is impossible.

Guess what? These unspoken intentions can be completely obvious without psi. Guess what else? Even if she is aware of what you're thinking and/or feeling in a psi sense, that doesn't mean she's any more likely to bring it up first!

Or be interested in you romantically, of course.

And here is another example:

"[He] didn't know about your sexuality, he can't read your mind. He didn't say anything vulgar or rude, and I think you just needed to find an excuse to feel insulted."

Wow! She's only offended by his behavior because she's not straight! How totally unreasonable of her to find his behavior offensive anyway. She couldn't expect him to do the impossible and know that she's not straight, or that his behavior could be considered rude, or that his advances may be unwelcome! How unreasonable of her! (The guy in question only asked her not to tell the manager because he could "get in trouble.")

Telepathy is invoked sarcastically as a "brazen impossibility" -- clearly, any "real" telepathic person would of course be able to know the sexual orientation of everyone they see in the supermarket. (See Part 3 below.)

No, real telepathic people do not have the ability automatically to know the sexual orientation of everyone we see.

None of this has anything to do with us, it has to do with a straight man putting down an asexual woman and trying to score a "point."

2. When people use expressions like these, what they are talking about never has anything to do with real psi people, or real thought transference

Expressions such as "what do you think I am, a mind reader?" are always used in circumstances which have nothing at all to do with us. People who experience thought transference on a regular basis still need to have good verbal communication with others, to check for understanding, etc. in order to form and maintain healthy relationships. So if people have failed to communicate well or have failed to check for understanding, recall that this is something that can (and does) happen with psi people too, even between people who experience thought transference. We may use words differently sometimes (such as with each other), and sometimes we may not use words to express things that others have to use words for, but this doesn't mean we don't have to check for understanding! In fact, we may have to check for understanding more, because if we know what someone else is getting at and they don't know we know, our assuming they know we know can lead to social FAIL. What matters is not that I know something or that someone else knows something, but that we both know that the other knows. This takes words.

3. We're not perfect, and these expressions create (and reinforce) false standards for us to live up to

"And you call yourself an empath, some empath you are if you could be so insensitive to me."

The expectation that befalls anyone who comes out about being empathic/telepathic is twofold: one, that he/she will be perfect -- will perceive everything, will be omniscient, will never make mistakes, will never have hostile intent -- and two, that he/she will be infinitely sensitive to the needs of others and will always put others' needs over his/her own (even sometimes at considerable self-sacrifice).

If I fail at either of these impossible goals, then I get attacked for not being a "real" or "legitimate" empath or psi person, because I failed at perceiving something which was totally obvious to the speaker (and therefore should have been obvious to me) and/or because I did not respond the way they would have wanted me to respond to show them that I care. Which of course also assumes that I do care, and I must always care, because I just identified as an empath, and therefore am obliged always to care.

So if I mess up or miss something or I don't show compassion in the way they want/expect me to (for whatever reason) or oh, maybe I'm just dealing with my own feelings right then and I'm not attending to anyone else but myself, yeah, I never was REALLY psi, was I. I've totally failed at my existential obligations. (Real psi people never make mistakes -- that's how it works on TV!)

This isn't academic -- I've got this treatment, from family, from friends, from people I've dated. If I'm perceived as doing something selfish, this is a free shot. If they're just mad at me for an apparent "power imbalance" (cough, lovers or would-be lovers), this is a free shot. To "get back at me" for some real or perceived harm, they pull this one out.

Someone I know once wrote, in response to something I had written:

"Dash's reply is excellent but I'd just like to add another point in addition to those ones, which is that 'What do you expect me to be, a mind reader?' makes an inaccurate assessment of what a person with telepathy would actually be able to do. For example, as Dash said, people have expected [him/her] to not only have perfect perception of their feelings but to never, ever do anything that would hurt these feelings, and became hostile about the idea of thought transference when this expectation was violated. That's a lot to live up to. Dash already addressed the expectation of never doing anything to hurt others' feelings, but the expectation of perfect perception is also worth looking at.

"With my bf (who's an empath), I used to run into trouble early in our relationship because he sometimes picked up on my feelings, such as being uncomfortable, without me needing to tell him or do anything. Since I did not have a lot of psi experience at that point, I assumed he would always, unerringly do this and stopped verbalizing some of my needs. Then, when he *didn't* pick up on all of them, I was hurt. Luckily after the second or third time I figured it out - just because someone has a sense, it's not reasonable to expect them to use this sense, unerringly, all the time. It's like dating a person who, for example, can hear, and getting offended and calling their hearing ability into question if they're distracted with something and don't notice you talking to them for a while, or if you sort of mumble something and they don't understand what you said."


The flipside of this is that we can also do a lot of blaming ourselves for not being "perfect" like we see on TV or in books and movies. We can come to consider that presentation to be "real psi" and measure ourselves up against it. It's only "real precognition" if we can predict major world events (and do something to stop them, which is "what we have this ability for," right?). So we must suck if we can't, or if what we are aware of is "inconsequential." It's only "real telepathy" if it works perfectly like it does on TV, consciously, "on command" -- without fail, and like it works in fiction. We're only "real empaths" and "good empaths" if we always put the needs of others over our own, even to the point of seriously neglecting self-care, and our own needs.

O hai internalized oppression! Moving on.

4. The term "mind reader" is itself full of fail

The term is not an "internal descriptor," by which I mean it's not a term psi people made up to talk about psi experiences. I don't know who coined it, but it has more baggage than an international airport (along with the terms "psychic" and "ESP", and even John W. Campbell's term "psionic," which has really changed in meaning since he introduced it around 1957). "Psi" is not without some baggage, too, but I have to start somewhere, even if I know it's not perfect.

The term "mind reader" has an implicit duality: there is one actor over here doing something active to the mind of this other person over there, and that something active is akin to "reading" (a book, etc.).

"Thought transference" (unlike "mind reading") could be one way or both ways and active or passive, and it is consistent with the internally perceived framework -- under which all minds are fluid with each other, whether this is conscious or not. It is consistent with an understanding that transference is a normal process between minds, one that happens regularly on some level for everyone -- not something only very unusual people can "do to" others.

"Thought transference" does not "other" anyone, it doesn't introduce false dichotomies and actors, and you can't easily make it into a noun of agency or identity ("mind reader," "telepath"). You cannot as easily reduce a person to this one trait.

The term "mind reader" also calls up substantial cultural baggage, namely the "othering" connotations of "invasion of privacy," cheating, trespass, violence, and also rape, all of which I will discuss later in this blog. You're such a snoop, you. "Reading" where you "do not belong," like breaking into someone's private journal!

The term also crops up in fiction when the explicit intent is to sensationalize and exaggerate psi for commercial purposes -- there's big money in selling books about exaggerated psi people. Here is an excerpt from the introduction to Anne McCaffrey's To Ride Pegasus (seriously, you just have to open the cover and this is there, before the publication information):

Powers of the Mind

They were a very special group, indeed.

Each one of the women was blessed—or cursed?—in some peculiar way with an extra sense, a unique talent, or an unusual ability . . . something which made them seem very frightening to the rest of the world.

Who could feel easy with a mindreader, a precog . . . or with someone who could teleport? Not many people, that was for sure.

In this one introduction, we are presented as either "blessed" or "cursed" (normal is never an option), we're frightening, no one could possibly feel easy with us, we're either more than or less than human -- certainly "other," we've become reduced to nouns and defined by this trait... we're "peculiar," and the entire "rest of the world" agrees! THE WHOLE WORLD! Every single culture!

That's what that term is and does.

5. Psi as rhetorical sarcasm even crops up in anti-oppression conversations

I hate that this is true. Just like sometimes ableism or homophobia crop up in conversations about race and gender, and vice versa, psi as rhetorical sarcasm can crop up anywhere.

As much as I normally enjoy reading Angry Black Woman, one day I was reading along and came across this. And here I was agreeing with the points ABW made in this post, just like I agreed with the point that everyone needs to be responsible for clearly communicating their own boundaries in the example above, but nonetheless found psi people used as rhetorical sarcasm in the post. (Because, as I opened this post with, "It's not meant to be about REAL psi people.")

"Panelist: A polyamorous woman in a group marriage with [the fake disease] fibromyalgia [I am so glad to know that you're here to tell us who is white, who is not, and also which diseases are real. You must be some sort of psychic doctor, Rachel! --abw]"

So this Rachel called fibromyalgia a "fake disease," which is ableist and offensive, and ABW, in trying to express how unreasonable and offensive this is, compared her (sarcastically) to a "psychic doctor." You know, a doctor who can do the impossible. Because psi is impossible. Someone would have to be "psychic" to know those things (and say those nasty things in response to it).

Really? It's much more likely that this Rachel isn't psi, and she still said that nasty stuff. (And if she is psi, using psi sarcastically still isn't OK.) Psi people do not need to be invoked to make the point that what was said was ableist, dismissive and rude. It's not necessary to be dismissive in order to tell someone else not to be dismissive. (And "psychic doctors," or doctors who happen also to be psi, are not characterized by nastiness or a tendency to tell others that their diseases are "fake" or invalid, which is the other implication here.)

I know, it's "not supposed to be about REAL psi people" (like "that's so gay" isn't supposed to be about REAL gay people). I know this already. But the impact is still there, on real psi people. This one little verbal device is just one of the many ways in which we're told by society, "you're not real," "your experiences are invalid," and "you're totally ridiculous."

"You're so impossible, you're sarcasm."

And speaking of "real" psi folks, since when do non-psi people ever talk about us? When do they ever ask about the impact of a book or movie or television show on us? We're "not real," we're "impossible" -- that is the whole point of invoking us sarcastically!

I am not trying to derail the main argument of ABW's post, which I agree with, or minimize the importance of calling out racism and ableism and other forms of marginalization and oppression. I am saying you don't have to step on us to get there. One could just as easily say, "I am so glad to know that you're here to tell us who is white, who is not, and also which diseases are real. Who put you in charge of policing others' identities?"

You do not have to step on us to get where you're going.
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