Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"I" statements and anecdotes

I've had experience in multiple queer discussion groups, and one common practice is to first lay the ground rules of a safe space.  The purpose of the ground rules is to make sure the discussion is a positive experience for everyone, despite their diverse experiences and circumstances.  For example, you're not supposed to "out" people if you see them on the street.

One common rule is that you should stick to "I" statements.  Instead of saying, "Well, we gays sure like our parties," it is better to say, "I sure like my parties".  Or instead of, "Your statement is harmful to femme men," you would say, "As a femme guy, I feel hurt by your statement."

I'm given to understand that "I" statements are used for a variety of purposes, and there are a variety of ways of interpreting the practice.  I want to add my own fanciful interpretation of the practice.

We all know, from skepticism 101, that anecdotes are unreliable as evidence.  There is a strong selection bias in what experiences we remember, and what experiences we choose to spread around.  Our experiences do not occur in controlled circumstances, and it is easy to miss important contextual information.  Even more errors are introduced by the game of telephone.  And at best, an anecdote is a sample size of one.

And yet, there is an undeniable value to anecdotes in our everyday circumstances.  If a friend tells me to try Sizzling Rice Soup, because anecdotally, it is so awesome, I'm not going to demand a peer-reviewed double-blinded study to support their claims.  I'm going to say, "I've never heard of that!  I might try some later."  The anecdote is valuable, because there are no relevant studies, because it's not worth the effort to look up studies even if they were available, and because the anecdote is what prompted me to consider Sizzling Rice Soup in the first place.

In a queer discussion group, we might talk about how we interact with our families, with different social scenes, with partners.  On these topics, anecdotes are very appropriate.

But it's important that we keep them as anecdotes.  If I'm into crazy college parties,* and so are most of my gay friends (likely because I met them at parties), I may not conclude that this is a general truth about gay people.  So rather than making a general statement, I make an "I" statement, explaining that I, for one, like parties.  This way, I avoid erasing the non-partiers among us, and I avoid making inaccurate generalizations based on mere anecdotes.

*This is just a hypothetical.  I'm not taking any stance on crazy college parties.

It's hard to avoid making at least a few generalizations though.  Just a few paragraphs ago I said, "We all know, from skepticism 101," generalizing from my own experiences to say something about my readers.  Defensible, indefensible?  In my experience, discussion groups don't actively enforce the rule about "I" statements, because it could get annoying very quickly.  Take away what you will.