Everyone is bad at consent but it’s worth getting better anyways. No one is perfectly autonomous but it’s worth respecting agency anyways. Many of our problems are endemic to the tools we use. These are parts of the truth that often get left out. Sometimes better consent and autonomy practices look like sloppy, complicated cry-fests, not idyllic orgies amidst the fog of rebellion… but sometimes they look like that too.
Real life is way more complicated than any rigid notion of morality can contain. In both our utopian dreams and the day-to-day grind of being humans, trying to interact with other humans is hard. The individual, however unstable and limited as a concept, is the fundamental unit by which most of the ethical considerations of sentient minds must be resolved. However, the limitations of the individual are deeply meaningful and determine, not just edge cases, but also the foundation for our entire system of ethics and radicalism. The limits and contour of individualism have intimate implications for a life that we’re attempting to live with consent and respect for autonomy. This is because they both rely, to a degree, on some form of individualism to derive their meaning. Consent and autonomy are heuristics, or rules of thumb, for engaging in an ethical way in this chaotic system of life. Consent and autonomy generally point to the radical directives we want but when they fail (or are abused), they fail hard. The bottom line is, we can handle more layers than we currently do and we have to if we want to address the more complex dynamics actually inherent to the situations we face. Consent and autonomy are meaningless without an analysis that seeks to maximize interdependent freedom, but with that frame, they form parts of a truly radical approach to ethics and network building.
The above image represents three different but valid lenses for viewing the individual self as it interacts with others. Each of these views represents a different layer of the truth and as such have a certain use as tools for understanding. Consent and autonomy both have complex relationships with individuality and networked interactions. As such, breaking down these three views of self and other better illuminates the limits and strengths of the frameworks of autonomy and consent.
The first represents the kind of static view of individuals and their connections most often employed in terms like ‘community’. This sees the individual as a complete node unto itself with connections represented as static and uniform. This view is also expanded to create unstable fictions in which every so-called “citizen” is considered to be connected uniformly through nationality or every “woman” is connected through womanhood. But more simply, this is also just when you are planning a get-together and thinking in your head about who is friends with who in a broad overview kind of way.
The second image represents the self as slightly more complex and networked but with connections between individuals still essentially uniform. The second model is just a complex self with a static view of its connections with others. This second model can be seen in something like the Dialogical Self theory in psychology, where the networked self is described through the ways in which composite aspects of our psyche dialog internally with each other to create coherence. This theory looks at the voices of all those people and things that influence and comprise us and the ways they live in a micro-society in our minds. This vision recognizes a network of internal nodes (such as these different voices in our heads) forming a dynamic and open-system of information sharing and connectivity seeking to build bridges outside and within itself.
More complex than the previous images, the third view represents the fully networked self and other. It sees individuals as complex maps and the connections between the self and others as additionally forming dynamic networks of connections. This is more the neurophysiological view. In this view, each of these nodes might represent a neural pathway with a thousand individual neurons inside of it. A proper map could contain every single neuron in a brain and its full network with others or even subatomic quarks. This view represents a kind of Venn-diagram of selves where the individual network system overlaps with an infinitesimal sliver of the other. Another form of this view could be looking at the overlap of the ways we use language wherein our connotations are largely completely distinct but that there is enough overlap for us to communicate meaning.
From left to right there is an increase in complexity, entropy, and dynamism whereas from right to left there is an increase in strict individualism, clear notions of selfhood, stasis, autonomy, and boundaries. All three of these views are scalable in the sense that you could add a few more thousand or million people with a billion more connections and the logic would hold. They are all throttled by certain limits on connectivity both structural and personal. All three also contain some form of network density or cluster of node connectivity recognized as an individual such as can be seen in the second and third image. Imagine a situation where two people are walking and talking. The first view sees them as distinct individuals with a connection through which the dialogue passes and boundaries are understood. The second view sees some more complexity in each of the two people such that maybe one of them is strongly identifying with the hungry and tired parts of their self while the other is bouncing between connections between memories, leaving them feeling reflective. The third view sees all of the connections between all of the connotations and parts of each self and the ways that those actively firing parts of each self are connecting with the other. For example, the hungry and tired neuro-physiological network of the one person’s self is making them somewhat distant while the other pings through a winding path of nostalgia. Because the one person is tired and hungry, the memory they respond with and the way they describe it is influenced by their fatigue. It influences what and how they say even though they may not have directly communicated that they’re sleepy and hungry. This means that there’s a connection between the two networks influenced by the internal states and active parts of the networks of both. This example is oversimplified but, modern psychological research into emotional regulation reveals the ways in which people perform a wide range of emotional management and decision-making through interaction with others and a complex networked relationship to the context found in their environment. Because these three views of individual connectedness are better seen as a spectrum than as discrete conceptualizations, this essay will move between all three views for ease of explanation.
Consent and autonomy both depend on some general recognition of a self through which we can determine both unjustified aggression and the locus of choice. For most situations this kind of works fine. Despite what any guru or academic may have said, there is definitely something that roughly aligns with the self or individual. Obviously this does not map perfectly in all ways though. The self is multi-determined, internally contradictory, and deeply interdependent on social interconnectedness. Empathy, for example, is imprecise. The difference between what an injured person feels and what a strongly empathic observer does is proof of self alone but in any case, blood loss only kills one of them. The brain is hundreds of billions of neurons organized into neural pathways and subroutines through repeated channels of action and thought. These paths can and often do contradict each other because the self is a networked phenomenon.
The electrochemical interaction across synapses in our brain are far more direct than trying to explain your subjective experience of reality to another person can ever be. There is a chasm of difference between how two people experience life internally that we can very crudely attempt to describe but of course never completely overcome. We are currently structurally prevented from direct connection by our hardware. If we weren’t then it would be magically possible for oppressed groups to transfer the entire experience of their lives into the minds of their oppressors. We are different than each other and at least some part of that difference is currently unable to be bridged.
Additionally, no matter how tight a group is, the map of connections between individuals and their whole personalities will never be as complex as the inner-workings of a single brain echoing information across a nervous system and even from things like gut-flora. However, we are not just strict siloed individuals. We influence each other and change each other’s minds. Our tightly networked neural pathways manage to get primitive renderings of their complexity across the gap of space through speech (or sign) or wires and pages through writing. This changes our lens and suddenly we aren’t just static individuals, we’re complex networks interacting with other complex networks. From here we can see that our internal communication may have more direct pathways but there are bridges between the different islands of complex networks currently housed in individual bodies. We care for, try to understand, impact, and connect with each other meaningfully despite our separation.
When we begin to look at the networked self as this sort of fractal-esque motion of information flows, the problem of how the self both does and does not exist fades away: both can be true without being mutually exclusive. There are patterned density clusters that represent individuals but the bridges between them function as the space through which both influence and understanding may pass. These bridges are the channels through which we try to pass the wildly intricate subtleties of consent and autonomy.
Consent is mostly in the realm of the third and most networked view of self. It is wrapped up in all the pathways and contradictions of subtleties that make us and our dynamic relationships what they are. Consent is constantly changing as is the terrain which means that it requires the most complex lens we have in order to be properly grappled with. It also has qualities of the first and second, such as the importance of boundaries. However, boundaries can be understood as coming from a complexly networked self and dynamic connection and not just a static individual and their connection.
This essay is not about sex, although that is a small part of it. Consent is so much bigger than sex. To many, it’s the foundation for the dream of a truly voluntary society free of coercion where positive freedom is maximized. In many ways, consent embodies much of what the anarchist dream has always been about and to many radicals, it is the foundation for their entire radicalism. This piece is also not about sexual assault per se, because, to an extent, we recognize that this is Bad. This consent section is about the subtle forms of coercion and violence that are hard to articulate because they break our models but nonetheless can add-up to complex trauma. It’s scary to write about the more subtle stuff because obviously I too am implicated. I’ve had breakdowns of communication and misunderstandings around consent that tore through my heart. This isn’t some high and mighty self-righteous tirade– it’s a path for questioning.
A brave and thorough investigation will reveal that perfect consent is impossible. Furthermore, some degree of coercion is omnipresent in just about everything we do. We are left doing our best with the tools we’re given, while constantly running up against their limits. Although our goal should be to minimize coercion, we have to hurt and violate each other in small ways in order to accomplish literally anything not to mention something grander like a long-term romantic partnership or forming a superorganism. The goal of consent is to minimize coercion so that we can interact more fluidly to achieve our interdependent goals whether those are sex or just buying some bread. The higher the stakes of the interaction, the more important are our recognitions of the subtle ways in which our processes are mediated and throttled. Within every consent process, there are hidden and subtle boundaries. Literally, no process is free of them. Consent is never an end goal, but rather an anarchistic process of improvement.
Infinite recursions: At the most basic level, consent is an infinite recursion because you can’t ask for consent to ask for consent (ad infinitum). Maybe this seems like an irrelevant philosophical notion but it’s very practical even if it has far-reaching implications. Any femme who has ever had someone (usually a dude) barrage them with comments (or pictures) about sexual or romantic attraction against their consent knows how this can really truly be a violation even if nothing physical ever comes of it.1 It’s for this reason that straight women often deeply fear and despise online dating or even just being too visible on the internet. A random dude asking something sexually creepy on the subway is in the same category of recursive consent problems as the best friend who asks their friend out on a date and fundamentally changes the context of the relationship by revealing a sexual or romantic attraction. There are plenty of other ways this can come up too, such as if someone wants to have a conversation but the timing is wrong. Or that co-worker who never says it, but you can always feel them lusting and thinking about you sexually. This means that just by using language (including bodily and subtle cues) to express a desire of any kind (not just sexual) we may have already violated someone’s consent. This means that the paths between networked selves through which we pass consent are inherently compromised even if they’re our only tools. Yet we have no other choice. We have to communicate to reach towards consent. It’s a catch-22.
Power differentials: A wide range of power differentials mediate and obstruct our consent processes. The most obvious are the wide range of -isms such as racism, transphobia, classism, and the like. These differences in power change the way we think and act and what we are able to access in the world whether we are the receiver of oppression or the enacter. These are structural, interpersonal, and cultural. These factors impact our consent processes through phenomena such as entitlement and lack of knowledge about the subtle variables and traumas impacting each others decision-making process. They can be more severe though of course through things like the systematic abuse of positions of power in organizational hierarchies that tend to coincide with whiteness and cis-masculinity and disproportionately impact women of color. These forms of violence mean that even if we can pass information through the bridges between ourselves we may still have internal biases or internalized oppressions that prevent healthy ecosystems of self and other.
Another less discussed form of power mediation is through social capital which is a kind of interpersonal power which, for our purposes here, functions a lot like ‘coolness.’ There doesn’t even need to be a universal metric or unified hierarchy of coolness for it to be at play. Social capital can just be the benefits of being situated at the center of some network cluster as the result of being able to better navigate the methods of in-group signaling. You can be the most powerful nerd in an uncool scene and the same problems still apply. Social capital deeply underpins radical communities both as a positive in terms of our networks of support and trust, but also as a vehicle for people to coercively advance their own micro projects of power. Social capital can disrupt and obstruct consent processes like any form of power accumulation but what’s unique about social capital in radical communities is that it doesn’t always map so clearly to other more structural forms of power and can instead come from other aspects such as tribal standing in a clique who controls access to spaces, resources, and communities.2 Additionally, the movement and accumulation of social capital is harder to map, track, and prove and as such, less easily subject to accountability.
Although there are of course unjustified exceptions, these forms of power mediation tend to punch-down the ladder of power and impact the marginalized disproportionately. This is due in no small part due to the fact that power is so distorting that it gives people literal brain damage that interferes with their ability to engage with information about how their actions impact others. A dirty fact is that consent is harder and requires more work the more layers of power differentials we are traversing. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t traverse difference, our collective survival absolutely depends on it–it’s just that it can be really fucking hard (and really powerfully beautiful and fun!).
Contradictory selves: Because our selves are networked, we have contradictory motives. We have mutually exclusive neural pathways and utility functions within us all competing for actualization. This can take many forms such as remaining friends with someone you despise. Feeling confused about what you want or even forms of dissociation. Doing something out of obligation even though you don’t want to. In a situation where we are confused about exactly what we want, but play along anyways despite a lingering doubt, we may implicate the other person in a violation of ourselves which they would surely have avoided had they been given more information. The source of many “unplanned” pregnancies is a contradiction between the conscious self that doesn’t want a baby, the conscious self that craves risky sex, and the unconscious reproductive drive. Codependency will have people serving a utility function at odds with the ones they state or even consciously recognize.
Probably the most potent example of the kind of fracturing of the networked self and the difficulty of communicating that is trauma. Trauma hides aspects of ourselves from ourselves making our internal network connectivity weaker. Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy works to create strong self-leadership in the many subpersonalities and frozen parts of us that make up a whole person. Trauma can create strange linkages and neural-pathways distorting our understanding of reality and causing extreme depression and anxiety. It impacts our motivations for doing things. It can literally fracture or dissociate people’s entire personalities and all of this has powerful implications for consent. This is especially true when the consent process at hand is in any way related (even if only in their mind) to the trauma they survived.
In order to accurately communicate all of this complexity, we require our many contradictory motivations to be clear to us and to come across and connect to the appropriate motivations in the other person’s head. Anything less can be manipulation even if realistically it’s impossible to do this perfectly and it’s actually an ongoing process of discovery and vulnerability. However, we should be able to express and understand these motivations so that each person’s consent and choices can be as informed as possible. In the case of codependency, maybe I wouldn’t agree to having someone help me move if I knew it was deeply motivated by a martyrdom and savior complex that would eventually turn into manipulation and toxic resentment. But maybe, by accurately communicating such things we can, to a degree, take the power out of them and make better choices around the edges of our contradictions and trauma.
These reveal the ways in which withholding can be a form of dishonesty even if in real-life it is as impossible as it is unwise to constantly disclose an approximation of your full self. But ethical consent processes require a degree of this vulnerability and exposure, without which, the consent is shallow and ill-informed. If both parties know this and agree to those terms in a desire to seemingly lessen certain risks, such as in “casual sex” or a conversation with the teller at the grocery store, then there is a kind of consent to the lack of consent even if the reality of such tradeoffs often still involve some degree of harm.
Alternatively to the bane of shallowness and dishonesty, is the human capacity, or even tendency towards, manipulative persuasion. A manipulator may be acting consciously or unconsciously and be appealing to specific parts of the other’s networked self and strategically downplaying others as a means of coercively achieving their own ends by exploiting the bug that is our structural processing limits.
Structural Limits: Without letting my anarcho-transhumanist flag fly too hard here, there are structural throttles that break our consent processes such as, the limits of language, the speed and depth with which we are capable of expressing ourselves, and very practically our ability to multi-process sensory input and perform meta-analysis. The world and our experiences are way more complex than we can express across the channels we have available. Language itself, like the Buddhists and Zerzan insist, has a type of violence to it in how it abstracts from the complexity of experience (not that experience = understanding). This means we have no choice but to lie and withhold and ignore — because we’re not capable of anything more. Phrases like, “I can’t find the words.”, or “I’m too overwhelmed.” all reflect the paralysis caused by our overload ceilings. These are exacerbated when used as attack vectors whether consciously or as a coping mechanism by would-be manipulators. For example, a targeted and deeply immediate barrage of emotional intensity at someone (hyper empaths are especially vulnerable targets) can quickly overload someone, making them vulnerable to manipulation. Meanwhile, a consensually emotionally intense conversation with someone is less likely to break these levies. These limits can lead to misunderstandings which can facilitate pain and coercion even between people who have no desire to do so. The extent to which we can be seen or see another has structural limits and without a more full recognition, our consent processes are concurrently throttled.
Our Consent is Broken
All of these examples shine light on some of the ways that consent breaks down. Within any of them there is the room for individualized abuse. Also, reflections of certain inherent limits beyond our control just make the process hard, or even endemically haunted by its own inability.3 No matter how interconnected we are, the consent of the individual is still and should remain a kind of baseline for a huge range of heuristic ethical decision-making processes with which we are faced. Additionally, it’s time to start recognizing how and why breakdowns can occur even if they are subtle, and begin to make paths towards a more flexible and layered understanding of interpersonal ethics that maximizes our interdependently networked freedom, not just minimizes harm
Autonomy is more so in the realm of the first, and least complex, view of the self. It recognizes a kind of individuality that honors things like personal boundaries and personal choice. Although autonomy is far closer to this static view of individuality, it can also be complexified to include a recognition of the complex self-building dynamic connections as long as those connections are not seen as undermining the primacy of individual choice.
Autonomy is the center of so much radical discourse that it almost lacks meaning at this point. It’s generally about respecting people’s wishes and helping to cultivate their freedom and agency. Much like consent, these are crucial goals for a society to have. The bottom line of the critique of it is that no matter how much we have the right to make our own decisions, they fucking impact other people. That’s not to say that an honest rendition of autonomy or interdependent individualism can’t contain this but that, in practice, it’s often lost.4 Here’s one example I’ve seen:
Partner One: “Why did you cheat on me with my best friend and lie about it, asshole?”
Partner Two: “Why are you not respecting my autonomy? That’s not very anarchistic of you. You’re acting like a fascist.”
Partner One: “What the actual fuck are you talking about?”
I use this story because it clarifies the way in which people can use language not just in insidious ways, but also actively use the concept of autonomy to minimize the harm done to another by broken trust. Sure the dickhead should be able to sleep with whomever they want that consents! We all should! But the impacts of our choices on others, even when those impacts are emotional and not physical, can still be profound even if, by some magic anarchist wand, they shouldn’t. But is it even true they shouldn’t? Or would that be a world of perfect autonomy where none of us gave a shit about each other and our trust meant nothing? Maybe that would be a kind of freedom but it wouldn’t be robust and it certainly wouldn’t allow for meaningful interconnectivity.
Obligation: We radicals can generally be a quite caring and empathetic bunch. We value mutual-aid and try to support each other, especially those most targeted by systems of violence. Or at least, that’s how we prefer to see ourselves. What’s harder to see is not just the rampant sheltering of extremely violent sociopaths in radical communities, but also just the empowering of your average petty manipulative tyrant with an ax to grind or some bullshit to get done. We are absolute suckers for being manipulated through obligation and doing it to each other under the guise of loyalty or whatever other psychosocial mine-field.
Maybe that’s just because we experience such intense situations, so far beyond our abilities to fix and then our mental illnesses and coping mechanisms rush in to make it all seem even more daunting. We need more help than we’ll get but we do our best to support each other. Yet, the more extreme the suffering of one of our friends, the higher the stakes of obligation, not just in terms of a personal desire to help, but also in terms of things like social standing in the tribe. This is a very dangerous form of social capitalism which makes it extremely difficult to set the boundaries we need in order to maintain some semblance of our autonomy in an enmeshed and networked world. The power of our ability to create tightly connected communities creates a plethora of tribalistic risks.
Obligation, whether interpersonal or unquestioned tradition, is an absolute poison to mutual-aid.5 It undermines the spirit of free association driving our project and creates echo-chambers of resentment and over-exertion where people struggle to take care of themselves in the ways they need. Obligation is the hidden demand inside a request backed up by an even more hidden series of threats. And yet, building a world or network not devastated by obligation is extremely difficult because the stakes are so high. Sure we have the right to say no to doing something we most certainly do not have the spoons for, but what about when we know that literally no one else is going to do it and that it really does have to get done? As a result of ritualized mandatory gift giving, my mom felt obligation (and autonomous desire) to buy us Christmas presents she absolutely couldn’t afford and felt shame that she couldn’t. These are awful, and quite commonplace, dilemmas of poverty. Countless are the situations in which we are both the least appropriate and only available person to do a task and so, we eat crow. Time and time again until the pain just weighs us down and we begin to snap and frizz at the ends as the burnout creeps in.
Obligation complicates our perfectly healthy and radical notions of autonomy with the fucking hammer of interdependent reality. As David Graeber describes, debt (a form of obligation) can also be the glue that binds us together in an interconnected web. It’s the uphill battle of trying to do right by our friends and self where surrendering totally in either direction often means letting down one or the other. Autonomy and interdependence should not have to be at odds with each other, but because of the reality of life, they quite often are. This is taken to the extreme in the mostly mythic Japanese practice of Ubasute where grandparents are killed rather than obligating the children. Or relatedly, in Hungary, where there is a suicide epidemic in part because it is seen as braver to kill yourself than to obligate people to help you in your suffering. Obviously, these are the absurdist counter-conclusions to a strict autonomy that undervalues solidarity and just basic fucking care for one another.
Free will: In order for autonomy and a fully realized politics of free association to exist, we would have to have true free will and maximized freedom. Every form of our oppression or the mediation of power in our lives obstructs our true autonomy because it forces our hand. What good is the autonomous freedom to choose if your choices are shit? What good is our agency being respected if we can’t truly pursue our creative evolution as individuals? The oppressor aspects of ourselves restrict the other, while the oppressed aspects of ourselves restrict ourselves (in addition to the external repression). Our networked and interdependent selves hold each other back at the same time that we are each other’s only hope for true liberation.
But a simple rendering of autonomy also fails to recognize how interwoven our free will already is. Our “selfish” individual desires can and generally do include those for whom we care. Our goals are wrapped up in each other. As are our emotions, memories, and fates. And that is a good thing. No queer should be an island even if, for many practical questions of ethics and choice, we must cut away the ways in which we are already an inefficient hive-mind in order to ascertain rightness.
I am an advocate for the full decriminalization of all drugs and for the right of people to choose how to interact with them. Drug use is a personal choice that falls clearly in the realm of autonomy. However, watching someone wither away in drug addiction is painful. Especially if they start to alienate everyone who cares about them, make extremely risky choices, and otherwise destroy themselves. Surely this is in large part a result of drug-war criminalization and an anti-scientific approach to treatment but nonetheless, it’s a complicated reality of how our personal choices can impact others, even if those choices are well within our rights.
Another complicated and controversial example is suicide. Taking one’s own life is the epitome of the type of thing that is fully within one’s rights. I deeply support things like the “death with dignity” and right to die movements in Oregon and elsewhere and anyone who doesn’t can pretty much fuck off. That being said, generally when we are in the mode to want to die, we’re least capable of glimpsing any possibility for our future. We’re least capable of taking the steps that may have us feeling and seeing the situation differently. People will selfishly try to stop others from committing suicide solely because it makes them feel bad, but also sometimes we can see possibilities that others can’t. Even if it’s our right to die, it still deeply impacts those around us if we do.
A third and final example is our right to make bad decisions and learn from our mistakes. Everyone does things they regret and everyone has watched people they care about make undeniably bad decisions. However, we all learn in our own ways and frankly, it’s our lives and we can even choose not to learn from our mistakes. But watching a child, friend, or lover make choices that we know will hurt them, hurts us. Not only does it hurt them, often we know that when it all blows up, we’ll likely be called in to help. Of course, we could choose not to help, but if no one else will it raises the above issues of obligation.
All three of these examples show how someone’s autonomous choices can impact us. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we get to make choices for others just because it could emotionally impact us. Yet, the choices others make will meaningfully impact our futures. My father committed suicide, which was his absolute right, but it changed my entire life. In a sense, his autonomous decision was also a decision for my future. In my younger years, I was very addicted to drugs and my family spent an excess of time worried about my health. By risking my life repeatedly, I was also choosing that they should feel fear and stress even if in some idealistic autonomous dream my choices shouldn’t rightfully impact them. We are autonomous beings but we are also networked with others, and our choices, even if they’re ours to make alone, impact those around us.
Despite the complexity of these ethical dilemmas though, they are tractable. In order to solve them, we need to ratchet up the complexity of our analysis in order to look at things like stable and emergent configurations that maximize net freedom. For example, my fathers suffering (he had a bad car accident leaving him injured and in constant pain) and justification for suicide trumps the amount that it weighs on me. His staying alive would have caused greater losses to all of us. Similarly, even if drug addiction can create problematic cycles impacting both individuals and their networks, trying to eliminate their usage would create a net-loss in freedom that would quickly become authoritarian. This doesn’t mean that the freedom of many can be justified by the suffering of one, just that maximizing freedom must take into account the many layers of interconnected agency that make up factors such as suffering and joy.
Persuasion and Dishonesty: Although we ultimately must make our own choices for ourselves, we often depend on others for guidance. The reason being, other complexly networked individuals can change our minds. We can change the actual connections within another’s mind through influence. This is a good thing because it allows us to be dynamic and evolve as a species and yet it also opens us up to manipulation. A charismatic personality or sociopathic manipulator can undermine a person’s intellectual or emotional autonomy. We may believe that we’re making a decision of our own accord, and actually be under the influence of another. A racist may claim autonomy of their beliefs but we have an obligation to stop the spread. As in the consent section, targeted emotional intensity can be used as a means of undermining someone’s autonomy and exerting your will over them and yet, stoicism as well can be a form of targeted attack– more so of the withholding and dishonest variety. Another related example is the things like over-choice paralysis caused by a barrage of information from advertisers or Alex Jones-ish conspiracy vendors. The over-abundance of information triggers structural limitations, making one’s process of choice and thinking through things more difficult, allowing little lies to breach.
Autonomy is also impacted by the extent of our knowledge of the variables impacting or restricting our choices. Knowledge is power, but it can also be freedom. When someone lies to us or manipulates the truth, our autonomy, and relatedly degrees of freedom are disrupted. The choice to share our truth with another is deeply personal and yet, withholding the truth can hurt the efficacy of someone’s decision-making process. As mentioned in the consent section, an accurate map of the territory impacts the efficacy of our decisions.
Autonomy isn’t Enough
Autonomy needs freedom, networked empathy, and solidarity or it’s just some pitiful excuse for rebellious egoism. Don’t get me wrong, a little egoism is good for the suffering worshipping martyr-left. But through certain misinterpretations of extreme individual autonomy lies solipsism and a fear of true connection – brave and vulnerable love. This love breaks down the pretenses of individuality and finds the swarming hive of who we are – intricate mandalas of our experience and dreams daring to connect across the Marianas Trench of our subjective difference. Solidarity is scary because it requires reliability and risk. It requires the joint overcoming of mistakes. It requires sharing and bravery and work and time. But the reward is an autonomy so much greater than the sum of its parts. This kind of love recognizes the fullness of another’s being, separate and yet increasingly entwined with our own as we let our networks build spiderwebs of connection with each other. We have to not just kill what’s killing us, but also build the world we want to live in. This requires each other. This requires a love that is connectivity fighting for complex freedoms.6
Practical solidarity and asking for help
As I’m writing this I’m just coming through that killer flu that’s been going around. I had a 103 fever for like 4 days coupled with most all the other stuff. I say that only to clarify, I was wildly incapable of taking care of many of the things I needed. My instinct, rooted as I am in the trauma over self-reliance and fear about coercion and obligation, is to ask for only the most minimal aid I can and only from the people I am certain I can trust. This is a form of selfishness though. I am privileged to exist in radical communities with a deep sense of mutual-aid wherein people actively want to support each other. I waited maybe too long to ask for help but nonetheless my friends and lovers started offering and I had no real choice but to accept. I tried to spread the labor out among them and not risk their infection. I think some of them were frustrated that I didn’t ask sooner which is totally fair. At one point my spouse even said to me, “You know, sometimes you’re a real jerk to the people who love you. I’m not trying to berate you, just remind you that we care and want to help.” This came up because I was severely balking at the idea of getting necessary medical treatment for a possible case of pneumonia and/or a pulmonary embolism that I knew would cost copays I didn’t have. My poverty trauma of time spent uninsured was flaring up and I didn’t want to ask for help. I didn’t want to ask because I knew that, with how miserable I was, people might feel obligated to help even if they couldn’t or shouldn’t. But that also the rub. I’m basically saying that my suffering is less important than another person’s suffering because I can consent to it and that I’m perfectly autonomous– which isn’t true. As my friend Megan Clapp said, “It’s a kind of neoliberal over-valuation of independence” that I think is also very U.S. American in culture. The alternative view is that my friends will do their best to acknowledge all the variables including the intensity of my suffering and their availability and express their capability and willingness accordingly. So when I finally asked for some basic help I left the caveat of, “I can also ask someone else if you can’t rn no worries” but everyone I asked was super down to help in an authentic way because friendship is built on solidarity and they had the space. So whatever minor cringe of discomfort and obligation I may have caused by asking, was outweighed in all cases by my suffering. An important piece of consent and autonomy is asking for what you need and trusting people to set boundaries as best they can.
With intensity can come the honor and genuine joy of mutual-aid but also, real life is about making all kinds of sacrifices and doing tons of shit we don’t want to because we have to. Maybe, in a sense, we consent to these shitty choices in a lesser of two evils kind of spirit (I’d rather be miserable in this job than unemployed) but this comes nowhere close to the kind of starry-eyed enthusiastic consent that is so widely sought in sexual consent discourse. But because we’re not perfectly autonomous, but rather deeply embedded and largely individual, we can build complex networks that can help assuage a part of all this pain.
When we’re not being coerced and we want to help in a way that is actually needed and desired, people we love stopping us from doing so feels like an unnecessary forced powerlessness. The flip side of our interdependent ability to harm each other is our interdependent ability to build a benevolent society based on mutual-aid and free-association.
Looking at the self as networked destabilizes concepts like “community”, in a sense reinforcing the ways in which Benedict Anderson famously noted that they are imagined. Strictly speaking, communities do not exist. All that exists are dynamic networks of connections within and between individuals. They are dynamic in the sense that they are changing all the time- both deepening and severing. Community is a simple fiction of the static individual with static connections between them. Taking this networked view instead shines light on the radical potential and reality not just for freedom of association but also freedom of dissociation. We are not perfectly autonomous but we can, and should constantly change our connections. We can abandon tribes and teams and instead focus on consensual connectivity and interdependent autonomy. These types of healthy boundaries and trust-building are made possible through a view where your freedom is my freedom. Autonomy and consent become meaningful only through this lens.
Widening the Bridges and Building Freedom
Unlearning abuse also means unlearning the abusive behaviors that u inherited as survival tactics.
— yaniré ferrer souffront. (@InsurgentPrieta) July 19, 2017
These examples are not exhaustive. They give a sort of compass for thinking about subtle dynamics which can be more generally applied. There are people who intentionally abuse all this these subtle dynamics and quietly devastate networks inside of and between people. There are also people who do it by accident whether as a long-term adaptation of coping mechanisms or because they just don’t even realize it. We all have some of this in us even if the harm we cause is on a spectrum. We are all unlearning the abusive behaviors we learned as survival tactics. These behaviors sever and destroy our internal connectivity which destroys our ability to solve problems and cultivate healthier networks. If we can try to grapple with some of these limits and tensions, we can massively reduce our mutual traumatization and create a powerfully supportive world of empathetic liberty. The problems that are endemic to both consent and autonomy as a result of our intrinsic throttles on connectivity or the limited complexity of the heuristics can still be recognized and navigated more openly. We can step-up to the meta-level and acknowledge the breakdowns we’re having and how they’re opening the door to other dangerous coping mechanisms. We can think and practice creative solutions and workarounds in the meantime while we address the fundamental issues to help up confront that which we can change. As generations move on, hopefully ever more subtle analyses of power will lend themselves to collective ethical realizations wherein some of the shit so central to the lives and relationships we grow up around and work in will seem like relics to the children of our children. The emotional intelligence of Steven Universe certainly wasn’t present in my world as a child so this is possible.
A reaction to this essay may be the feeling that you should run and hide in a cave somewhere because we’re always hurting each other (although leaving everyone would also hurt them). That’s the wrong takeaway. The real takeaway is that we are actively trying to be less coercive to each other and that the process is messy and imperfect but we can’t abandon it because of rough going. At a certain point, however flawed, we have to make do with the levels of consent and autonomy available to us in order to just interact. More important than this even though is that we can expand the bridges through which meaningful consent and autonomy may pass both in ourselves and our interactions with others. By expanding these bridges we can increase our net-freedom together.
The bridges are just our connections- both internal and external. Love, empathy, language, trust, the printing press, MDMA, and the internet are all examples of external bridge wideners while meditation, self-awareness, and emotional exploration are examples of internal bridge wideners. All of these work at increasing the avenues through which connections can be made and strengthened to increase the vibrancy of interconnection in a networked system. The external bridge wideners facilitate consent and autonomy by giving us channels through which to maximize the needed communication and connections. The internal bridge wideners facilitate consent and autonomy by helping us get clear on our most resonant truth and self. Both the external and the internal bridges have the ultimate purpose however of maximizing freedom both together and independently. Freedom is built of our priorities, dependent on other freedoms, is practical, is about meaningful choice and access, and arises through interdependent liberation. We get free individually, together. Freedom maximizing is a deeper thread than either consent or autonomy, and as such, can be used to piece together the awkward edges where either breaks down. Positive freedom is only meaningful if it means the ability to act on our goals without harming others. In order to act on our goals, we must have accurate information about the networked connections between both ourselves and others. Additionally, consent and autonomy are tools for analyzing particular layers of our freedom and thinking through ethical decision-making. Consent and autonomy are both just the processes of expanding our interdependent freedom to actualize our utility function– whether that function is sex, buying bread, making a friend, or achieving literally any other goal dependent to some extent on the existence and cooperation of other beings. Autonomy maximizes freedom by recognizing the fundamental importance of individual choice. Consent maximizes freedom by helping us to ethically act on our desires or utility functions especially where the interaction with our will and other individuals’ wills are concerned.
This kind of autonomy and consent, rooted as they are in a radicalized view of freedom, are more versatile in that they recognize the complex flows of information through networked individuality and interdependence. There is an endless list of tools and practices that could make our use of autonomy and consent better. Here are a few that seem particularly pertinent to the threads of this essay: We need to think about consent and autonomy through the deeper meta-lens of maximized freedom including at the level of overcoming structural oppression but also at the level of interpersonal interactions. We need evolving trust and for that, we need repeated interactions that are non-zero sum with minimal miscommunication. These repeated interactions in trust-building create the possibility for the development of reputations. For reputations to work we need both transparency and meaningful accountability in our networks. We need to see consent and autonomy as tools in a process rather than static goal posts. We need to get more comfortable with awkward, confusing, complex, annoying, subtle, and multi-layered conversations about power and freedom. We need to have those tough and intimate conversations that beat with the heart of life. We need not just a deeply radical vision of free-association but also of free-dissociation as a means of creating more healthy network connectivity. We need to recognize our limits while starting humbly from where we are. We need to share the load. And we need to be able to trust people to do their best to set boundaries and act accordingly to their own autonomous will even if we know that in reality, it can be far messier. A deep commitment to empathy, emotional intelligence, and the total abolition of coercive power runs through all of these practices. They’re practices because they don’t end. Freedom has no arrival point but we can continue to widen the bridges– helping us feel ever more held and free.
Violence, although traditionally understood as being solely physical, is better understood broadly as a form of harm done that also recognizes legitimate traumatization for its physical impact on neurological structures mimicking the impact of physical violence. This is taken in context with the recognition that things like racism and structural oppression or regular emotional abuse can lead to c-PTSD, thus causing physical damage. Legitimate traumatization deals with the complexity of ethical implications of biases and with how our beliefs impact others. Intentional biases and forms of violent supremacist ideology present complex opportunities for analyzing consent. A white nationalist might not consent to minority freedom, but obviously, the net consent and freedom concerns trump their bullshit. Someone with untrue and dangerous beliefs might not consent to have their denial destroyed by persuasion, and yet, the net demand for freedom wins out over their seemingly illegitimate suffering.
Although I have done so elsewhere, it is important to clarify that I distinguish quite starkly between the forms of tribalism that I describe as being deeply toxic and dangerous and the types of deeply connected networks built by much of the indigenous world. Tribalism, as I use it, is the creation of “teams” and the dehumanization of the other. It is simply in-group preference. This is something like high-school popularity, nationalism, racism, white supremacy, and the logics of imperialism. That being said, I’m also opposed to the forms of tribalism that have had some indigenous tribes grotesquely slaughtering each other in history or extremely hierarchical and patriarchal tribal organization. Of course, indigenous tribes, given as they often are to federative and decentralist tendencies of consensus, are not the target of this critique and of course whatever part of the critique may fit, pales in comparison to the violence of colonialism and the forms of brutality it introduced to many tribes. For more on the ways in which indigenous tribes have resisted the sort of tribalism I describe I suggest both Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s excellent book “An Indigenous People’s History of the United States” and Peter Gelderloos’ study “Worshipping Power: An Anarchist View of Early State Formation”.
Inherent limits to the structural background of consent processes do not excuse failures to engage or disingenuous forms of engagement. If you see someone using the subtleties of these types of claims about consent to justify or obscure their coercion, that’s just another form of the same bullshit. Deal with it the same way you would any other form. The weapons of this essay are for self-defense but beware that people may try to abuse them.
This notion of interdependent individualism finds expression in a wide range of views from the Social Ecological Model later revised by Bronfenbrenner into Ecological Systems Theory all the way to the Austrian school of economics and Hayek in “Individualism and Economic Order” or even in much of Bookchin’s work in social ecology. I describe it in my own special way in a piece called, “Towards a Non-Dickish Individualist Anarchism”.
Probably the most powerful systematic questioning of deep culture and tradition right now is coming from the amazing youth anarchist project “No!: Against Adult Supremacy” by the Stinney Distro.
I’m not talking about love in the fickle romantic sense but in the radical sense of solidarity and commitment which are not intended to be exclusive of our aromantic friends.