232: Outside The Charmed Circle with Tamsin Davis-Langley

April 28th, 2021 · 1 hr 4 mins

About this Episode

01:17 - Tamsin’s Superpower: Recognizing Songs Within Seconds

05:08 - Outside the Charmed Circle (Tamsin’s book about gender, sexuality, and spirituality)

09:09 - Consent in the Mentor/Mentee Relationship (Master/Apprentice)

  • The Universal Attribution Fallacy
  • Access
  • Power Dynamics
  • Conflicts of Interest
  • The Word “Politics” - how we negotiate power between groups of greater than one

16:57 - Using Certain Phrases (i.e. “Identity Politics,” “Cancel Culture”) and Divisiveness

23:46 - What Is A Person? Individuality & Personhood

30:01 - “Fringe Communities”; Subcultures and Intersection

44:30 - Individual Experiences Are Not Universally Applicable

  • Getting People to Care About Other People
  • Teaching Empathy
  • Less Hubris, Gatekeeping, and Self-Reinforcing Superiority


Jamey: Conceptualizing that other people are having a different experience than you.

Rein: What are the interactions in a community that empathy leads to and how can we promote those? Helping.

Helping by Edgar H. Schein

Tamsin: The dynamics at the heart of any subculture you care to name really aren’t that dissimilar from one group to another.

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JAMEY: Hello and welcome to Episode 232 of Greater Than Code. I’m one of your hosts, Jamey Hampton, and I’m here with my friend, Rein Henrichs.

REIN: Thanks, Jamey. That is a lot of episodes. I’m here with our guest, Tamsin Davis-Langley who is a white, queer, nonbinary trans femme from a multiethnic family who grew up poor. They spent most of their adult work life as the tech-savvy person in a non-technical office, and are now pursuing a career in digital communications.

Their academic path began in liberal arts, detoured through computer science, and ended with a degree in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies from the University of Washington. Their work explores the ways subcultural communities intersect with non-normative expressions of gender and sexuality. They've written about how the problems of abuse and predation in subcultures are linked to the power dynamics inherent in those groups. Under their nom de plume, Misha Magdalene, they're the author of Outside the Charmed Circle, a book about gender, sexuality, and spirituality.

Tamsin, welcome to the show.

TAMSIN: Thank you so much! It’s a delight to be here.

REIN: So you know what we’re going to ask you.


What is your superpower and how did you acquire it?

TAMSIN: My superpower is that I can, with a relatively high degree of accuracy, listen to the radio and identify the song that's playing within 5 seconds, or so if it was recorded within a specific window of time and basically falls under the very broad umbrella of Western pop music.

This happened because I was bitten by a radioactive record store employee back in the 80s and since then, I've been able to go, “Oh yeah, that's Won't Get Fooled Again by The Who. It's on Who's Next released 1972. Produced by Glen's Johns,” blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and this is a delightful party trick for getting people to suddenly realize they want to talk to someone else at the party.

JAMEY: I was about to ask – [overtalk]

REIN: How do you remember all of that?

TAMSIN: How do I remember all of that? I have no idea. I literally could not tell you what I had for dinner last night and I'm in the midst of training sessions for a position that I'm pursuing in digital communications and half the time I'm going, “What was the command to do the things so that I can function?” But I can literally tell you the brand of bass guitar that Paul McCartney played in The Beatles, or the kind of keyboard that Kate Bush used when she was recording her albums in the late 70s and early 80s was a Hohner, a violin-shaped bass, and a Fairlight synthesizer, respectively.


JAMEY: I can relate to this because I often think about how many other things I could know if I freed up all of the space in my brain where I kept the names of all the Pokémon.

TAMSIN: Right, right. I want to defrag my own brain and just throw out huge chunks of permanent storage, but no.

JAMEY: Do you use your superpower for good, or for evil?

TAMSIN: In finest, strong, bad tradition, I try to use my powers only for good, or for awesome. I have actually used it to further my career. I did work for a little while at a Musicland, back when those existed, and later at a Tower Records, back when those existed.

For younger listeners, those were both brick and mortar stores where you could go in and buy music on physical media and occasionally, accessories that were associated with bands, or musicians that you liked and people would walk in and say things like, “I'm trying to find a CD by this band and I don't know the name of the band, or the name of the song, or any of the lyrics, but it's got this bit in it that goes “Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh” and I went, “Bad to the Bone, George Thurogood & the Delaware Destroyers. Here's their Best Of. Thank you.” So that's the extent to which my superpower operates for good, or for awesome.

REIN: That reminds me, there was a librarian who worked at The London Library, which has about a million books, for 40 years and could do a very similar thing where they knew what book someone was looking for better than that person did.

TAMSIN: Yeah. That kind of talent always delights me when I find it out in the wild where I'm like, “Yeah, I was looking for this book. It kind of was about this thing and I remember it had sort of a teal cover. Oh, here you go.” Yeah, it's kind of an amazing and wonderful thing to see, but then I do it and I feel really self-conscious, so. [laughs]

REIN: So, speaking of books, graceful segue.

TAMSIN: Yes. Speaking of books.

REIN: Tell us a little bit about the book that you wrote.

TAMSIN: I can, yes. So when I was finishing up my degree at the University of Washington in Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies, I spent a lot of time thinking about how to apply the concepts and the tools that I was learning in my degree program to my actual day-to-day life. It's all well and good when you're in the ivory tower of academia to talk about intersectionality and hegemonic norms of sexuality, or gender, but how does that actually play out in your work life, or in your family dynamic? Or if you are a person who practices some form of spirituality, how does that play out in your spiritual communities, or really, in any subcultural communities that you're a part of?

As it happens, one of the subcultural communities that I'm part of is what's generally referred to as “the pagan community,” I'm going to throw a lot of quotes around that because pagan is not a commonly agreed upon term and we could get into a great argument about how much of a community it is.

But all of that to the side, one day I was sitting there probably having coffee at the coffee shop on campus and I thought, “Hmm, I wonder what would happen if you took this intersectional feminist lens and turned it on the pagan community?” I thought about it a moment and then I think I literally said, “Oh no,” out loud because I realized that was a book and 2 and a half years later, 3 years later, it was published by Llewellyn worldwide as Outside the Charmed Circle.

It's a book about how gender and sexuality are expressed, explored, repressed denied, or whatever other ways engaged within the subculture of modern pagan polytheist, or magical “practice.” It's a book I had a lot of fun writing, which is really strange to hear myself say out loud because there were moments when I absolutely wanted to bang my head on the keyboard, or just fold the laptop up and smack myself in the face with it like the monks in Monty Python.

But it's a book that I really enjoyed writing because I got to spend long hours researching and talking about a bunch of my favorite stuff: gender, sexuality, embodiment, philosophy, Van Halen and their impact on Western culture and I say that, and people are like, “Oh, that's really funny,” and I'm like, “No, no, I'm being really serious.”

As far as the question that just came up in the chat here: is there something I cut from the book that I wish I could have put in? One of the things that I said in the very last chapter is that the book I wrote is necessarily brief. Each chapter in that book could have been its own book. There's a chapter on embodiment. A chapter on gender and theory – I believe the chapter is actually called Gender and Theory in Practice. There's a chapter, or a couple of chapters on consent and how consent works in these communities.

There's so much more that can be said about these topics. There's so much more that I could have said about any of these topics. But 300 pages, I felt like I'd run on quite long enough.

Consent in the mentor-mentee relationship also just came up in chat. That's actually a topic that I touch on in the book and it's something I have really strong feelings about. Especially in the pagan and polytheists communities, there's often a lot of stress on the teacher-student relationship, sort of master-apprentice, if you want to get all scythe about it and well, there's a lot of unspoken disagreement about what the appropriate dynamic between those two parties should be.

There are people who will cheerfully say, “Oh, well, teachers and students should always have this kind of relationship and should never have that kind of relationship.” Yeah, and by that kind of relationship, we're usually talking about a sexual and/or romantic relationship. And then there are people who are perfectly happy to say, “Well, that's true in most cases, but this situation is different,” and often what they mean is, “my situation is different.”

So when I was writing the book, I had the less than enviable of saying, “Dear sweet summer child, no, your situation isn't different. It's not any different. It is never any different. Teachers and students just shouldn't have those kinds of relationships while they are ensconced in that power dynamic of teacher-student, or mentor-mentee.”

REIN: Of course, thinking that your own situation is different is quite common. Common enough that we have a name for it and that is the universal attribution fallacy.

TAMSIN: Yeah. Not to be super political, but it goes back to the phenomenon that you see quite often in modern sociopolitical discourse where people will say, “X is always immoral and wrong, except when I do it,” and X could be getting an abortion, being in a same-sex relationship, any number of things. “Well, that's always bad and wrong, but my circumstances are different.”

JAMEY: One thing I think is interesting about what you're talking about with teachers and students is that the concept of a teacher-student relationship is nebulous in a lot of ways. Like, how would you draw the line here between this is an actual teacher and student relationship and therefore, inappropriate as opposed to “I have this relationship with someone and I'm learning something from them,” which I learn from all people all the time, including my partner and other people? Where is the line between “This is a great person in my life that I'm learning” from versus “I'm in this hierarchical relationship with them”?

TAMSIN: The short answer would be access—access to knowledge, access, to experience, access to opportunity.

If you are a teacher and I am coming to you saying, “I want to learn this thing,” and your response is not “Okay, sure, I can take you on as a student and teach you this thing,” but instead, “I can take you on and teach you this thing if X, Y, or Z,” that becomes a really sketchy kind of dynamic where if I want whatever it is that you have the ability to give me the knowledge, the opportunity, the access, I am essentially being required to behave in ways that I might not otherwise.

REIN: It seems like there are maybe two important things here. One is power dynamics—which always exist; they never don't exist—and the other is more narrowly conflicts of interest.

TAMSIN: Right, and one of the things that I ran into, with talking modern practitioners of pagan and polytheistic spirituality, is that a lot of people want to talk about power, very few people are comfortable talking about power dynamics. In part, because in my experience, a lot of people don't want to see themselves as being people who have power to impact others in a negative way. Will they, or nil they?

There becomes this attitude of deniability where it's like, “Well, I can't possibly be in an oppressive position. I can't possibly be an abuser because I'm coming to this from just as much a place of powerlessness as the next person,” and that's not always true, of course.

REIN: I think sometimes talking about groups in that way is vulnerable to that counterargument and I try to talk about the dynamics as being every relationship between two people has an element of power.

TAMSIN: Absolutely, and one of the arguments I often get into with people is about the word politics because people, especially in our current social climate, tend to think that politics means a turf war between these two groups, or parties.

My response is that politics is just the word to describe how we negotiate power between groups of greater than one. Politics is how we talk about the policies. There's the whole word police meaning city, politics, policy. It's a thing. Politics is how we arrange policies and laws and agreements so that we can all basically move forward doing the same kind of thing. Yes, from the chat: “framing politics between two groups is very American.” It really is.

So I have often been criticized for bringing politics into spirituality and I'm going, “We're sitting around talking about power all day long, pretending that politics isn't a part of that is a way of getting out of having to be accountable for the politics that's actually going on.” That maneuver is as present in any subculture you care to name as it is in the pagan community. I mean, that's certainly not unique to witches, Druids, modern polytheists, and whomever.

JAMEY: Yeah. Everything we've been talking about in the pagan has made me think of the tech community, too. My question earlier about mentorship, I was thinking that and when you were talking about “Don't bring politics into” – such a common thing that we talk about in tech, also.

TAMSIN: Oh yeah. Why do you have to bring politics into this? Why do you have to bring identity politics, or diversity politics into this argument? We work in tech; this is a meritocracy and the sound of a thousand palms slapping into a thousand foreheads echoes across the land.

JAMEY: I know you said it to illustrate that point, the phrase, identity politics, I just have such a visceral physical reaction to. [laughs]

TAMSIN: Oh, it's great. Isn't it? It's like, there are certain phrases that in modern discourse have become so completely alienated from their original context that they're almost devoid of meaning. Identity politics is one. Cancel, or cancellation, or – [overtalk]

JAMEY: Cancel culture. I just saw a whole conversation about this today because Andrew Cuomo said it in his press conference. It was a whole thing.



JAMEY: I’m sorry for bringing up Andrew Cuomo. I take it back. [laughs]

TAMSIN: Verbal equivalent of keyboard smash right now.


Yeah, I feel like when people start throwing terms like that around, this is all an attempt at obfuscation. It's an attempt at getting away from having to talk about what's actually going on and, in many cases, what's actually going on is that somebody, or somebodies are doing some shady things that they don't necessarily want to be held accountable for.

REIN: People say, “Keep politics out of X.” That statement is incomplete and what they really mean is “Keep politics that don't matter to me out of X.”

TAMSIN: Right. “Keep politics that I don't have to think about.”

REIN: “Things that don't impact me in any way, I don’t care about those.”

TAMSIN: Exactly. Yeah. But if politics suddenly means that I can't get the right chip for the motherboard to run the gaming machine that I really want to set up, suddenly politics is real important. That's the point where I start getting that glassy-eyed thousand-yard stare at somebody and going, “So politics and power dynamics matters when it's something that impacts you personally. Is that what you're saying?”

Maybe from there, we could, I don't know, extrapolate that other people who, and this is a galaxy brain moment here, actually exists, have the same relationships [chuckles] to the things that matter to them. Like, I don't know, housing, or healthcare, or to be a little dark, I guess, not being hatecrimed to death.

REIN: This is the one of my favorite tweets: “I don't know how to convince you to care about other people writ large.”

TAMSIN: Yeah, exactly. We talk a lot lately about how divisive things are and how divided the country is. There's a Medium article that I read recently with the delightfully bracing title of, “We hate you now.” It was an article about the potential going forward into a post-COVID-19 world where all of the people who've been wearing masks when they have to go outside, washing their hands, staying home unless absolutely necessary and who've, essentially, felt that they've been held captive in their own homes for over a year now are looking at the people who've been going to weddings, pool parties, restaurants, barbecues, and two weeks later, half of the attendees are sick, or dead and having, what I would say, are some pretty justifiable feelings of “We were doing all the right things and you selfish, entitled fill in your profanity of choice, have been doing exactly all the wrong things that have perpetuated this situation, such that we're still in lockdown and still in lockdown. We kind of hate you now and there's a real possibility of that we're always going to hate you.”

To me, that's the divide I'm seeing in our culture going forward. Things like that. Then again, I am speaking as someone who shares custody of my daughter with my ex who lives in California and what that means, operationally, is that I have not seen my daughter in-person since March 8th of 2020 and so, I'm a little head up under the collar. Wow, that just kind of went off into a really dark place. [laughs]

REIN: No, this is good stuff. Very normal for us. This is why I don't have an issue going on record as saying that ethical systems based on naive individualism are bankrupt.

TAMSIN: Absolutely. One of the things that came out of my degree program with—and I will point out that I did go to a state university in the notoriously liberal state of Washington. But one of the things that I came out of my degree program with was a healthy and deeply ingrained respect for the concept of the social contract and for social contract theory as a venue of study, especially when you're looking at power dynamics in groups.

What I found is that explaining the social contract to people is really easy if they actually want to understand it and utterly impossible, if they're opposed, because if they're opposed, what's really going on isn't that they don't understand. They get it perfectly; they just don't want to agree. I can say the social contract is that you don't punch me, I don't shoot you; we maintain a basic air of non-violence and go on about our day. That's a contract. You don't hurt me. I don't hurt you. We move on. It's as simple as that, or as complicated as, “Hey, look, we have a civilization.” That is a marvelous quote in the chat: “No, thank you. I'd rather pretend I invent the entire universe every time I make an Apple pie.”

REIN: This gets all the way like the turtles go all the way down to what does it mean to be a person and what is the person to relationship to society?

TAMSIN: And if we are going to dive that deep into philosophy, I'm going to need some whiskey at least. [chuckles] I'm kidding.

But as far as what is a person, philosophers have been trying to work that one out for quite literally thousands of years, at this point. When I was writing Outside the Charmed Circle, I wound up necessarily having to go back and read some amounts of Plato and Aristotle because they are, in many ways, part of the groundwork of Western philosophy and as well, part of the groundwork for Western notions of spirituality and magical practice. As you know, pagans are polytheists, or magicians.

One of the things that I was horrified to discover and shouldn't have been really—I should have expected this—was that Plato and Aristotle didn't think too highly of women. There are these marvelous quotes that I included in the book and by marvelous, I mean tragic, frankly referring to the distinction between men, and women and other animals. That was text I saw on my screen and looked at and went, blink, blink, blink, What?”

REIN: This reminds me of George Lakoff's book, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, so titled because there is a language with a category that includes those things in the same category.

TAMSIN: Wow. That's great. That's neat.

REIN: I think I can respect women being in the same category as dangerous things, to be fair.

TAMSIN: I think depending on how we're defining dangerous, anybody of any gender can be dangerous, but I have to admire the hustle of putting that as your title, that's pretty great. But the question of who counts as a person? What is a person? If you look at some of the classical Greek philosophers—Aristotle, Plato—they would say a person is a human male individual who fulfills these criteria and anyone who doesn't fulfill those criteria isn't really fully a person.

REIN: The human male citizen.

TAMSIN: Right.

REIN: Which is also how the US defined it.

TAMSIN: Shocking. Yeah, and then if you look at these philosophers as laying the groundwork for how Western culture defines, or describes personhood individuality, the next big cultural movements come along was of course, Christianity. I'm not here to bash on Christianity, but I will note that if you look at Christian philosophy around identity and individuality, especially if you're looking at gendered identities, a lot of that would be drawn from the work of Paul who wrote most of the epistles in the last two thirds of what's called the New Testament, the Christian Bible.

Paul had some less than awesome views about women and they're pretty much in a direct line of descent from Plato and Aristotle. You look at the things Paul was saying and it's like, oh, okay so he's basically just importing Greek philosophical misogyny into this new religion, which made a lot of sense because at that point in time, Greek philosophy was, I've called it the groundwork for Western philosophy and the Greeks were considered the de facto mainstream philosophers of that era, and everyone was rolling around speaking Greek, even the Romans.

So this notion of individuality and of personhood being something that we specifically define by how you match an established hegemonic norm and by hegemonic, I mean a norm that is imposed by a power above you and it's this established hierarchy.

When I was learning about hegemonic norms in my degree program, someone in the class asked, “Okay, so hegemonic norm, how does that apply to us in modern Western American 21st century culture?” It's like, well, it's real easy. Who has the privilege? Who has the power?

If you're white, you have privilege and power that you don't have if you're Black, or Brown, or Asian, or what have you. If you are a cisgender person, you have privilege and power that you don't have if you're trans or non-binary. If you are a cis male, you have privilege and power that you don't have if you are a non-cis male, and so on. That's hegemonic power, that's hegemony in action and a lot of those hegemonic norms come directly down from the classical Greeks through the norms established by Christianity.

I spend a lot of time talking about this in a book which is at least extensively about witchcraft, paganism, and magic because they're hobby horses that are really important to me and they seemed to tie in. So I was like, “Yeah, let's do this. Let's just throw it all in there.”

REIN: So you have these fringe communities and fringe only relative to the dominant normative culture, right?

TAMSIN: Right.

REIN: But then they start to intersect on the edges of that hegemonic, cultural conglomeration, whatever you want to call it. It reminds me of – so this is an analogy that I'm going to see if it lands so let me know.

There's a book called How Buildings Learn and, in that book, one of the things that he talks about is what are called edge cities, where historically cities have been built around a port, or railroad, or some other thing. But what's happening in modern cities, there's a lot of the action is happening at the edges of the city where the highways intersect and so on. There's also a lot more possibility to build out there because the city center has been made pretty rigid by the buildings are large and they're probably not going anywhere, the codes, the building and zoning codes are very rigid, and so on. So actually, a lot of the most vital growth that happened in modern studies is happening at the edges.

I wonder if it's like that as well in these fringe communities and if that term has baggage that you want me to avoid, let me know.

TAMSIN: Oh no, I'm fine with the term. I think there's a lot of traction there. One of the hobby horses that I drag out and bang on a regular basis is the notion that subcultural communities reiterate and reinforce a lot of the same core assumptions as the over culture in which they are ensconced.

There is this attitude of, “Well, we're different from outsiders. We're smarter, we're better, we're more spiritual. We're more accepting. We're more,” whatever the virtue, or the value that they want to see themselves as having is. But they frequently don't stop to realize that, in many ways, they are just reenacting a lot of the same attitudes that the mainstream culture, of which they are a subculture, is enacting all over the place.

I think when you look at the fringes of subcultures, the places where they start to rub up against other cultures, or other subcultures, where they start to intersect and get some new ideas and some new, interesting stuff going on that can be really valid, valuable, and healthy for the community as a whole. I also think that that is a place where there can be a lot of tension and a lot of fear.

I've seen that in the pagan community, where there are a lot of people who I think would position themselves very much at the center of the little circle of pagan community and they look at someone like, for instance, me, who's kind of out on this fringe edge here, rubbing up against the queer community, or the trans community, or whatever other communities that I'm part of.

They may see this idea, or that idea and go, Well, that's not how we do things. That's not us. That's like some of your weird queer trans stuff,” and I'm going, “No, but wait. It's really cool and it informs what we do over here in this really useful way. And why are you walking away? Come back.” And then occasionally, it's like, “Oh, you were walking away to get a torch and a pitchfork. No, no, no, don't come back.”


JAMEY: When you were talking about that with the fringe communities, I was thinking about the queer community as well, even before you brought it up, because I think that what Rein was saying about exciting things happening in that space is definitely true. But I also think that you have a problem in the community sometimes like, people who are younger, or more newly out and don't know as much about queer history trying to roll things back. That's why we have this argument about why younger people, who think that the word “queer” is not okay for anyone to use, coming in and saying, “Oh, we can't do this,” and older people saying, “There has been a lot of discourse, progress, and things that have happened over the course of history that you need to know about before you can have an informed opinion on it. [laughs]

TAMSIN: You need to scroll back up in the chat before you start talking.


JAMEY: Yeah. You need to scroll back up like a bunch of years in the chat. [laughs]

TAMSIN: Right. Yes. That is a huge issue in the queer community and it's one that – I'm 47 years old and I have found myself in conversations with people who are 19, 20 who wants to tell me, “Oh, well, you shouldn't use the word queer because queer is a slur,” and I'm going, “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, red flag, hold on. Queer has been used as a slur, absolutely yes. But in the 80s and 90s, there was an awful lot of work done to reclaim that word. I know, I was there.” And today, now the primary driver behind the notion that queer is a slur is trans-exclusionary radical feminism. It's transphobes who are like, ‘Yeah, no, no, no, no, no, no. Queer gives too much leeway for all of these trans people to sneak into this community. So uh oh, we can't be having with that.”

So I find myself basically having to strike the compromise of okay, I'm never going to tell you that you have to call yourself queer, but you don't get to tell all of us queers out here that that's not our word and if that means you don't want to come sit at our table, or come to our parties, that's okay, too.

The problem of gatekeeping in the queer community, as in every subcultural community, is real and it's real bad. The extent to which some quorum within a community wants to enforce little boundaries inside the larger community. So it's like I have my little walled garden in the queer community, and you can come in if you perform gender, or sexuality, or identity in these specific ways that I am dictating. It's too much headache.

It's funny how I talk about these problems in the queer community, or in the trans community, or in the pagan community and I have friends who work in the tech world and they're going, “Huh, this all sounds eerily familiar.”

JAMEY: It's almost as if people act the same,

TAMSIN: No matter where you go. [chuckles] Yeah, it is.

These are not problems unique to any one subcultural community. They are human problems and I'm often tempted to say that the solution is to stop dealing with people, but I like people and I like doing things with people. One of the reasons I'm so mad about this stupid pandemic is that I miss people, hanging out with people in-person and being able to drink coffee with them.

But I think that a lot of these problems of gatekeeping, these enforcement of boundaries, these power dynamic issues that we have all fundamentally come back to, at least in many of the cases I've seen, issues around power and the fear of powerlessness, the fear of being disenfranchised, or of losing what you see as power, or opportunity, or access, or privilege that you're entitled to.

I mean, that's certainly what seems to be one of the things that's at the core of these ridiculous ideas like white genocide. White people are being crowded out and we're being outbred by all of these other people of color and white people have to band together and blah, blah, blah! All of this garbage is all rooted in fear and under that ignorance. Much wiser and more experienced minds than mine have written at great length about those issues and how best to combat them. I have a lot of hope in that regard, but at the same time, I look at the news app on my phone every morning and that hope dies a little. So it's kind of a tidal thing; it rises and falls.

REIN: The relationship between radicals and action areas, I think where it's a relationship to a particular preferred state of affairs and whether you think you need to go forwards, or backwards to get there.

REIN: Right. We used to call that the difference between a liberal and a conservative view, but those words have been so battered and worked out of utility that you can't even bring them up anymore. But it, again, goes back to that idea of you have the circle that is the community and the people at the center, who are perhaps most emblematic of its baseline core ideas and ideals, and then the people out on the fringes of things, who are bringing in new information and new ideas, or sending their ideas out to other communities and sharing with them.

I think that can all be really healthy and part of a wholesome ecosystem of subcultural engagement and interaction. I also think that when people get scared, they start doing things that are really not in their best interest. They start making really bad choices and that way lies dissent, dissension, and conflict.

But a lot of that is why I titled the book I wrote Outside the Charmed Circle because it comes from an essay by a cultural theorist named Gayle Rubin. This is an essay that she wrote called “Thinking Sex” and in this essay, she posited that you can look at ideas like sexuality and if you picture it as two circles, one inside the other divided up like a dark board, pie wedged shapes. The inner circle, the charmed circle is the stuff that society basically all approves of: heterosexuality, monogamy, sex for the purposes of procreation, and so on and so forth. And then outside the charm circle are what Gayle Rubin called the outer limits. Those are the things which society doesn't approve so non-monogamy, having sex for reasons other than procreation, because it's fun, or to make money, or whatever reasons.

Each of the things in the term circle has its counterpart in the outer limits, its counterpart outside the charmed circle. Ah, see what I did there? So things like homosexuality, or bisexuality, or asexuality, or demisexuality, or, or, or—these are all outside the term circle because they are fundamentally alien to the hegemonic norms of culture and I just realized I'm throwing a lot of this jargon around, wow.

REIN: I think it is interesting as a metaphor here because it implies both, at the periphery and also, a sparseness, or lack of structure.

TAMSIN: Yeah. I think that there's value to be found both, at the core and on the edges, on the fringe. [laughs]

REIN: What’s [inaudible] is that some of these groups on the edges seem to be reproducing structures that are found in the core.

TAMSIN: Oh yeah, absolutely. The structures that you find at the core of a group are really comfortable. They're really comforting if they're built for you. To pick one, for example, the structure of being cisgender is really comfortable. You’re cis if you were born and you were assigned a gender at birth and you grew up and you're like, “Yeah, that's me. That fits me like a glove because it's tailored to who I am. I don't have any objections to this.”

But if you take that same glove and put it on someone else, it's going to be too big, too small, it fits in the wrong ways, it's no, this is wrong. These structures of being cisgender don't fit for someone like say, me. That's not to say being cisgender is wrong. It's perfectly fine and that's okay. Just not for me.

JAMEY: This is certainly coming back to what you were saying earlier about “Oh, I care about these issues that affect me,” and we have to extrapolate that they affect other people because you'll see people are like, “Oh, but this is so comfortable. Why wouldn't you want this great comfortable thing?” And I can't extrapolate that other people are having a different experience.

TAMSIN: One of the real problems that we as human beings have is not understanding that our individual experiences are not universally applicable. It's like handing someone a strawberry ice cream cone and they taste it and they're like, “Oh, thanks. Not for me,” and you're like, “Well, what's wrong with it? It's delicious. It's a strawberry ice cream cone,” and they're like, “I don't like strawberry ice cream.” Like, “Well, how can you not? I like strawberry ice cream.” “Yeah, but I don't taste this strawberry ice cream with your tongue. Your taste buds. Mine are wired differently.” That's just a random example pulled out of the air; I actually like strawberry ice cream fine. Not my favorite, but it's fine.

But individual experience isn't universally applicable and to come back to that question of how do we define the individual person as against a larger culture, or community? I think past a certain point of defining an individual, or a person as a self-aware consciousness, I really don't want to try and define personhood at all.

If I can acknowledge that someone is sapient and sentient, that's good enough for me and if at some point down the road, we get to a place of developing actual artificial intelligence, like Turing capable AI. If it tells me it's sentient and sapient, I am more than happy to sit down and have a coffee with it and I think that's as much as I want to get into well, how do we define a person? Because once you go any further than that, inevitably it winds up with oppression, slavery, and genocide. Again, pretty grim. [laughs]

JAMEY: No, it’s good.

REIN: Again, how do we get people to care about other people?

TAMSIN: Oh, if I had the answer to that, I could write another book. It would be a bestseller and I would never have to try and get another job.

I think that the answer, and I am totally cribbing from my partner here—who is an amazing human being and a developer at a local software company up here. My partner would probably suggest that the answer is you teach empathy and you start teaching empathy by going back to you have this relationship to this issue, or this thing that happened. It made you feel a certain way. How do you think that issue impacted that person?

Experiences aren't universal, but the condition of experiencing things is universal. So I'm not going to have the same experience that someone else has with any given issue, but I can acknowledge that they are having an experience and that their experience is as meaningful to them and their lives as mine is to me and my life. Once you've done that, you started the building blocks of developing empathy, which leads to compassion, which leads to, “Oh, maybe we should get kids out of those cages on the border, maybe we should find a way to feed people, and restore the power grid in Texas so elderly people aren't literally freezing to death in their homes in the 21st century in America.”

REIN: I think there's a Swedish word for the realization that everyone on this street that you're walking down has just as rich, deep, and complex an inner mental life as you do and I think we need more of that.

TAMSIN: Yeah, we do. We do. Now I totally want to go and look up that Swedish word, but that acknowledgement that everyone around us is actually a person. They have an interior life, they have hopes and dreams of their own, and their hopes and dreams don't have to be relevant to me.

One of the things that I think those of us who are ensconced in subcultures sometimes struggle with is – well, it's the inverse of another problem so let me, let me try and rephrase this. Those of us who are in subcultural communities—whether it's the tech community, or the queer community, or the trans community, or the pagan community, or what have you—we all struggle with these feelings of our interests and our passions being incomprehensible to people who aren't part of our communities.

I am not a developer. I am not even really much of a coder, but I know enough about coding from having been in a CS program for a hot minute to be able to grasp what's cool about really elegant code, what's really cool about this thing that my partner comes to me and she's like, “Oh, I did this thing and we blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah,” and I'm like, “I understood about one word in three, but it was barely enough to hang on with my fingernails,” and that is really cool and awesome.

But that's not a conversation that she could have with, for instance, my Mom. My mother, who is a brilliant woman and has a degree in nursing and is a medical professional and does all these things, my Mom would do just glaze over a little and go, “Okay, cool. I'm glad that the good thing happened for you,” but it does reinforce this idea that these things we're into are relatively esoteric.

So it in turn reinforces this seclusion of our little subcultural communities into their enclaves and we become this little technocratic priesthood, but that can turn into another problem, which is not only are we weird and different, but we're better. The taking of pride in the cool, awesome thing that we understand and love can turn into, “If you don't understand the cool, awesome thing we're into what's wrong with you?”

Oh, well, pfft users. I've heard that exact sentiment expressed by people in the software industry and it always baffles me because I'm like, “You realize that you are making tools for people to use, right?” The people that you're going “Pfft users” about are literally the reason you have a job because otherwise, all of the tippy-tappy you do with the keyboard is an intellectual exercise. Great, you created this incredibly elegant piece of software that no one is going to use. At that point, you may as well just be building a matchstick cathedral in your backyard and then lighting it on fire.

What I would really like to see from all of our communities is a little less hubris and a lot less gatekeeping and a substantial amount less of a self-reinforcing sense of superiority about people who aren't inside our particular charmed circle. What I want to see is our subcultural communities, having pride in who we are and what we do, and the cool things that we make, or the cool things that we do, or the cool lives that we lead, or whatever it is that is part of our community without turning that into, “And that's why we're so much better than the normies, the mundanes, the muggles—to use Voldemort's word. That's why we're better than people who don't do this cool stuff that we do.”

Because I feel like that need to be better than the people who make us feel kind of weird and like we don't belong is again, just reiterating the same power structures that got us into this problem in the first place. The over culture thinks it's better than these weird freaky fringe communities because they're nerdy, or they're awkward, or they're cringy and the fringe communities in return think they're better than the basic, boring, mundane, mainstream, normie culture and nobody gets to have any fun.

I would much rather have a mainstream culture that respects and appreciates the awesome things that fringe communities bring to the table, the innovations that they provide, the new ways of thinking and approaching problems and have subcultural communities that understand that they are ensconced in an over culture, which is the reason that they can exist and that's how I'm going to solve world peace.

JAMEY: So we’re coming up to the part of our show where we like to let everyone give a reflection about what we've talked about for the past hour, or so. This is something that is going to be on your mind, or a call-to-action, or just something that stuck out for you. I'm going to go first.

What's something that stuck out for me was the conversation that we had actually a couple of times about conceptualizing that other people are having a different experience than you and how that's so hard for people. Because I think that you see this, even on a microlevel within these subcultures, and I think that suggests to me that it's such a natural human thing to do and I think that I get that because it does feel good to have things in common with other people and to celebrate the things that we have in common.

I guess, I'm thinking about this specifically in the trans community where they're like, “It feels great to be able to be like, ‘We have this thing in common and I feel so good about that,’” but there are still a lot of different kinds of people in the trans community and this is how you end up with people saying, “Oh, the universal trans experience is loving being a girl when you take your estrogen,” and I'm like, “That's definitely not.” [laughs]

You could probably keep making that thing that you're saying smaller until it's true for everyone in your little group that it's true for. But we have this desire to categorize ourselves in that way and I think that the reason I'm talking about this and saying this is, I think that it's really good to keep in mind the ways that all of us probably also do this on smaller levels. So I guess, my call-to-action is I'm going to try and think about catching myself if I'm doing this.

REIN: Well, I'm going to attempt to stay in my lane here with my reflection. I was thinking about one of the first things that came up, which is mentor-mentee relationships, and I was thinking about what you said about empathy.

One of the things that – I’ve changed a little bit, even in the last few years in terms of how I think about empathy, which is, I think empathy is good, but I don't think it's very actionable because empathy is an internal thing that happens in individual people's heads. No one else has access to it. What Russell Ackoff says is that systems are not the sum of their components, they're the product of their interactions.

So what I started to think about was what are the interactions in a community that empathy leads to and how can we promote those? What I've started to focus on is the interaction called helping. Edgar Schein wrote a book called Helping and it's a study of the social process, or phenomenon where people help each other. How does it happen? Why does it happen?

One of the things he noticed that that was pretty interesting is that helping is mostly notable when it doesn't happen and there's an expectation that it should have. So you think here are things like that's not helpful and what I think that we should try to do is focus more on positive affirmations when it does happen.

So that's why when I do retrospectives with teams, we leave that with appreciations. I want to make helping remarkable. I want people to talk about helping and get better at it as practice. I guess, that's my solution to how do you get people to care about each other? It's how do you build empathy and I think it's by the practice of helping.

TAMSIN: I like that a lot. That's really good. One of the thoughts that has recurred over the course of this conversation for me is that the dynamics at the heart of any subculture you care to name really aren't that dissimilar from one group to another, whatever their special interest happens to be.

That was the thing I didn't understand growing up. It was a thing I certainly didn't understand through much of my adult life and now, crawling into my late 40s, I'm finally starting to wrap my head around this concept, that in a lot of ways, these groups are really all the same. That's because well, as we've alluded earlier, they're all made up of people and people all tend to be kind of the same in terms of the patterns that they enact, the approaches that they take, the things that they fundamentally want.

Again, not universal experiences, but we all have the shared commonality of having these experiences. We all have the shared feature of wanting things and wanting to be understood. Wanting empathy, or compassion, even if we are ourselves not terribly good at giving it. That's certainly something that's been true with me.

Even within the course of this conversation, I brought up the Medium article about the pandemic and how it's really easy to want to be furious with the people who are, in a very real way, responsible for the fact that I haven't seen my daughter in over a year.

At the same time, at least some of those people were acting in ways that I don't have to think are rational or correct, but they had some reason they did the things they did and if I can understand why they act the way they do and I want to spend the effort and the energy to meet them where they are, perhaps I can find ways to work with them to be different, to be what I would consider better. More in line with a social contract that means that we don't have 600,000 people dead by the summer, but that is work that's on me to do, because I can't ask somebody, who's already living in a state of fear, to suddenly magically have cool, calm rationality descend upon them.

REIN: The last thing I'll mention for folks who are listening, who are on software development teams and so on, is that a team is literally definitionally a group of people who help each other.

TAMSIN: Yes, yes, it is.

JAMEY: This was really great. Thank you so much.

TAMSIN: Thank you. I had a wonderful time. This was a blast.

JAMEY: And I should say that anyone who wants to have further conversations like this with us, we have a Slack community and we're all there, all of our guests are there, and lots of other really interesting people. You can join our Slack community if you back us on Patreon, patreon.com/greaterthancode, even like a dollar.

REIN: These episodes are successful because we co-create them with our guests. We're helping each other make cool episodes. So thank you for helping us to make a cool episode.

TAMSIN: It has genuinely been my pleasure. It’s been a delight. Thank you so much for having me.

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