What is invalidation?

Invalidation is pervasive in our society, even though people in general don’t really seem interested in combating it or even identifying it. I think this is because we are so stuck on the belief in “truth” and “being right” that we don’t think about the pointlessness of trying to make people of extremely different backgrounds, mental lives, and so on, “be right” in the way we envision it.

How can invalidation be identified? An act of invalidation is any attempt to deny your beliefs, your emotions, or your true self, very often trying to replace them or impose an alternative. The goal of an invalidation is to deny the autonomy of the individual’s mind, to chain it to some exterior determinism. “You must believe this… or else!”

First, let’s be clear on what is and is not an invalidation. A reasonable argument is not an invalidation. Someone expressing their own position, even if it is opposite to yours, is not an invalidation. For many examples of invalidation, see my previous entry on the subject; all of the responses listed are analogous to popular real-life invalidations. In the end of the entry, I included physical violence; invalidations are not restricted to speech, and any attempt to counter a belief, an emotion or an expression of one’s true self by threats or actual violence is an invalidation as well (beating up protesters is a good example of that).

I think the invalidation of beliefs and emotions is already pretty clear, or should be from my examples. The invalidation of the true self might be less clear, however. What I mean by that is any attempt to use an identity to invalidate you. Here are some examples:

“You know, artists are really stupid, they just make up stuff. But you’re smart! Good for you!”
“You Muslims really need to apologize to the American people for what happened [on 9/11].”
“Atheists are very arrogant people. I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist.”

There are two implicit steps, the first being associating you with some identity (“artists,” “muslims,” “atheists”), the second being associating that identity with whatever one seeks to invalidate the other person with. If you accept the identity, then of course you have to accept the blame/guilt. In doing so, they are invaliding your beliefs and emotions as an individual. I also wanted to point out that compliments can also be invalidations, especially back-handed compliments of this type.

All of these types of invalidation are widespread in our society. This must lead us to the question, what is their purpose? Every systemic use of invalidation we can observe exists for the purpose of normalizing the individual. Hierarchies especially will do it when someone is not being obedient to their enforced methods or principles, but people will often invalidate others’ feelings with the sole rationale that “it’s not normal.” Implicit behind all of these is a claim of moral superiority (“I know what you should be doing better than you do”) or epistemic superiority (“I know what you should believe better than you do”).

At a more individual level, I think most invalidation is done and reacted to without the realization of what’s going on (in fact, that’s probably true of a lot of systemic invalidation as well). But whether you realize what’s going on or not, it still does affect you. So it’s vitally important that you check whether people are invalidating you or not, and whether they are justified in doing so. Because getting invalidated has very real, and sometimes devastating, consequences on one’s psyche.

When one is engaged in a heated argument, it is natural sometimes to invalidate the opponent. But it’s important to remember that doing so, in and of itself, does you absolutely no good. No one has ever been convinced of anything by being invalidated. That is about as sound psychologically as the idea that a criminal can be rehabilitated by caging him and forcing him to cohabit with other criminals. Punishment or any other such form of conditioning cannot bring about a positive change in a human being: at best, it can only turn them into robots.

We must always follow the maxim “what is true for you, is true for you.” As long as one is an honest seeker of truth, I believe that the maxim holds. Being right is not ultimately a matter of holding the “right beliefs” or feeling “the right way,” but must start with a personal commitment to the truth, whatever that may be. That commitment has to be backed by the person’s moral qualities: honesty, ability to confront, rationality, understanding, compassion, and so on. Without these qualities, the best one can do is parrot the supposed “right beliefs” or “right ways” of others, without even the capacity to evaluate them. This way of life is absolutely useless, and dangerous.

Sadly, Anarchists and people in other minority positions are especially aggressive in invalidating others. They do so partly out of frustration, and partly out of a desire to be heard. But this only ensures that they will always remain a minority position.

So how can we argue our position without invalidating those we see as being wrong? For instance, how do you tell people that they have enemies? If you tell a random person on the street that they have enemies, they’ll just say “oh, no… I have no enemies, I’m a good person, I pay my taxes, I don’t get mad at people, no one hates me, everyone likes me, so how could I have enemies? And I give to charity, every year, and I’m a volunteer at the soup kitchen, and they all like me there, bla bla bla.” But the power elite doesn’t give a shit about any of that. All they care about is getting more and more profits, using new technologies, exploiting people and creating slaves, because that’s where the profit is.

But telling people that they have enemies is going to invalidate what they believe about themselves. How do you explain to people that they’re being lied to and exploited every day when that lying and exploitation is so integrated in our lives that it is precisely that which is portrayed as normal?

You can’t rally someone to your side by telling them that their experiences are wrong. But what you can do is appeal to other experiences and point out the principles behind them. Most people have had some negative experience with hierarchies and their lack of concern for human dignity. Most people also realize, or are in a position to realize, that these hierarchies have at least some goals that are anti-social in nature. It also probably wouldn’t be too hard to show them some news items about the effects of this dehumanization on society as a whole.

So we should not let others invalidate us, but at the same time we have to examine what they’re saying either way. If you’re driving a car and looking at the radio, and someone shouts that you’re gonna hit a wall, you’d be better off looking first before whining that your driving is being invalidated. The fact that someone is invalidating you should not be an excuse for not examining what he said, whether you continue talking to him or not. Ideological wake-up calls may be uncomfortable but they are certainly necessary.

4 thoughts on “What is invalidation?

  1. Lori August 2, 2010 at 15:56

    What would be a specific example of an ideological wake-up call? Better yet, what would be a specific example of a person or group facing or about to face such a wake-up call? I ask this in the spirit gathering information for practical implementation.

  2. Francois Tremblay August 2, 2010 at 16:02

    Really, anything which tells you that your ideas or ideology or worldview is self-destructive or destructive of society or the planet as a whole.

  3. David Gendron August 3, 2010 at 13:42

    Great post! :) All of this islamophobic bullshit is a result of an invalidation process.

    J’ai répondu par un billet chez moi.

  4. […] mechanism is similar but not the same as invalidation. The other person doesn’t necessarily want to invalidate you, especially since it’s […]

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