Trigger warning: Ableism analogy, fictionalized gaslighting, bullying, and berating
Imagine, if you will, another world. The inhabitants of this world are mostly like the inhabitants of our world: They are warm-blooded, live in family groups, have opposable thumbs, small palates, large craniums, and have mostly lost the remnants of their ancestor’s tails. Like us, they have variation in their population, but at their most diverse, they are still are more similar to each other than they are to other creatures in their world.
Like us, they play games for recreation. Unlike us, they took a particular game past past-time and even beyond what most would consider an obsession. This game would not be baseball, precisely – they do live on a different world, after all, and so it’s extremely unlikely they’d independently come up with exactly the same game – but it’s close enough that I’ll just call it baseball.
Now, imagine yourself a resident of this world. In this world, baseball reigns supreme. It is so integral to the culture that people don’t ever have to explain the rules to each other since most have been playing since before they could walk steadily. They expect others will have the same intuitive feel and enjoyment of the game that they do, and mostly, they’re right. People can get promotions at work just by being really good at baseball, the most popular kids in school are always the ones with the best baseball skills, and every single world leader plays baseball at world-class proficiency. Being good at baseball is an unspoken cultural requirement for everything from getting a loan to being accepted to a good school to finding a job.
Except, here’s the problem: You’re not good at baseball. In fact, you’re bad at it. Very bad. You can throw… in the wrong direction. You can swing the bat very hard… and miss the ball entirely, and you would probably make a half-proficient catcher if you didn’t flinch at sudden motion and had better hand-eye coordination and maybe some faster reflexes. Okay, you wouldn’t make a half-proficient catcher at all, but you tell yourself that since you wouldn’t have to worry about tripping over your own two feet as catcher, maybe you should try for that.
To make matters worse, you never really picked up the rules that everyone else did. Because you weren’t as good at it as a small child, other small children wouldn’t let you play with them. So you didn’t get much practice. So you didn’t improve. So you became worse relative to your peers. So the other kids wouldn’t let you play. Etc.
Because everyone else has been playing approximately forever, they get the rules instinctively. When you ask why you can run to second base when there’s no hit but not to first, they shrug at you helplessly and say, “You just can’t.” which is not at all helpful to your lack of understanding of the rules.
You get teased for how bad you are at baseball, and it’s always blamed on you. “Well, I know the kids make fun, but if you’d just try to be better at baseball, maybe they wouldn’t make fun of you so much,” you’re told when you complain to adults. When you ask how you can get better at baseball when nobody will let you play, they punish you for having an attitude. Some adults predict that with that attitude towards baseball, you’ll never amount to anything in life.
At this point, you might decide to swear off baseball entirely. I can’t play. I don’t care. I’m not going to try. Except, people don’t let you not play in peace. You have to play, they tell you. You have to understand the game and be able to talk the language. It’s a life skill. You realize quickly enough that they’re right.
You have to play because people make judgements of those who don’t play – unfavorable ones. And there are lots of stereotypes about people who don’t play as sub-person freaks who can somehow manage to name the tree any leaf came from but can’t balance a checkbook. The questions you get are what convince you: If you can’t spot someone cheating, how will you avoid being taken advantage of? You can’t be allowed out on your own if you can’t tell when someone’s cheating! It’s for your own good. If you can’t keep track of where the ball needs to go, how will you keep track of the goal at work? Obviously people who don’t play well are unqualified for complicated – and therefore well-paying – jobs. How dare you not like baseball?! Don’t you realize how offensive that is?! Obviously people who are bad at baseball are rude assholes. Playing baseball teaches cooperation and teamwork! How can you work on a team without baseball? Playing teaches you the responsibility to take care of something outside of yourself. People who don’t play baseball are obviously irresponsible since they never learned to do that. People who don’t play baseball can’t do anything for themselves. They’ll never go to school or get a job. They need constant supervision because if you can’t play baseball, you can’t take care of yourself.
In hopes that it will help you get better at the game, you study it carefully, and maybe practice it with the help of special teachers whose job it is to teach kids who are bad at baseball. Now, you begin to improve, slowly, but the kids are now teasing because you need a one-on-one coach and you’re always having to think your way through it and always nervous you’ll do something wrong by throwing the ball to the wrong person or saying the wrong term in the post-game analysis. Quickly, you discover that people have no patience for the fact that you have to think your way through it step-by-step and can’t make the leaps of intuition they can. They start to make fun of you and question your intellect. You patiently explain – yet again – that it’s not that you aren’t smart, it’s that you’re not good at baseball.
“You’re not bad at baseball,” your parents tell you. “You’re just too self-centered to play with others.”
“You’re not bad at baseball,” your teachers say. “You’re just too lazy to put the effort in.”
“You can’t be bad at baseball,” your coach says. “You’re so good at spacial reasoning! No, it’s not that you’re bad at baseball, it’s that you don’t want to be good at baseball. You’re being defeatist.”
Sometime as you near high school you’re reading an article or surfing the internet or watching TV or what have you, and you see an article about aballism. You’ve never heard of aballism before, and you look into what it is. Turns out, it’s a condition that makes it very hard for someone to learn to play baseball! Suddenly, you have an explanation! You’re not lazy or self-centered or defeatist, you’ve got aballism.
You tell your parents about it, and they roll their eyes at you. “You can’t have aballism. People with aballism don’t ever go to fields, and you go all the time. Besides, they don’t think that baseballs really exist. You think that baseballs exist, right?”
When you answer in the affirmative, your parents say, “See? Stop this aballism nonsense. You’re just looking for excuses. You just need to work harder at your baseball.”
You start practicing on your own, when nobody else is around. Memorizing and rehearsing and working at plays, forming mental rules and flow charts so you don’t have to bog yourself down in a game thinking about what you need to do. Sure, sometimes you mess up and use the wrong rule, but as a general rule, you start to improve.
But you can’t shake the suspicion of aballism. Everyone in the articles about it seem so like you! Out of curiosity, you tell yourself, one day you look up strategies for dealing with aballism, and find a lot of the flow charts you figured out on your own duplicated in professional material, and a lot of the tips they have help you a lot. The strategies other people have always given you – how to find motivation to play, how to work harder at your conditioning, getting better equipment so you look more like your teammates, etc, have always ranged from unhelpful to counter-productive, but this stuff works!
You hit another road bump: You realize that people have little respect for those who practice alone and follow rules. Fakes, they’re called. Two-faced. Dishonest. After all, how can you learn teamwork by practicing alone, and if they’re not playing how they naturally would, but rather doing what they think others expect them to do, how can you tell who they really are? You don’t see how it’s any different than what people who don’t construct these rules do subconsciously – nobody who’s good at baseball ever just sets the ball down and let their opponent have a free home run, after all – but when others start to criticize you for having the same response to a given situation every single time, you realize that it’s important not to let on that you follow these rules and build in some variation so it won’t seem so much like you’re a dishonest rules-follower.
You hear that there’s a stereotype of people like you: that those who don’t understand baseball rules intuitively and instead have to memorize them can’t understand the rules of morality. Some say people like you should be locked up to protect others. You feel more desperate than ever to cover up the fact that you’re bad at baseball.
Eventually, your rules start to take up more and more of your energy to follow as they become more and more complicated. Eventually, you reach a point where so much energy is being spent on your rules that you have nothing left for anything else. Then you start borrowing energy to cope with life. You run out of energy to borrow and crash. While you’ve crashed, you ignore your rules.
Others don’t understand. You’ve stopped trying, they tell you. You’re being difficult, they tell you. You’re not playing whole-heartedly, they say. It’s rude not to do your best at baseball, they chide. You’ll need the virtues taught by good baseball playership when you grow up, your parents warn. Sometimes you have to do stuff you don’t like doing, your teachers extort. But you have no more energy to give and a huge debt to pay. Once you’ve recovered, you start to follow your rules again.
But the cycle repeats. Crash, recover, overload, crash, recover, overload. You can’t emulate good baseball playing and be healthy at the same time. Your crashes get deeper, your recoveries take longer, your overloads come quicker. You get depressed and angry.
You graduate. Fake it enough to get into a decent school. Nothing special like your parents did, and they complain that you are so smart and if you’d just applied yourself to your entrance game the way you do to your video games, you could’ve gone anywhere. You decide you want to go into a field that has a reputation for being sedentary and a stereotype of being populated by those who are bad at baseball. If you work alone, you won’t have to talk baseball, and if you take on extra work, you’ll always have a handy excuse to avoid an after-work game. That’s your plan, anyway.
You make friends with those who also are bad at baseball. You spend a lot of time with each other doing things that aren’t baseball. Sometimes you play other ball games, always with consideration for what makes each other bad with ball games. Sometimes you even play baseball. Not always, and only with people who don’t mind the odd ball fumble or throw to the wrong base.
One day, one of your friends says something that strikes deep into your core.
“What’s so wrong about being bad at baseball?”