I ranted on Twitter and turned it into an infographic! Feel free to use with attribution.
I’ve read and listened to some utterly infuriating commentary this week from reputable media on sending kids back to physical classrooms. Here are some of the reasons:
- Kids are unlikely to get seriously ill.
- Rates of infection are not currently higher in school populations than the population at large.
- Screens are ruining their brains.
- Remote learning is imperfect.
- Kids are getting behind in their education.
- Kids need normalcy.
I will now call bullshit on these points.
- Yes, kids are less likely to get seriously ill with COVID but there are several things missing from this picture. Their teachers can get it and die or be permanently disabled. Several children have died. We don’t know how long (if at all) people are immune after recovery or what the long term effects are, including on kids. School staff can be in high risk categories and will be put at unacceptable risk. Kids can be silent spreaders. They can bring it home to you, and you can spread it to others before you become symptomatic. Dead or hospitalized parents are more traumatic that Zoom. Accidentally killing your grandparents–also more traumatic than Zoom school. Permanently destroying the health of their teachers and other school staff – No. Just no. They signed up to educate you kids, not die for your denial soaked facsimile of normalcy.
- When you talk about rates of infection you are essentially talking about acceptable losses. We do not have acceptable losses in the US. We have unacceptable, preventable losses. We have no plan, no tracking, no tracing. Very little testing for screening. What is an acceptable loss? A parent? A kindergarten teacher? A janitor? The principal? 4% of janitors? 20% of teachers? This is not a fucking land war. It’s a fast-spreading, unpredictable, and sometimes fatal or disabling disease that nobody should have to expose themselves to so we can all fake that everything is fine.
- Screens are not ruining kids brains. They never have. Kids are creative and social, and the internet provides myriad was for your kids to be creative and social that is developmentally appropriate for their age. Is it better than playing with kids outside? That’s an apples and oranges question. Would I love for my daughter to have a sleepover with her best friends who she hasn’t seen in more than half a year? Hell, yes. But not at the expense of lives of permanent lung or heart damage. Seriously. Get over the screen thing and educate yourself about age-appropriate games, education, and social media. Oh, and there is no diagnosis for game or screen addiction in non-adults. It’s a myth. Make some clear rules and stick to them. Don’t hobble what entertainment and social contact your kid has because you read the internet was going to rot their brains. It’s not. There are tons of websites for evaluating games and platforms for kids.
- Yes. Yes it is. Online learning has been a hot fucking mess for my daughter. It is not perfect. It is not normal. You know what else isn’t normal? A GLOBAL FUCKING PANDEMIC. Get the fuck over it. Zoom may not be your or your kid’s favorite thing but neither is killing Grandma. Just get the fuck over yourselves.
- Kids have amazing neuroplasticity. And you know what they can learn about right now, even if they are behind in useless standardized testing? The world around them. Social justice. The environment. Cooking. Art. Music. Programming. They will continue to grow and develop and learn when you stop freaking out about whether or not they will get into Harvard and just let them be kids.
- Kids need honesty way more than they need normalcy. They soak up stress and sense lies. There is no normalcy available to provide them with. They know stuff is weird and stressful and they pick up WAY MORE than you think they do. Talk to them about why everything is weird in a developmentally appropriate way. You can shelter them from the worst of the trash fire that is our country right now, but you can’t hide it. Be a grownup and figure out what you kids need to feel empowered and knowledgeable. They will surprise you.
Thus ends my current rage list. In summary STOP PRETENDING LIKE EVERYTHING IS FINE. EVERYTHING IS NOT FINE. Deal with reality as it is, not how you would like it to be, and show your kids the respect of valuing their lives and the lives of their teachers over your need to convince yourself that normal is just around the corner. It’s not.
I have been learning about and teaching through the lens of Trauma Informed Pedagogy (TIP) for a couple years at the college level. Here are some of my basic assumptions and practices:
- I don’t know peoples’ stories.
- Many people have experienced trauma and I cannot predict or judge how my curriculum may affect them.
- I recognize that discrimination-based trauma is ubiquitous and I do my best to acknowledge harm and make amends when I cause, misunderstand, or overlook it.
- I try to center marginalized voices in my classroom.
- I acknowledge the influence of colonialism and patriarchy on the formation of philosophy and science and try to provide access to research by non-white voices.
- I provide trigger-warnings and alternate assignments for topics such as hate crime, police violence against people of color, domestic abuse, child abuse, and sexual abuse.
- I allow students to actively use self-care, including leaving the classroom or engaging in non-distracting breaks (drawing or looking at phones) if they are feeling triggered.
- I discuss and provide resources for counseling, mindfulness, and self-care on and off campus.
This is just a starter list – I expand it as I go and learn new things. In the Zoom school world, there has been conversation about video and how to manage TIP while teaching online. As a professor, it really helps when I can see my students’ video feeds. Screaming into the void is hard and exhausting. However, I don’t mandate video use because, again, I don’t know people’s stories. They might be homeless. They might be sick. They might be having a bad hair day. I’m not God, and I don’t get to choose for people how shitty they are feeling and which reasons are valid.
My daughter started the 5th grade this week and it’s mostly on Zoom. She did Camp Half Blood this summer for 4 weeks, all online, and it was EPIC. Like so good. So she’s fairly comfortable with the technology and how it works. But it’s very different to be in a Zoom classroom with stressed out teachers and stressed out kids with stressed out parents, trying to have a “normal” school day. I feel for the teachers. It is a whole damn thing to try and make this work with 10 year olds–can you imagine what it is like for first graders? I can’t even.
But here’s the thing. Some topics, like in my classes, are intellectual and easily discussed without getting overly emotional. Some are not. My kid spends most of her day with her two main teachers, and a few short sessions a day with the PE, Art, Music, Chinese, Library and Social Emotional Learning teachers. These topics are not all the same. How kids react to them is not going to be the same for a variety of reasons.
I want to see TIP practiced in elementary schools. If you are talking to kids about feelings and stress, they may get stressed out. They may have had relatives die in the last few months. Their parents may be out of work. They might be food insecure. Don’t force them on camera. Don’t make them parrot words back at you. Don’t threaten to call their parents in front of other kids.
Like just don’t.
Need to call on kids in math class? Probably fine. But remember, you don’t know their life. You don’t know if one of their parents is drunk and abusive and at home. You don’t know if they are worried about not having new clothes and looking bad to other kids. You don’t know if they have shitty bandwidth.
You. Don’t. Know.
I need elementary school teachers and counselors and administrators to recognize this nothing is normal right now. Pantomiming normal is not helpful for kids, it’s confusing. Compassion is helpful. Grace is helpful. Many teachers know this and do endless amounts of emotional labor to help kids feel safe. But please remember that kids do not have the same capacity for denial as adults. They can’t filter, and they can’t choose what makes them feel scared.
Whether you teach grad students or kindergarteners, please remember that you do not know what they have seen or experienced in the past few months. It is not your place to judge. We have to do our best to provide education under the weirdest of circumstances, and if we want our students to give us a break when we screw up, we need to afford them the same respect, no matter their age.
My family (my husband, daughter, and I) recently decided to invite another family to be part of our quarantine bubble, or Quaranteam. Texas is sucking mightily at flattening the curve (All Hail the Ravening EconoBeast), and most of us have pulled our kids out of the summer camps that remain, expecting to have a long, hot, boring, socially distant summer. The family we teamed up with is compatible in lots of ways: two kids that my kid went to preschool with, the older of whom is close in age, working from home/staying home parents, and a commitment to minimal exposure to COVID-19 through quarantine, the use of masks, grocery delivery, etc. We’ve hung out a lot over the last few years because it helped wear out our kids and gave us other interesting grownups to talk to and they are fantastic humans. We are politically compatible and share interests in nerd things. I’ve also hung out with both partners individually doing stuff like lunch or gaming. We all get along pretty well. It’s no small feat to find a group of seven humans who can stand each other most of the time. Sometimes our kids get into it, as kids do, but it works pretty well.
It was a huge relief to be near other people when we finally took the plunge. Whatever mental or physical deficiency (probably both) comes from not being able to be with your people was mightily assuaged just by an afternoon of hanging out and letting our kids play. We fist bumped. The kids hugged. Seeing my only child get her first hugs from other kids in forever weeks made me a little verklempt.
So I was explaining it to my therapist, and I kept coming up with this seemingly weird parallel. When I was 17, I moved to San Francisco to go to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, where I got two degrees and worked while flying around for auditions, so I was there for about seven years in all. I lived there from 1989-1996, during the worst of the AIDS crisis. Nobody close to me died, but people very close to people close to me did. A lot. Sex was dangerous. San Francisco is also a famously sex-positive, kink-friendly city that was an LGBTQ haven in a still homophobic country.
The upside of this is that sex was practiced frequently, enthusiastically, creatively, and very carefully negotiated in advance to ensure minimal risk. Everyone knew someone with HIV. Didn’t matter if you were gay or straight, in a city where those lines were super blurry to begin with, it was common courtesy to 1) disclose your sexual activities with prospective new partners, 2) discuss types of protection (and/or contraception if pregnancy was a possibility), and 3) disclose the last time you were tested or get tested before engaging with a new partner, even a casual one. There was a hotline you could call for free to find out the latest information on transmission and prevention. There was (is) a fantastic store for books, toys, videos, cheap high quality condoms and other protectives that was laid out like a clean well lit book store and not a creepy sex shop. Absent was the furtive, guilty, ignorant behavior often associated with sex, and sadly, still very much present in states where sex-ed is banned or limited to abstinence “education.” Yes those are snarky quotes.
So anyway, here are the weird parallels. We are trying to protect ourselves and our loved ones from a debilitating and potentially fatal disease. This is drastically changing our behavior patterns. When we didn’t understand how HIV was spread (and not spread) abstinence was the only safe option. Just as quarantine is the only safe option when we can no longer control the spread of COVID-19. We still have human needs for connection and proximity, which come into conflict with our desire to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. Hence, we deliberately, carefully, negotiate terms of engagement in a way that will hopefully carry minimum risk and maximum gratification. Same/Same. Ish.
The other parallels are much darker. Spread of HIV among heterosexual populations where discussing sex and prevention is taboo is still a problem, especially in places where effective treatment is too expensive or unavailable. Such is the case with COVID-19. But instead of people half way across the world being in danger, it’s us. Our government has utterly failed at controlling the spread of COVID-19, and the ignorance of much of our population, combined with structural inequality that puts low wage workers at much higher risk with little power to control their levels of exposure. Others refuse to believe that a virus is more powerful than they and act as if there is no danger. All of these issues exponentially increase the likelihood of infection for everyone else. In the 90s, if nothing else, we could stop having sex. But we can’t stop breathing, or eating, or working, and those activities or the activities that enable them put us and our loved ones at risk.
So I am happy to have some more people to hang out with and practice safe quarantining (as safe as we can be with an airborne pathogen), but I continue to be concerned about the misinformation and blatant idiocy that is keeping this disease active and dangerous. We are so lucky to have compatible friends and jobs where we can quarantine easily. We are also the recipients of tremendous unearned privilege. As my mental health improves, I wonder how I can compensate for this in some way. For those of you similarly safe – respect safe distance from others. Tip the crap out of delivery people. Speak loudly (and financially) in support of higher wages and safe working conditions for the people keeping our children fed. Don’t forget that the ability to quarantine safely is anything but universal. And just as the AIDS crisis of the 1990s was not the fault of the victims, but of a negligent government, your ability to avoid infection now doesn’t mean that you have done anything special to deserve it.
Yes, that is a cheap headline. Sue me.
As a cyberpsychology researcher and generally internet thinky-person, I spend a lot of time defending electronic forms of communication and community from the “get off my lawn” crowd who tend to view it as an abomination, or hotbed for addiction, or being solely comprised of the worst that it embodies. However, research (including mine) has shown, the internet is just us. Good, bad, ugly, beautiful, wise, and ignorant. Like any creation of humanity, it’s just us.
Similarly, coming from a very Dawkins-esk background, I heard a lot of “religion makes people stupid” and “religion is irrational” growing up. Nope. Religion is people. It is the best and worst of us and everything in between. Dogmatic beliefs are in no way relegated to just believers. Whether or not you experience the divine, the range of human experience can’t be bracketed out of the institutions we create. Religion doesn’t make people stupid. People make people stupid. The internet does not make people cruel. People make people cruel.
Does this mean that the internet is the same as non-digital socialization? Nope. So while the whole internet addiction mishigas has taken a backseat in a world where the internet is the only thing that connects us to people outside our homes, the news, medical information, and myriad other things, I’m now taking a hard look at what digital communication leaves out.
I’ve always believed that digital communication enhances human connection and that people are way too quick to judge the quality of digital communication. Sometimes they don’t even realize it’s taking place. A student told me about a time she and her shy, adolescent cousin were texting each other in the same room. Her mom chewed them out for being antisocial when it was actually one of the best conversations they’d had. A friend spotted me and my husband looking at our phones instead of each other in a restaurant. She gave us a hard time for not “connecting.” One of our favorite things to do is read quietly together, and we hadn’t been able to do it in months because we had a young child. So date night was when we would read together, at dinner, on our phones. These instances of misinterpretation are minor but telling about the value people place on digital activity. For people who are homebound due to illness or disability, digital connection may be the primary form of human connection they have.
In the time of Covid-19, those of us who have access to the internet are relying on our computers and phones to connect with friends and family with whom we can’t meet in person. I often find myself feeling unsettled or sad after Zoom sessions with friends, and drained after Zoom classes and student meetings. It’s funny because one of my main struggles during the not end-times is with social anxiety and hypervigilance. I tend to worry after being social if I have done something insensitive or humiliating or exposing. I’ve worked pretty successfully on methods to diffuse this anxiety, especially since my job entails potentially making an ass of myself about 9 times a week in front of an audience and I don’t have time to freak out about it. Social anxiety can be released as it is just unsettled energy in my body. Stop ruminating and relax the body and presto. Okay, it took a lot of therapy and practice, but still, presto. I can let that shit go most of the time.
But now I face a whole new set of struggles, and this time it’s not particular to my psyche. I still have some social anxiety from online interaction, but less than in FTF interaction. What I have more of is this sense of being drained of energy and feeling emotionally unfulfilled. The more intimate the relationships, the more intense the feelings. I talked to a friend who is a therapist and she posited that our brains are in search mode for the other social cues we get during face to face interaction. This is similar to an article I read on the exhaustion many of us feel around quarantine. In both situations it’s like that spinning search thing on your computer – it’s like a background process that’s always going and not finding what it needs but is draining computational power. In the case of connection, it’s our psyche’s need for physical proximity and the information that we don’t get online. Sympathetic nervous systems stuff, the full range of visual information, movement, microexpressions, pheromones, smell, and touch if the relationship involves that.
I miss proximity. I miss it a lot.
In many of my classes, I emphasize research that has shown that strong social connections and close relationships are significant predictors for longevity. They are much more highly correlated with longevity than diet or exercise (just a lot harder to commoditize). These connections are also interdependent – a thing US culture has a really fucking hard time with, as evidenced by our inability to recognize that our individual and collective survival during this pandemic are inexorably linked. So when I talk to my students about it, I urge them to remember to prioritize social connection as they move into a period of their lives that can be very isolating. Whether it’s graduate school or their first job-job, social connection is no longer built into the environment and is, in fact, fraught in ways that it is not during their undergraduate years. Friendships at work are tricky and need to form over time. Dating at work is risky at best. Graduate school is notoriously isolating and graduate students tend to have very poor mental health. I try to teach them that we have to really push against our perfectionistic, bootstrappy, individualistic culture because it can be quite literally bad for our health.
Which leaves us where, exactly, right now? I really feel the loss of connection day-to-day. Seeing my students and talking to them after class while we walk to our next stops. Lunches with friends. Hanging out with other parents on the weekends and letting our kids play while we chat. Chatting with servers, and checkers, and other random people in my usually friendly city. Just sharing eye contact and a smile. I’m learning how to read smiles through masks, but I’m not out often enough for it to feed that part of me that is just starving right now.
I’m glad Zoom is a thing. I’m lucky to have internet-linked devices and good wifi at home. I love all the different ways I can contact my people, and sharing memes and stupid videos and random thoughts or pictures of my kid being extra. But I still feel this tug in my heart. I want to be with my people. Just near them. I am maintaining the rules of social distancing because I understand how this virus works and I do not want to get sick with it or god forbid, give it to other people. So this isn’t complaining. I’m just reflecting on the realization that I am suffering from withdrawal from a drug that we all need. And that I will not take for granted again.
There will be lots of studies on this. Actually, there are a crapton of studies already starting. They will measure the effectiveness of coping, and mental health among different quarantined demographics, and the effects of socioeconomic status on mental health, and cortisol levels before and after a video chat with a friend, and lots more necessary stuff. But I hope that we also, as researchers, really dig into the emotional and physical phenomena that we and others are experiencing during this time due to separation. What is happening to our bodies when it feels like our hearts are shriveling up? What does loneliness taste like during this weird-ass time? How do we and others describe it? What will we experience when we come out of our caves again? Will it look like PTSD or will it be something new?
Who will we be, and who will we be to each other, once this is over?
Oh, the naive me of like two weeks ago. Okay, not really. But trauma fatigue is a thing, and we are all dealing with it to varying degrees based on 1) our circumstances and 2) our ability to deal with ambiguity and stress. I’m not going to self-own by trying to do neuropsychology, but basically, our brains spend a lot of time trying to deal with the ambiguity and stress, which has a lot of physical and psychological effects. Brain fog. Exhaustion. Insomnia. Weird-ass dreams. Aches and pains.
I’ve posited privately that those of us cursed with an overactive imagination and a tendency towards anxiety are uniquely prepared to deal with, as it turns out, a pandemic. I’ve seen this reflected back in some of the articles and posts of fellow worriers. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It went and dropped. Now I just have to wait it out and not spend a lot of time and energy freaking out about what I can’t control. Which is totally weird, since I often freak out about what I can’t control. But I know it’s not just me. I am not wasting my energy trying to deny the science or convince myself that nothing is really wrong. I guess worrying about existential realities all the time makes it easier to deal with existential realities? It’s not that I’m unbothered — I’m super bothered. This all sucks. I just don’t see the need to retreat into projection or denial to cope. Imma listen to the epidemiologists because they know how disease works and do my best to keep myself and my family as safe as we can.
My neighborhood had a sign up at the mailbox last week. It suggested having dinner on your front lawn and talking to your neighbors. We didn’t, because mosquitos, but my kid and I took a walk in the early evening. Clusters of people were hanging out in yards, clearly several households, no masks, much closer than 6 feet from one another. One of my neighbors hailed us and invited us to join them. We did not.
Why does my 10 year old understand this shit better than my educated upper-middle-class neighbors? How can anyone avoid the fact that this disease is airborne? I’m probably not the most responsible of the people I know. I still visit the grocery store occasionally and I don’t wipe down groceries and deliveries. I wash my hands for 20 seconds after any contact with the outside world and hope for the best. I wear a mask if I’m going to be shopping or picking anything up. Mostly we stay inside and when we take walks we keep our distance from others.
This does not infringe upon my liberty because it’s a safety issue. Others have said this better than me so I won’t harp. But seriously. Seriously. Working together to prevent community spread and keep our infection rate and death toll low is, to me, just a basic human society thing to do. Don’t dump your garbage in the street. Don’t pour motor oil down the sewer. DON’T ACTIVELY PARTICIPATE IN INCREASING THE DEATH TOLL IN YOUR CITY.
Every day our mayor holds an update. He talks about infection rates, deaths, and recoveries. The numbers are going up. Not creeping up–going up. Meanwhile, our governor and other public servants are forcibly opening up businesses with the threat of withholding unemployment and other benefits. As far as I’m concerned, this is state-mandated genocide. And yet people in my community are trolling the comments, claiming that the death toll is inflated (it’s not) and the mayor overreacted (he didn’t). I find this so frustrating.
Here’s a funny thing about systems theories. They are widely adopted in business and economics. Economists understand the interconnected nature of cultural systems, psychological systems, ecological systems, and financial systems. And yet. This drive to free Americans from the tyranny of trying to save our own fucking lives is predicated on saving the mythical beast that is the economy. Milton Friedman, champion of unfettered, unregulated capitalism as Utopia famously wrote, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Meaning that corporations bear no responsibility to the multiple ecosystems inside and outside their constructed boundaries, only that they must grow profits indefinitely for the benefits of shareholders. This ignores the more common folk wisdom of don’t shit where you eat. This Randian thinking has lead to the fiction of trickle-down economics and the eventual marriage of white supremacy and American exceptionalism to some particularly weird interpretations of Christianity (that seem to avoid the whole “being rich is bad” and “blessed are the meek” and “judge not” bits) with a dash of gun-nut culture, paranoia, and nourished on a steady diet of Fox News, Infowars, and OAN.
As I observed a couple weeks ago, for some people it seems to be easier to distort reality than to deal with it. When the sources of information with which you are surrounded (or surround yourself) feed you this steady diet of being the center of the known universe, I guess it’s pretty hard to pull back and take a look at the bigger picture, in which a microscopic organism is actually much, much bigger than you.
That doesn’t mean that I understand the people engaged by the latest round of enthusiastic astroturfing and hijacking of reality. I mean, I kind of do? It took me a while to really grapple with bearing some of the collective responsibility for the harm done by white women and white feminists. I, too, was raised to think I was a good person, and as a good person, I couldn’t say or think racist things. I was super wrong, and I had to go through the phases of being defensive and dismissive, and then trying to prove to POC I was “woke” (God I’m so sorry for being insufferable), and then eventually learning to lean into my discomfort and responsibility and educate my own damn self. I’m sure I have many layers left to unpack. But it’s not like I haven’t fucked up and had to own up to harm before, so there’s that–I just had to do it on a more global scale. It hurt, but it was necessary. So I guess I transitioned from White Guilt to maybe white responsibility, or at least the beginnings of it. There is a term for this in Transformative Learning Theory. It’s called the “disorienting dilemma.” It means that when adults, though education, are forced to re-evaluate their fixed identities and behavior, it can be psychologically disturbing. If your pedagogy is informed by this theory, you have to scaffold the learning process to allow for the emotions that come up. I think of this in terms of a psychological container – a set of norms and rules in my classroom that allow for respectful expression of difficult emotions and reactions.
I also feel like, as fucked up as the Ph.D. process is in so many ways, it also kind of cracked my brain open and forced me to see into the innards of things. My brain developed some capacity it didn’t have before. I’m not smarter. I just went through this intense re-training of how I examine the world and myself and process information and that helped me do that zooming out thing, independent of how I’m feeling at any given moment. If I can do anything lasting for my students, it’s supporting their innate ability to see the bigger picture and helping them learn to communicate it.
A couple years ago I had a student ask me why anti-vaxxers were a thing. I’m getting very similar questions now, often with that comparison. My answer about the anti-vaxxers was this: Becoming a parent utterly terrifying because for the rest of your life the most terrifying thing you can imagine is losing your child. And there is no way you can completely guarantee that it won’t happen. You have to live with your inability to completely protect them for the rest of your life. It is AWFUL. As an anxiety-prone person I was uniquely NOT prepared for this. It knocked me on my ass for several years. Eventually, I grew the capacity to not fixate on that fear but to also not deny it. I suspect that anti-vaxxers find comfort in believing that they are helping their children survive more than the rest of us sheeple, thus temporarily relieving the crushing existential fear. Of course, this involves building and moving into a citadel of misinformation that actually puts their children (and vulnerable children) at considerably higher risk. But the projection acts as a crutch, and there is enough misinformation out there to live comfortably in that citadel as long as your kid doesn’t get measles or FUCKING POLIO.
So anyway. When my students are once again asking me why white ppl are ignoring basic science in favor of whatever the hell it is they think they are fighting for, this is the explanation I think about. It’s the closest I can get. I studied defense mechanisms via fatphobia on the internet for my dissertation, and there was a lot of, “well you’re going to die before me because diabetes and laziness” with the unspoken coda being “so I’m safe from worrying about an untimely death for a little while”.
The current madness, however, has taken shape and been propagated much, much faster than most of this stuff. The American psyche is already fertile ground for paranoia and projection, but I’m pretty sure some other actors have been surfing this wave, much as they did during the last Presidential election.
I guess I wanted to believe that we were better than this. I know sociologists and historians and cultural theorists and multi-disciplinary weirdos like me will look at how the world has coped with COVID-19 and try to figure out why South Korea and Germany and New Zealand managed to avoid a significant death toll while the US and the UK and Sweden shat the bed. I’m sure we will argue about it for decades. But I wonder if exceptionalism has something to do with it. I wonder if there are aspects of culture that prepare people to cope with our extremely limited control over our environment in a way that seemingly similar cultures do not. Or maybe we just had more and less competent leaders. That is certainly a thing.
Here’s my final point in this ramble. The economy is not really a thing. It’s people. The ruling class in America has been burning incense and making sacrifices a deified ideal that is really just this hollow, fake, golden calf that they believe exists as an independent entity to which we must sacrifice, in this case our elderly, poor, prison population, and interred immigrants. Just ask Dan Patrick. But it’s just people. Shareholders only really exist when we think of money as an entity. Take away that ideology, and it’s just people, making stuff, trading it, and living their lives. The sooner we can break free of this batshit crazy illusion, the better.
The coronavirus has taken over all our lives, one way or another. I’m extremely fortunate to be able to keep working by teaching from home. My husband works from home. My daughter is also home and doing some schoolwork for the remainder of the semester. So I’m teaching 6 zoom sessions a week, plus meetings, plus doing most of the homeschooling, plus child-rearing and trying to manage her trauma and my own. It is a lot. But I am insanely lucky and privileged.
I have a lot of thoughts and a lot of feels. I’ve been through periods of trauma before. I was in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. I remember the giddy numbness that eventually faded into jumpiness and fear. But I’ve been home by order of our city since the middle of March and the giddiness and dissociation has started to wear off. What’s left behind is sadness and rage.
The sadness is for all the pain people are experiencing. For the people dying without their loved ones and their loved ones not being able to be there for the dying. I’ve been at a deathbed, and it is a traumatic but also sacred experience. I’m sad for the health care providers, caught in a tug of war between public servants and a financially and morally bankrupt industry and a toxic, dysfunctional government. So many have already died. All of this makes me deeply sad.
The rage is about the sheer idiocy that is pervading our government, and the idiocy of the people who are protesting or flouting basic safety measures that don’t go nearly far enough. I write and think about systems theories, a lot. I wrote this piece about systems theory and the environment and human limitations almost two years ago. I’ve been thinking about it.
The thing that has always gotten me isn’t the cruelty that is so obviously from a place of trauma and fear. I don’t approve of cruelty and believe it should be stopped whenever possible, but I understand how trauma can turn into psychotic projection, and how society creates an environment for it.
What gets me is the casual cruelty and dismissal that is so common and mundane. I can wrap my head around someone telling a fat person they should kill themselves because the source of their pain is so obvious. It’s abusive and not helpful or generative, but it’s a clear demonstration of projected trauma. I have a much, much harder time with this binary, cause and effect, self-centered, casual cruelty that causes people to rearrange reality so they don’t have to feel uncomfortable. Right now I see it everywhere and it’s making me miserable and angry.
Austin’s mayor got ahead of the curve (for Texas) and put in place rules for social distancing and shutting down non-essential services. We have had relatively few deaths for a population of a million. Cases are rising faster now, however, because it seems that many people can’t understand the basic trajectory of a contagious untreatable disease. You get it. You spread it to others before you get symptoms. They spread it to others before they get symptoms. People die.
I have some theories about this blindness. Particularly because the people protesting and calling health measures fascism are mostly my age or older and white.
White people are totally centered by American society. We grow up seeing people who look like us achieving the pinnacle of success in every field and sector of society. When we suffer, it’s tragic. When the other (black, latinx, disabled, gay, etc) suffers it must be because they have done something to make it happen.
This is a grossly distorted view of reality. Humans are not the primary system on this planet and our little genetic differences in appearance matter not at all to organisms like viruses and bacteria. Our constructions of societies and languages and countries and tribes matter not at all. And we are not the most intelligent system. The earth is. The earth is a system that is vastly more complex and intelligent than people on our very best day. Intelligent doesn’t mean conscious. And I am starting to doubt how important consciousness is to our survival as a species after all, since we seem to be using it to rationalize doing really, really stupid shit.
We are tiny organisms that are part of a much, much larger ecosystem. Population control via disease is a basic tool in nature’s toolbox. As many scientists have said, it was only a matter of time.
But white men (and women) have been living in an imaginary world where we are the masters of nature and our primacy in society is due to some assumed superiority of mind or spirit. And suddenly, we can’t escape the reality that we are very, very small in the scheme of things. We are helpless in the face of this virus, and we have a very small, very disruptive set of things we can do in the short term to keep from dying off in the millions.
White people can’t deal with this basic existential reality because we have been raised on exceptionalism. We breathe it, eat it, see it constantly in media ane art, and are constantly reminded that we are uniquely connected to the best of what humanity has achieved by our whiteness. So now there are protests and conspiracy theories (I particularly love the one about Bill Gates engineering the virus – because of course, it has to be a white man wreaking havoc on our species – it can’t be a non-sentient hyper-intelligent system we have no control over).
So faced with the existential terror of a death we cannot project or blame on someone other we create fantasy worlds where the virus is a hoax and people are not dying by the thousands every day and our president isn’t lying and stealing supplies from destitute hospitals full of workers who are dying while trying to save our lives. Where governors and mayors who are trying to save lives are actually Nazis trying to steal our personal liberty (whatever the hell that is) and where going to church won’t result in countless deaths over months as community spread creeps through our communities.
I don’t know how to cope with this. There is no Schadenfreude if these morons get sick, because by the time they do they will have infected hundreds of innocent people who are just trying to survive. They will orphan their kids. They will kill their parents. All because they can’t handle being small. This virus reminds us that we are tiny. I believe in God, and I believe that I am loved by God. But I don’t believe God loves me more than they love the ants I have killed by pest control or the Arctic animals losing their habitats. God doesn’t love me more than the black families who can’t get decent health care because of racism and exposure to toxic chemicals and stupid white people who refuse to pay attention to scientists. I am not loved more than the ant, or the person with darker skin than me, or the undocumented immigrant, or the endangered species. My God is the Universe, and they don’t play favorites with humanity.
I’ve been yelled at online by multiple people in the last few weeks who say I’m a terrible teacher because I question authority and that z-paks cure the virus and that black people are high-risk because they make bad decisions and our mayor is actually Hitler because face masks. And then I see the same bullshit said from the podium of the white house and from national news and retweeted over and over again. And I think, huh. If having consciousness means we can distort reality to the point that we do nature’s job for her and reduce our species’ population by millions, is consciousness really a sign of advanced evolution (or God’s favor), or is it a failsafe for Nature? Are the limitations of our ability to understand that we are not actually the center of God’s creation what will keep us from destroying it? That is terrifying and sad.
My daughter understands how community spread works and she’s 10. My students, on the cusp of adulthood, are arguing with their parents and grandparents about staying home while finishing natural science degrees from one of the best universities in the country. It’s not getting through.
I’m out of thoughts. I hope that somehow people come to terms with our smallness and start doing everything we can to slow the spread of this disease so we can make better decisions about how to live as a species on this planet in the future. But for now, I’m just sad. Here is a song that helps me connect to my sadness and to my kinship with all those suffering right now:
I have a batch of student graduating and with that comes the existential dread of what adulting will be like. I usually ask my Ethics class to come up with questions for me to answer the last week of school. I’m going to post some of my better responses here for posterity.
Question: What is up with not being motivated? Can I make myself more motivated? (paraphrased)
Answer: Motivation is a big issue, and there’s no easy fix. I’ve been highly motivated to do lots of stuff in my life, and some of it worked out and some of it didn’t. I’ve also had motivation issues with really important things that I eventually trudged my way through.
I believe we have an inner voice (or a bunch of them) that guides us, but sometimes that voice gets drowned out by other stuff like an obligation, financial reality, the need to be accepted or admired, etc. Also, what makes life meaningful changes as we age.
If one topic keeps you really in the zone (interested, time passes quickly, challenges are exciting instead of daunting) and another makes you exhausted and miserable, you might explore the former. That said, I’ve endured some stuff I mostly hated (dissertation review, for example) to get where I wanted to be, but my overall goal got me through. I’ve also had the same activity be amazing in one context (school) and totally and utterly awful in another (running a business).
We are creatures of impulse, and sometimes too many impulses pull on us at once. Sometimes it helps to write down or visualize what we want and what the barriers are (and what we are spending time on instead). Try to do this with curiosity, rather than self-judgment or guilt. I’ve used mind maps, spreadsheets, and journaling to concretize my ideas – whatever worked at the time. I’ve also worked with coaches a few times and therapists a lot.
Finally, I think the best decisions are when your heart, brain, and body are all on the same page (and this includes friends, partners, jobs, pretty much anything that has a big impact on your life)
Body – Do you feel energized and have stamina when you’re engaged with the activity (person, etc)? Do you feel balanced? Or do you feel wiped out? Do you end up relieving stress in ways that wear you out more? (staying up too late, drinking alcohol, or my personal favorite, too much coffee)
Mind – Does it make rational sense to pursue this avenue? What are the long and short term pros and cons?
Heart – Do you feel fulfilled, safe, joyful, peaceful, excited? Or fearful, angry, competitive, or insecure?
No career/person/etc is 100% perfect. I’ve had 4ish careers, and all of them had great things about them and suck things about them. It’s really about the balance. As a teacher, I have to fight really hard to carve out time for my family and physical/mental health (because of that 24-hour semester thing), and academic politics are just stupid. But in return, I get a lot of control, the opportunity to be creative and to continually learn and improve. For me, teaching is a career that’s max on fulfilling and min on the suck parts.
That’s especially important for me because the combination of being a recovering perfectionist and a highly competitive person can really mess me up. Teaching, ultimately, is not about me so I can let go of the need to compare myself to others. Someone will always think I’m amazing (even my first semester 8 years ago when I sucked) and someone will always think I’m totally lame (no matter how much other students like my classes). I find this strangely freeing. In some ways, it can be helpful to work against type. Make of that what you will. And watch Hannah Gadsby’s Ted Talk – she talks about this too.
TW for eating disorder discussion
Life is crazy right now, but these thoughts have been stewing in my brain and body and I need to get them out on the page.
Society’s basic approach to eating and having a body, especially for women, is highly disordered. We don’t just have an eating disorder crisis, we have a society full of people teetering on the edge of (or really quite over the edge of) highly disordered relationships to food, eating, bodies, and self.
For as long as I can remember, the women around me talked about how much they hated parts of their bodies and how they were restricting their diets as penance and punishment. They compared themselves to others, positively or negatively. While my parents tried much harder than many in my generation to feed me and my brother fresh food, it was often framed in terms of suffering for a reward, which does not engender any kind of positive relationship to hunger or cravings. Tasty food was “bad” and healthy food, delicious or not, was “good”.
Animals do not worry about bad and good foods. They eat what their physiology dictates when it dictates. We are animals. We are wired to eat what we need when we need it. But girls are taught from the time they can understand the language spoken around them that their bodies are flawed, their need to eat is a sign of weakness, and vanquishing hunger, though any means possible, is a sign of moral strength and fortitude.
This is so beyond fucked up.
The amount of diet culture I had absorbed by the time I was seven and my parents started actively trying to restrict my diet and change my eating habits (they claimed I ate too fast. Food insecurity causes people and animals to eat what they can when they can and a child can’t tell the difference between a lack of food and the threat of food being taken away) was already verging on disordered. Add into that picture living in Southern California where disordered body relationships and eating were the norms, and parents who were worried that I would get fat and ruin my prospects at a happy life/career/relationship and I was well and truly fucked.
In my late teens, I reasserted control over my life by increasingly restrictive diets and eventually anorexia. It wasn’t like one day I was all, “Anorexia is the answer to all my problems!” I had been soaking in a number of toxic cultures, none of which presented trusting and appreciating my body as an option – only restricting and punishing it. The toxic masculine, rape-culture of the 80s. The beauty worship of Southern California. The health obsession of Northern California. Generational trauma. Abusive relationships. There was no chance for me — I had never seen an example of a woman who loved and nourished her body with pride — or if I had, she had been derided for being too masculine or fat or ugly.
I was a fast learner and I learned this lesson young: Your body is not your own. It’s public domain and it’s your job to manipulate it into the most visually pleasing form at any cost. And no, you don’t get to decide what is visually pleasing. It’s crowdsourced and can change from moment to moment. So dig into that self-hate and spend your adult life trying to be something other than you are, no matter how miserable it makes you or how much energy it leeches from your soul.
I know this may sound extreme. Some of it is. But most of it – not so much. Girls are exposed to unhealthy standards for beauty, size, personality, and eating as early as they can observe the people around them and see commercials, browse YouTube, or flip through a beauty magazine. Girls are taught that their bodies are flawed, unreliable vessels that need to be disciplined and monitored with hypervigilance. They are rarely presented with an alternative – that they are their bodies, and that life is a gift that should not be wasted on obsession with the potential judgment of others.
Who among us was taught that our food preferences were okay? Who among us were told that we were beautiful because we ourselves were wonderful, rather than we were slightly more symmetrical or thin or pale than another girl? Who among us was allowed to naturally enjoy eating?
Our culture is deeply disordered. If we told boys that they were worthless unless they looked like a cartoon version of a man, we would be terrible people. If we thought that breathing too much or too little was a sign of weakness and sloth, we would be instantly diagnosable. If our parents taught us that drinking water was to be approached with the same trepidation and guilt that eating when hungry is, we would be in foster care.
We teach kids to mistrust the core of who they are – the body. The body is not our enemy. It is us. The idea of mind over body, of spirit over mind–that is the disconnect. Our mind is not distinct from our body, not psychologically, and not psychologically. It’s all one organism that we fracture into imaginary pieces. We have to stop doing this to ourselves and to our children. We have to stop.
There are many alternatives that have emerged in recent years. Health at Every Size. Intuitive Eating. More holistic and less objectifying approaches to health and happiness. But it’s still an energy-draining struggle in a culture that thrives on industries that teach us to spend most of our time, money, and energy on fixing problems that are socially and economically constructed to be un-fixable.
I’ve come a long way since my late teens and the height of my eating disorder, but I still catch myself in old thought patterns a lot. Some of them are just stubborn bastards that don’t want to die. I’ve loosened up my ideas of beauty and health tremendously. I’ve learned to enjoy food and movement with much more gusto than I ever imagined. But I’ll never completely shake the darkness that could have taken my life.
We will never cure eating disorders if we don’t treat them until they are literally life-threatening. Our culture breeds disconnection. We have to find a better way.
One of the things that got me thinking about this was my Instagram feed. I’ve been following various body-positive anti-discrimination accounts for several years, but have recently added more HAES ED recovery accounts. I see so much of my own experiences in some of the stories these people have shared, and they’ve made me realize I still have work to do. Internal work and external work. One of the great fallacies of diet culture is that it’s all about willpower and strength and self-control. I promise you, every woman in this society has an iron will when it comes to her body. It’s just that the body wants to survive more than she wants to starve it.
I am an educator – it’s my job to help people unpack their assumptions, but this one is extra tricky. Many people are already on the path to awareness, but did I tell you about that time a nutrition student wrote a paper for my class that wrote off Body Positivity because it won’t make you thin? That happened.
Constant starvation, which is what many diets entail, puts the body in hibernation mode – slowed metabolism, respiration, and heartbeat. When we eat, the body stores the food for future starvation. It is very hard not to gain weight if you have put your body through this shit multiple times. Your body wants to survive, even if you don’t. My favorite quote from The Beauty Myth says,
“A culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience. Dieting is the most potent political sedative in women’s history; a quietly mad population is a tractable one.”
Obsession with controlling our bodies at their own expense is a kind of madness. Starvation is linked with depression and sometimes psychosis. Yet our culture rewards this madness with promises of happiness, love, and success. There are many more disorders linked to how we treat our bodies than anorexia and bulimia. Excessive exercise, excessive restricting of any kind, obsession with “clean” food, all of it can leach the life out of us.
And let’s look at the word “tractable.” If the worst thing someone can say to you is “you’re fat” – that’s pretty fucking tractable. It’s awfully easy to manipulate people who have been conditioned to see other’s reflections of their bodies as their ultimate worth.
If you are struggling with this stuff, keep at it. I somehow managed to make it to middle-aged as a successful, loved, and fulfilled person without being remotely thin. I’m going to keep struggling and eating because that is so much better than ingesting the toxic mess our society and peers have been feeding us.
I’ve been asked to write about hashtag activism, hashtag vigilantism, and hashtag cyberbullying. Sometimes people think they are all the same. They’re not. I’ve been hitting my head against this essay for two weeks and I can’t seem to uncomplicate it enough to write anything coherent. So here are some general thoughts on how hashtags work and the benefits and problems they have. Because I love bullet points. And sentence fragments. Obviously.
- Speech (in the US) is a fucking free for all. You can’t control what people say, who they say it to, or how they say it. This is especially true on the internet because law enforcement doesn’t take online threats seriously (in the US) unless they involve money (fraud).
- Our hate speech laws are weak, and even though direct threats of violence are illegal, they are rarely if ever taken seriously, let alone prosecuted. This makes any ethical discussion super fuzzy. If you want to see a country that takes responsibility for online behavior, look at the UK.
- Hashtags are pretty neat little things – they let people coalesce around just about anything. Events (#marchforourlives), social justice issues (#oscarssowhite, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter), charity fundraising (#familiesbelongtogether), and funny memes (#secondcivilwarletters).
- They are also used for public shaming (#bbqbecky, #permitpatty), and in some extra crap cases (#gamergate) violent, damaging, bigoted attacks.
- The problem is there is no clear line between who does what. And because our legal code don’t give a fuck about online violence, it’s easy to rationalize harmful behavior.
- There seems to be a push to paint all shaming, aggressive, or angry behavior online with the same brush as revenge porn, stalking, doxxing, and swatting.
- The problem in writing about this for me lies in an essential conflict between sociological and psychological perspectives. Something that can be moderately damaging psychologically (shame, fear, anger) can have positive sociological effects if it enforces more equitable social norms. I have no idea how to resolve this epistemologically.
- The closest I get is that there is some psychological research that shows that bullying experiences in youth can have positive outcomes as well as negative ones. We learn where our boundaries are. We learn what strengthens and weakens relationships. We develop a greater sense of right and wrong. We learn to survive.
- So behaviors that can seem mob-like or bullying online, when used to highlight things like social inequality, can be powerful tools.
- Speaking of tools, there are lots of people who are tools and use these tools to be tools. They use hashtags, photoshop, hacking, and other stuff to terrorize people. Not make them uncomfortable–terrorize them. THIS IS NOT THE SAME THING.
- If you are being personally harassed or terrorized online, report it to the website. Report it to the police. Document it on the Southern Poverty Law Center website (#hatewatch) if it has any sexual or racial or otherwise discriminatory tone to it. We can’t make laws if we don’t document this shit.
- Don’t freak out every time someone disagrees with you. There’s a difference between someone calling you an idiot online and someone threatening to kill your kids or all Jews. Learn the difference. Please.
- I’ve been called fat, stupid, ignorant, and various other things online. Oh, and that time some rando told me my insta picture burned his eyes because I was so ugly. Does it suck? Why yes, it sucks. Is it a crime? Nope. But if someone found my personal info and published it widely, published false information about me, or threatened me or my family, I would report the shit out of them.
- The internet gives a collective voice to marginalized people. Black Twitter is a real thing, and it’s vital to change the embedded, structural, institutionalized racism in our country. Reverse-racism is NOT A THING.
- Calling out white people for calling the cops on black people for #existingwhileblack is not terrorism. Is it bullying? Maybe, but I think the social good outweighs the negative. Most social progress has been made through some form of public shaming.
- #metoo same/same. Misandry is not a thing. Rape culture is. Making white men hyperaware of their behavior is not bullying. It’s the cessation of millennia of abuse.
- But if some asshole decides to use that as an excuse to threaten one of those women — be it #bbqbecky or a #metoo participant — he’s breaking the law and should be prosecuted. And here we end up back at the same point – crap laws; no prosecutions.
- Conclusion – we need better hate speech laws and better laws to govern internet behavior. The end.