Cyberpsychology in the Time of Pandemic

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?

Everything is weird. With systems theory and some personal theology.

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:

That time of year

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.

Not a light piece. With systems theory.

I’m in between semesters and have been trying to avoid stress. We just got over a massive stomach flu, and my immunity wasn’t great to begin with from overwork. But holy crap, I just can’t with this country anymore.

I’m a cynical optimist. I know humans are deeply flawed creatures, but there is so much that is amazing in our species. And there is so much that is malevolent. Right now, no matter how badly I want to unplug from the news and the chaos and the constant decay of our democracy and society, I just fucking can’t with it. So two things.

Here’s the deal. We are, as the badass preacher at the royal wedding reminded us, one family. We are one species. We have overrun our planet and our planet is really pissed off at us right now. Try to think of the earth as a massive organism (this is a theoretical thing btw, not just woo-woo talk). It’s a huge, unbelievable complex system with all sorts of redundancies and checks and balances built into it. We can’t possibly understand it, let alone control it. We create stimulus (pollution, emissions, destruction of species and smaller ecosystems) and it responds. We are not destroying this amazing system, but we are making it sick. Its immune system is responding the way any immune system does; throwing off symptoms as it fights the alien intruder bacteria or virus. This is not a battle we can win. We are simply an errant part of the system that has grown out of control and needs to be rebalanced. We cannot control Nature, we can only fight her and lose.

We are amazing creatures, capable of not only self-awareness but universal awareness. We need to help nature fix what we’ve fucked up, and we need to start about a century ago. No amount of oil drilling, fracking, bear hunting, deregulation, water hoarding, or any of the other latest ideas out of our brain trust phony government will work. It will just hasten the vast reduction of our species. We could do that ourselves. We could take population control seriously and environmental preservation seriously and green energy and industry seriously and maybe have some agency in how this goes down. But that means thinking beyond our basest, and currently loudest instincts: individual survival. Which brings me to my other rant.

“But what about the economy?” Nature don’t give a fuck about the economy. We have conceived of capitalism as a system that can grow forever and somehow never run out of resources or consumers. This is unadulterated bullshit, and we are morons to believe it. And it speaks oh so directly to the fundamental problem that seems to be infecting our species yet again, but at a time when technology is so advanced that we actually have other options, if we could finally pull our heads out of our asses.

Man (and by this, I mean white people in particular in the US) cannot deal with the inevitability of  1) their own deaths and  2) their fundamental irrelevance. This is not an anti-religious statement. Most religions, at their cores, say that we are all children of God, all family, and that we will be dying rather soon and so please try not to be horrible while we are here. Blessed be the meek. Blessed be the poor. Your imaginary yacht and McMansion and accumulation of random stuff don’t mean shit to God. You are not special, because everyone is special and unique, and beloved. EVERYONE. If you don’t believe in God just leave out the beloved part, but that’s where I sit with it.

We have collectively lost our minds countless times in history. Humanity has this freaky eject button that jettisons our frontal lobes and causes this mass projection of our most destructive urges onto others. Obvy, Hitler, the Salem Witch Trials, Every Holy War Ever, etc are just a few awesome examples. Underlying the projection is just massive existential fear. The specter of our own death is something we struggle with over our entire lives. It can make us compassionate, neurotic, depressed, loving, or enraged. And when that rage turns outward–when it becomes ingrained in the Zeitgeist and suddenly police lynchings of black people and mass incarceration of immigrant children and violating the fundamental rights of children in favor of the momentary emotional relief of a few terrified, privileged white people with deadly weapons becomes the norm? We have a very serious problem.

Here’s the thing: You can hate Jews for some weird made up reasons about Jews that have never made sense but lead to 5 million of them being murdered less than a century ago, and you will still die. You can kill black men and children and women for making you uncomfortable, or call the police so they can do it, and you will still die. You can rip families apart who are trying to flee horrible conditions for a country that for so long promised something better, and you will still die. You can blame teenage girls for school shootings by white boys so fragile that they can’t tolerate a moment of shame or misery, and you will still die. You can allow white men to keep their murderous febrile attachment objects at the cost of thousands upon thousands of innocent lives, and YOU WILL STILL DIE.

There is no cure for existential fear. We all die. We all have difficulty facing that reality, and many people distort reality in such extreme ways that somehow killing, or accepting the killing of someone deemed different, momentarily relieves this fear. But you will still die.

Humans have this freaky ability to make it all about them. We all do it, and it can be a benign and even healthy way to deal with the many traumas of life. But faced with overwhelming evidence that the Earth is not taking our shit anymore, we are retreating to this gleefully self-destructive individualism that is so self-defeating I can’t even believe it’s happening. We need to stop treating each other as enemies and start figuring out how to make sure our grandbabies have a non-apocalyptic world to grow up in.

As a species, we have had to develop socially and emotionally really, really fast. The holy trinity of Darwin, Freud, and Marx figured all this out in the late 19th century.

Darwin: We are actually animals descended from apes. Whoops, religious exceptionalism.
Freud: We all behave largely based on unconscious urges. Laters, aristocracy.
Marx: Important people are actually parasitic and don’t matter and labor is vital. Bye, social hierarchy.

Much of the subsequent century+ has been about grappling with these basic observations and getting our limited psyches to get on board and find better ways to do society and humanness. We are sucking at it right now. Yes, there have been some massive awakings since our government went to shit, and I hope that they will lead to some vital changes in our country. But that stubborn, socially supported need to center and protect the egos of white adults at the cost of our society and environment has got to end. If not, it will be the end of us. There is much that is lovely about humanity, and I want to imagine it rising to higher levels of connectedness after I am long gone from this earth. But until we fully understand that protecting children and protecting the earth and its glory is the primary function of our lives, rather than the constant defense of an ego that will be dead in a celestial blink, then humanity will continue to run up to the expiration date we (or God) stamped on our foreheads when we became sentient.

To summarize:

  1. Please stop letting the fears of privileged men and women supersede the basic human rights of everyone else. It’s not a good look on you, humanity.
  2. Stop avoiding the inevitability of your death and instead help ensure there will be a place to live for everyone else forever. Start making up with Nature, because you will not win this contest.

If you want to help get some detained children back to their parents, donate here:

https://momastery.com/blog/2018/05/29/emergency-love-flash-mob-for-the-children/

 

The Process of Becoming

water-lilies-bud-pond-green-99548.jpeg

“No mud, no lotus.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I am in a very different place than I was at this time last year. Last year, the momentary high of finishing my PhD had worn off and I was terrified that I would never get a real job and consign my family to even more financial strain as my student loans came due. It sucked, and evolved into depression and panic attacks, mediated only by a lot of time at the gym and meds.

This particular week last year I was booked to speak at SXSW Interactive on behalf of a political group I had been working with. It was exciting, but I was hit with some of the most profound exhaustion I have ever felt. SXSW is like the Ironman of conferences, and I had a platinum pass, which meant I could go to EVERYTHING. Instead, I went to as much as I could, but spent a lot of time sleeping and guzzling coffee to get through one more session. The FOMO was insane. I later figured out I was having some mild anemia, probably a result of too many steroids (thanks, Austin spring). The repeating rounds of oral and injected steroids did not fucking help.

After it was over I crashed super hard. I had one job interview until I was hired at my current institution in August. I had no idea how to run my life, what opportunities to pursue, or how to pull myself out of a deepening emotional ditch.

A year later, I am teaching my second semester as a full-time lecturer at a major institution. We didn’t have to move, I make twice as much money as I did as an adjunct and I have great benefits (which means our income is that much higher). My kid is now eight, which is insane, and we have a pretty good life. I’m pretty happy and I’m doing something I know I’m good at and I get a lot of appreciation for it. From my students, who are the ones who matter.

But teaching full-time to 10x the number of people I was used to for the last 7 years is a huge adjustment. The first semester was this terrifying and exhilarating marathon. I didn’t have huge expectations for myself other than getting through and not fucking up too badly. It turns out I did really well and formed the beginnings of a good relationship with my students, who spread the word and now I have a whole lot more students.

So I was blindsided by how hard this semester has been. I am starting to realize that the reality of lecturing is still a bit on the contingent/adjunct side of the equation (in spite of the fact that I currently teach full-time) and that fucks with my sense of safety and worth.

Also, 120 students is a lot harder than 90, it turns out, if you don’t know to adjust your workload. I’m learning. Managing TAs can be tricky. Some just fit, and others take some real work. I’ve never really been someone’s boss before, even in this limited sense.

I’m teaching two courses that I taught last semester, and they are going great. I’m also teaching my first course in my PhD knowledge area, and that has been harder. I think I was butthurt by the fact that I didn’t know All The Things and had to learn a lot from the textbook alongside my students. I finally sucked it up and realized that I really know a whole fucking lot of things, and that means I can frame the new stuff I learn in a really fluent and dynamic way. Duh. Really, I should just be enjoying filling in some of the gaps. The very nature of a PhD is these huge looming gaps always following us around and telling us we don’t know enough. Also, the one textbook I read in HD in my PhD was painfully badly written, so I only retained the stuff I thought was really important. The book I’m using in my class is fantastically written, so I can provide thoughtful commentary instead of having to slog through it. I should really flip both of my writing flags, but who the hell has time to record two lectures a week? Me at some point, I guess.

So I did the damn thing, and I did it well, and now I’m looking at the long haul and wondering some things:

  • How do I replenish my mental, emotional, and creative energy? I feel valued by my students, no lack of fulfillment there, but it’s a whole lot of energy out and I haven’t figure out how to recharge my batteries yet.
  • How do I navigate the tricky political waters of a gigantic school with a million competing silos and a nebulous path for teaching professors? I’ve given this a lot of thought, but not a lot of time and energy. I missed 4 days of classes from being ill (not that I don’t teach when I’m sick goddamn it) and barely have time to sleep and eat, let alone strategize and network and show up at the stuff where I could meet the right people.
  • How do I meet bare minimum requirements for health? I’m eating slightly better than last semester. But running on caffeine for performance energy has a high cost and I need to, again, figure out some better ways to get my body and mind rested.
  • How do I keep my research alive in some form? I have determined that I may not have the constitution for regular publishing, at least as I currently have been trying to do it. I spent a good chunk of my life being told why I suck by people I don’t respect, and I’ve hit my lifetime limit. Getting some papers rejected while I was in school (while having to take all kinds of bullshit during the PhD process) was just the fucking end. Ideally, I would love to find someone with whom to co-publish studies, but the whole no time/energy thing is inhibiting that search.
  • I still have a lot of intellectual fire, and I want an outlet for that. I’ve been thinking about a podcast, or trying a poetry slam, or…something? I’ve become a pretty decent speaker when I’m talking about something about which I feel really passionate. It happens the most in my Ethics class, but I have my moments in all of them. How can I develop that? How can I get my writing voice back? Is blogging where I should put that energy, or should I try a vlog or podcast? Inuhno.

What do I want to talk/write about?

  1. Online psychology, particularly online discourse.
  2. Mythological and symbolic imagery in our culture, particularly tv and movies.
  3. Patriarchy’s dying gasps.
  4. Education and how to make it suck less.
  5. Why the internet isn’t always evil.
  6. Fatness and what hating on it does for people.
  7. Mental illness, stress, and resiliency.
  8. The ethics of teaching.
  9. The psychology of teaching.
  10. What does social cohesion look like in our era?
  11. Pushing back on generational hazing.

I don’t know what I am building yet with all this, or what I will build, or if I have already built something of immense value and I keep being all future oriented and not paying attention to what I’m doing/is happening right now. Probably the latter. My therapist said I was looking at success through a patriarchal lens (money, prestige, structural dominance) rather than a matriarchal (connectedness, healing, strength of bonds). She’s right. I’m a matriarchal badass. Maybe I need to sit with that and take the summer to just chill the fuck out. Float around. Write. Sleep. Record some lectures. Watch my kid be a kid for just a little while longer.

Live(ish) blogging SXSW: Keynote with Cory Booker

I’m co-hosting a meetup at SXSW Interactive on behalf of Pantsuit Republic Texas, who I volunteer with as a digital psychology and content consultant. Lucky me, I get a platinum pass, which means I can go to everything I can get to – music, technology, film, and everything in between. It’s kind of a cross between a conference and a festival on steroids. The last time I went was 2004.

This morning I picked up my badge and hightailed it to the first major speaker – Senator Cory Booker.

I’ve been aware of him for a while, though not as long as I should have been. He’s been an outspoken opponent of legislation and appointments that infringe on human rights. He’s also a straight up mensch.

He started with an impassioned speech about love. He pointed out that tolerance is a lame goal, because we tolerate a cold. Loving our country, loving the children of others, loving those with whom we disagree is the path to healing.

Damn.

He told a story about an activist who he worked with in the projects of Newark. An older black man who lived in poverty, but was totally present for the people he was trying to help. He was a mentor for Booker. Booker said that his mentor lost his sight as he aged. When he would visit him in the rest home, he’d say, “Hey, it’s Cory” and his mentor would say, “I see you.” Those words, along with “I love you” were his last words to Booker.

Booker seems incredibly present. He sees all the problems, all the crap going on, but he also sees it in the larger picture of human history and human nature. I found what he said really affirming.

I’ve had a hard time in life at times. I struggle. I’m also crazy privileged, which can lead to guilt over not doing enough. But something in what he said affirmed my stubborn need to see the glass as half full. No matter how shitty things seem to be, I can usually turn it around to something hopeful. Yes, the internet is a cesspool, but I found a way to study the cesspool and find evidence that people are not as broken as they seem. I’m attracted to learning about the way people grow from breaking, rather than why they break and how to fix them.

The other thing Booker said that I found inspiring was in answer to a question I posed (we could pose questions online through an app and then he read them on a teleprompter or something). I asked how to turn digital activism into real world activism. And instead of talking about calling senators and marching, he talked about community service. It really struck me. I feel like I’m not doing enough as an activist, which is partially from the knowledge that what I do won’t stem the tide right now. But I know from my teaching that I can make a huge difference in one person’s life, and that’s real.

So how can I take those skills and use them more in the community? What can I do that is small and simple and makes a real difference in a person‘s life instead of worrying about the big political picture? Not that political activism isn’t important, but Booker doesn’t see a difference between political activism and community service. He’s got a point.

Surfing the Waves: When Corporations are Trolls

Okay, so now that I’ve looked a bit at how the onslaught of triggery clickbait is beginning to damage my calm, and I’ve looked at my own role in participating, how about them internets then? When did they get so clickbaity and why?

Facebook. Facebook. Facebook.

It used to be not-profitable. Then they added targeted ads. Fine. I occasionally click them, realizing with a mild malaise that they must have some access to my browsing history. Ick. Still, easily filtered as long as it’s not for diet products or plastic surgery or Trump swag.

But then came what seems to be the major dominance of news outlets in the feed. It used to be if I “liked” a news source (HuffPost women, for example), I would occasionally articles in my feed. Then they started to repeat. Then they started to clog the crap out of my feed. And then they got more and more clickbaity. “Ten reasons to wear a fatkini.” “Should you get married?” “What women over 30 need to know.” Then I started following more social justice groups. Repro rights. BOPO. LGBT rights. Political candidates. Feminist magazines.

And while I love my social justice, they are old-school when it comes to spamming. They seem to thing “more is better.” Email, snail mail, texts, and tons of posts. But people can filter repitition. It’s harder to filter clickbait, especially if it’s scary. Our brains gravitate towards scary as a means of self-protection. Advertisers are hip to this–have been since Freud’s nephew invented psychological marketing in the aughts of the 20th century.

My Facebook feed became a veritable clusterfuck of informing, emphatic, repetitive, and often disturbing content. This content is often also propagated by my friends who generally share my beliefs*. (This is a whole other topic. If I have a friend or relative that has beliefs I find offensive, I’ll “unfollow” rather than “unfriend” them. This means my view of the interwebs is even more myopic. Except for my research which doesn’t filter ANYTHING so there’s that.)

No matter how many times I click on “less of this” there doesn’t seem to be less of that. If I don’t see it, one of my friends may post it and my outrage/anxiety/helpessness will be reactivated. We used to use Facebook to connect. Sometimes just on the surface (dinner pics!) and sometimes on a much deeper, more meaningful level. This discourse has been pushed to the margins of my feed by often worthy, but exhausting content. I’m exhausted.

It’s all about the money.

I’m not a scholar on this. I’m sure there are some well-researched think pieces that I haven’t read. But it’s pretty obvious that the foundering news industry has taken to the internet like nutria to the Louisiana swamps. And like nutria, they’ve changed it fundamentally. That’s probably why so many people gravitate to Twitter, Snapchat, and other social media less littered by advertising and paid placement.

We became used to “free” services and forgot how we, the users, are totally paying for our free services by having less and less control over the content.

Beyond that, I think that the sensationalism of the press and its ability to cherry pick content for likely audiences, is causing some major distortion in how we view our worlds. Again, not the expert. I try to do my research on stuff that is social media propagated, rather than corporate-created. But I can’t ignore that the corporations have a huge amount of control over what we see and subsequently react to. While super cool bloggers like Lindy West and Jes Baker write awesomly for Huffpost and The Guardian, they write on topics that have become very controversial (which I think is good – visibility=good) and the corporate media takes advantage of this for their own, often less than savory reasons.

Again, not a bullish attitude for a bullish researcher, but there it is. The internet was gloriously free of major structural power for about a decade. That seems to have passed. I have to watch commercials for a 3 minute clip of The Daily Show. Pinterest, my guilty  pleasure, is littered with “targeted ads” and “suggestions.” Their algorithms suck, btw. A tatted up middle-aged female person with a bunch of BOPO and recipe pins does not want ads for “the five worst foods for your waistline” or “summer body” programs. Fuck off.

Instagram is still pretty minimal. The ads are high-end and easy to avoid. Wonder how long that will last?

I don’t pretend to know the nutria-press business model. I suspect it’s built on a pyramid of something worth very little. As we’ve known for many a year, clicks do not = sales. Sales = sales. Also, internet inhabitants are pretty good at abandoning one cluttered, increasingly useless ship for a more helpful one. Facebook has so far bucked this trend, but sooner or later it will die and go to that social media outlet in the sky some obscure server somewhere.

I don’t have the answer. I realized recently, after wading into the comment fray on a Huffpost video that bugged me, that I was totally suckered. The video, a radical feminist think-piece (I use that word with some trepidation) was designed to piss EVERYONE off. So I got lots of likes, some “go you” comments, and some incoherent but virulent attacks. Blah. And I said to myself, “You know, self, you walked right into that one.” But I could also say, “Well, self, that makes you human because that video was designed to suck you in. You have not yet reached enlightenment.”

*I propagate the crap out of my political/social beliefs, but I generally relegate them to my blog  FB Page so the more conservative of my peeps are not spammed into oblivion by my stuff. My main FB feed is for general musing, kid pics, kid humor, whining, and mostly benign stuff. This is a personal decision. It may or may not make me a good FB citizen. It doesn’t really help my mental tidy all that much since I’m still reading all that stuff. Re-posting may be a way of expelling the attendant emotions. That would be interesting research. Nerd.

Surfing the Waves: You Are Beginning to Damage My Calm

My life has been hella stressful lately. School, money, health – you name it. It’s been a high stress year. One thing I haven’t been tracking until recently is the effect of my interenet use on my stress level. It sneaks up on me. I have this inner dialogue that goes something like this:

Me 1: Wow, I’m feeling a lot of anxiety after browsing Facebook on my phone for ten minutes. Trump. Reproductive rights. Natural disasters. Maybe I need a break.

Me 2: What do you mean? Do you want to be ill-informed? Do you want to willfully choose to ignore the pain of others? That makes you selfish.

Me 1: I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll try to thin back some of the political stuff I follow in my feed to see if that helps.

Me 2: Wimp.

Me 1: Well, that’s a little better, I guess. Still pretty hard to avoid triggering stuff. Everyone propogages this stuff constantly. And I like to be informed. And who can resist a “Top 5” list or a “You won’t believe…” headline. Apparently not me. And then when I click on something mildly click-baity I end up on a page with horrible brain-burning click bait that hurts my brain.

Me 2: Yeah that’s really annoying.

Me 1: Totally

Me 1: Okay, now that my external stressors are REALLY HIGH,  browsing the internet, checking my email (which I do obsessively), Instagram, the “helpful” news feed on my Iphone can instantly trigger the shit out of me. I feel like I’m waiting for “the shoe to drop” – a typical anxiety thing – and the internet provides an endless supply of shoes. Interspersed with funny stuff, cute stuff, and friend stuff. So I gravitate towards it to 1) confirm my anxiety and keep it going, and 2) to connect with other people.

Me 2: Wimp? Maybe not. Maybe we need a fricking break. Does that makes us weak?

Me 1: Who freaking cares?

Me 2: Good point.

So I did that thing. I spent three ish days with minimal internet. It got progressively harder. I’m back to checking my email several times a day and cautiously checking FB to see if anyone has said anything to me or tagged me (they have). Balance is certainly going to be key. Discoveries:

  1. Accidentally swipe right on your iPhone and prepare to be bombarded with “Texas woman shoots two daughters”. Fuck. Me. No wonder I’m so triggered all the time. Because I’m reading this crap all. The. Time. I have to figure out how to turn off the news feed.
  2. The Weather.com app is also less fun than I realized. “Hundreds dead in horrible painful awful flood!” With video! Flashy ads for fictitious loans. Maybe I need to go back to the more benign apple weather app.
  3. My anxiety is WAY lower when I’m not constantly bombarding it with crap. And checking my email to see if there’s any bad news. And checking the weather, sadly.
  4. I’m making an effort to reconnect with paper books. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of the ones I can read digitally for free (library) but I have tons of non-fiction that I can peruse at my leisure. That’s been good.
  5. I’ve also started keeping a written journal, which is weird because my handwriting is TERRIBLE. Unless I write really slow. So I’m writing really slow. And drawing pictures.
  6. Analog is not so bad. I think I started to slip today because I felt lonely. Because I’m alone a lot of the time. I can just feel it when I’m not bombarded with low level social input.

I give you, the weather. Or something.

This comes at an odd time, since I’m doing a positive psychology for the internet kind of thing for my dissertation and major research area. Still, I think maybe I needed more of the big picture. I’ve started reading Turkel’s Alone Together. I assumed that she was an older person with that “get off my lawn” approach to the internet. Not so much. She is more of a baby boomer, but she’s been tracking online culture since the 70s and she’s a psychoanalyst, so kind of up my alley. She makes some good points. This disembodied, scattered feeling can subsume a sense of connection to the physical world. And we are physical beings. I think perhaps there is a time for diving into the dynamic, challenging, pluralistic online world, and a time to retreat, reflect, and exist as a physical being. I think we ignore the online world at our peril, but we also ignore the physical world, which is highly impacted by the online world, at our peril.

More to come.

 

Feeding the Trolls: Part One

I’m starting to get my act together around my dissertation, which is on how people express aggression online, and how the online environment facilitates reinforcement or change of social norms. While I have a very specific sample in mind, I recently stumbled on another idea through getting caught up in a YouTube flame-war.

A few days ago I watched this video on YouTube of Mary Lambert, a gay and body acceptance activist and pop artist/spoken word poet. It’s a really raw, powerful statement about the dual forces of self-love and internalized hate. I was moved, but then I read this comment:

feedingtrolls1

I saw red, and in retaliation openly engaged in the kind of aggression that I usually avoid or observe at a distance:

feedingtrolls2Mr. TheThird trolled me back (aggressively). Note his use of the words gluttony, shameful and violent imagery:

feedingtrolls3I was not the first person to get riled up by Mr. TheThird’s comment, apparently this thread had been going on for a while:

feedingtrolls5And then Mr. TheThird posted a long missive, not long after my comment:

feedingtrolls4Wow. I found his use of words like foul, vile, insidious, morally corrupt, medically aberrant more than a little off-putting and creepy. Disturbed and a bit scared, I took a step back to think about how we seem to keep our aggression in this endless loop on the internet.

Perhaps Mr. TheThird is projecting his unconscious fears of losing control on the woman who is singing about self-esteem-while-fat. When I react, I am in turn projecting my own anger at the forces that have led me to empathize with Ms. Lambert back onto him; rinse, repeat. We are locked in this dance of aggression where there is no understanding or compassion, just lots of anger, disdain, rationalization, and condescension. What might it take to change this pattern?

So, as an experiment, I came back, apologized for my ire, and instead explained my feelings and asked him some genuine questions.

feedingtrolls6He never responded, which is not surprising given the research I’ve read on cyberbullying.

However, the experience made me think about my upcoming dissertation in a different way. Perhaps I was choosing to observe instead of participate in the online communities I am studying as a way to distance from my own discomfort. The inadvertent effect of engaging in this interaction was gaining insight into 1) what motivated me to react online, 2) The effects and repercussions of my engagement, and 3) various ways in which I can try to change the dynamic.

As a way to investigate these ideas further, I’m going to observe online conversations around body image and fat-acceptance, and also engage in them when moved to do so. I will document my experiment on this blog, analyzing the different expressions of aggression using George Vaillant’s interpretation of the Differential Identification of Defenses from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Here’s a quick run-down from Vaillant’s book, The Wisdom of the Ego (1993 pp. 36-37)):

  1. Psychotic Defenses: Delusional projection, Denial, Distortion
  2. Immature Defenses: Projection, Fantasy, Hypochondriasis, Passive aggression, Acting out, Dissociation
  3. Neurotic (intermediate) Defenses: Displacement, Isolation/Intellectualization, Repression, Reaction formation
  4. Mature Defenses: Altruism, Sublimation, Suppression, Anticipation, Humor

So, trying this out, let me take a look at the interaction between Mr. TheThird, me, and some of the other participants.

Mary Lambert, the artist on which whose YouTube page this conversation resides, could be said to be utilizing sublimation, a mature defense, to deal with her negative feelings about her body, or trauma she has survived that was directed at her body (Ms. Lambert has been open about being the victim of childhood sexual abuse). Sublimation is the ability to direct the residual trauma towards a constructive activity such as songwriting and poetry. Further, her public role-modeling of self-love and survival might be considered altruism, the ability to identify with and alleviate the pain of others, which also may aid in her own healing.

Mr. TheThird’s comments seems to fit into aspects of projection, such as splitting (splitting negative from positive impulses) and demonstrating a superiority complex (obscuring feelings of inferiority), all of which are characterized as immature defenses. While I can only speculate about his psyche based on the language he uses, the voracity of his wording suggests that he is projecting an aspect of his personality that he as “split” off from his core personality, such as desire, craving, or low self-control. His later, lengthy post displays some of the same traits, but also utilizes intellectualization as a way to justify his verbal attacks. Reaction formation could also be demonstrated by his desire to appear rational and scientific in a discussion where he also uses terminology that clearly demonstrates strong negative emotions.

My initial posting could qualify as displacement (neurotic) or perhaps acting out (immature) as I was well aware of my angry feelings, but chose to inflict them impulsively and without forethought. My personal history with my body image is painful, and while I’ve become very accepting of myself and others, my ego is still vulnerable when it comes to aggressive criticism. I personalized Mr. TheThird’s comment and responded as if it was directed specifically at me (and perhaps also as a projection of my own vulnerability onto other participants, who I felt the impulse to defend).  When he responded with more violent language, I became frightened and considered withdrawal, a neurotic defense I’ve used frequently to avoid painful memories, impulses, and feelings. I think this default defense is also the reason behind my initial choice to observe online aggression rather than engage with the participants more directly.

When I took ownership of my feelings and asked genuine questions about Mr. TheThird’s motivation, I was perhaps engaging in courage and self-regulation (mature defenses); I opened myself up to dialogue with an aggressive person, and made some rules for myself around how much time I would spend online in order to project my psyche.

While Mr. TheThird has not yet chosen to respond, so perhaps he has chosen withdrawal, a neurotic defense more mature than his initial behavior.

It has also been interesting to look at the comments of others, which range from mollifying both groups, to enraged all caps cursing, to a lot of arguing of various facts. Intellectualization seems to be the default stance in these arguments, which frequently devolves into passive aggression, acting out, and distortion. I consciously choose not to debate the facts around obesity and health as I think it really amounts to arguing about the validity of a stereotype, which is by its nature persecutory. There is a ton of medical information that both validates and refutes the dangers and perimeters of obesity, but this has nothing to do with our individual lives, choices, and feelings. It seems like trying to justify or rationalize our positive and negative feelings about ourselves and others using cherry-picked science only gets us so far. What I’m really interested in is the larger patterns that emerge in these mini-explosions of aggression. What is their anatomy? Is there a common pattern? Are there different kinds? Do they evolve, or just die down and re-emerge elsewhere?  I’ll be looking at these questions as I observe and participate in other discussions around body acceptance. Stay tuned!

Shaming the Mother

The attacks on women are now so vicious and varied that it’s hard to know where to start. From Hobby Lobby winning the right to refuse to cover contraception in their employees’ health insurance, to the near ban on abortion in my state, to the decriminalization of rape by universities and the military, it’s bloody hard to be a mother raising a girl in this society. How do I teach her the primacy of sexual consent in a culture whose legal system blames the victims of sexual assault? How do I teach her sexual responsibility in a culture that simultaneously holds women solely responsible for birth control and limits its availability?  I don’t have the answers to these questions, other than VOTE.

However, I am interested in a phenomenon that I’ve experienced and observed called mother shaming. Our culture seems to relegate mothers and the practices of motherhood to the home or out of sight, and reacts negatively when we don’t comply. It seems a combination of the pre-cultural revolution separation of the spheres of women and men, combined with the second wave feminist ideals of not allowing motherhood to consume women’s lives. Put these together (along with a still highly paternalistic corporate culture) and you get a world where any representations of motherhood are supposed to be sweet, gentle, clean, and most of all, out of sight. We must be Athena in the workplace and the Virgin Mary as mothers. To this I say bullshit.

There are myriad problems associated with this phenomenon. Breast feeding shaming and harassment. Ignorance of postpartum mood disorders. Lack of paid maternity leave. Unavailability of high quality affordable childcare. Career penalties for women who take time off to care for children. Social stigmatization for returning to work instead of caring for children full-time.

These problems play out on systemic, interpersonal, and psychological levels. The lack of subsidized (systemic) childcare financially strains families, particularly those that need two working parents (or a single working parent) to survive. The social stigma surrounding both staying home and returning to work are inescapable. Psychologically, it is difficult to escape  the feeling that we must do (not have) it all, and never complain, cry, scream, or sleep. Women sometimes enforce these social norms on each other as a way to direct their own internalized pain around these issues. The condescendingly named Mommy Wars are well-known to any of us who have been judged for our parenting decisions. Consequently, while I think the extreme right-wing is responsible for feeding the flames of mother shaming in our culture while advancing legal barriers to female health and safety, we must also take control of how we internalize and enforce these unhealthy norms on ourselves and one another.

I wrote in my Manifesto about my experience as a new mother starting my teaching career, and the negative feedback I received from a female student for not hiding my nascent motherhood skillfully enough. That was in 2011, and since then the legal penalization of women regarding family planning and care has increased more than I could have possibly imagined.

I’m particularly concerned with the archetype of the mother in our society. As a mother, I’m supposed to be sweet, self-deprecating, patient, kind, self-sacrificing, graceful, gracious, and accommodating. I should happily subsume myself into the care of my family. If I work outside the home, I must completely compartmentalize my mother identity while working and then put it back on when I get home.  Mothers are not sexy, but they shouldn’t let themselves go (get old, fat, or tired). Mothers consider others before themselves. Mothers are vessels for their children long after they have stopped being the physical vessel and nourishment; we don’t need personal space, solitude, or interests.

I am supposed to be an flawed version of the Virgin Mary; stained by my sexuality, but redeemed by my ability to subsume myself in a wholly receptive identity.

I’m not even talking about what I’ve been told, or what other women may feel; these are the messages that I’ve internalized about motherhood from living in our culture. I certainly wasn’t taught these values by my family; I somehow just absorbed them over time. When I became a mother, it was like somebody threw a switch in my head and suddenly this was who I thought I should be. Weird.

It’s bullshit. I need space and solitude. I do not have limitless patience or energy. I have intelligence, ambition, personality, sexuality, and a big independent streak. No one would  describe me as passive. I get angry, sad, tired,  and scared. Daily. I don’t stop being a mother when I’m working, and I don’t stop being a teacher/student when I’m mothering. This doesn’t make me a shitty mother; it makes me a good role model for my daughter, and a wiser teacher and student. I love my daughter to pieces, but she does not define me; I do.

When I see my friends trying to compartmentalize their motherhood to appear “professional” at work, or repressing their personalities to be good mothers, it makes me sad. When women judge other women for choosing the “wrong” identity or not playing their roles well enough, it makes me angry. And when our society shames or penalizes women for delaying motherhood, remaining childless, or choosing to becoming mothers, angry doesn’t even begin to cover it. Livid, perhaps.

I have an image of a dark space around the idea of the Mother in our society. That there is some subconscious aversion to the very idea of motherhood that causes us to react by trying to conform to these harmful ideals. There is an invisible blind spot, or an unhealing wound that we avoid through negative judgement and the creation of unquestioned social norms. I sometimes imagine the archetypal Mother trapped within a spherical prison that emits some kind of repelling energy that keeps us from examining why exactly we expect women to hide or modify who they are in order to survive.

Motherhood is messy. The process of making another human being and expelling him into the world with our bodies is strange, frightening, painful, and gory. Nourishing a child with milk that our bodies make for her is not clean. It is a messy, strange, mysterious, and earthy process that makes the fact that we are animals–not angels or gods–utterly inescapable. It is also the most powerful force in the world. Our species would cease to exist if women’s bodies could not menstruate, gestate, and lactate. But instead of revering these abilities, our society degrades them and insists we keep them out of sight.

The true nature of motherhood not fit with the objectified, sterile version of women peddled to us by traditional media and advertising. Our stretch marks and loose belly skin are not shameful or ugly. Breastfeeding is good for our bodies, and good for our babies’ bodies. Shaming mothers who breastfeed, and idealizing artificial breasts is unnatural and insane. The assumption that our work as parents has no relevance or positive impact on our work for pay makes no sense at all. I think the entry of many men into the childcare workforce may be helping to change these norms, but slowly.

We need to release the Mother from her prison. Millennia ago, socio-religious systems encoded power into spirituality by claiming that women were lesser and innately sinful instead of the source of our being as a species. I believe we can choose to stop playing by these destructive rules and live as the full, ripe, powerful beings that we are. We create and nourish life. We need to share the wisdom that comes with this miraculous ability, instead of allowing it to be reduced and degraded until we have no sense of our own, limitless value.