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.