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?

Policing policers by policing

Editor’s note: This is very pre-vaguely wokeish for me. Proceed with caution. There’s a lot of white butthurt going on and it’s all. mine. 

As I’ve become more involved in activism, both as a participant and an observer, I’ve also become increasingly uncomfortable with the policing of each other that activists engage in. In my corner of the internet, body positive activism, I’m seeing more and more of the “10 Ways to Be an Ally” and “20 Ways We Do it Wrong” articles. I’m seeing a lot of women telling other women that they’re not allowed to talk about feeling fat if they’re not fat (by some nebulous standard that sounds a lot like the same one that goes with being skinny or healthy), or that they’re not being inclusive enough, or that they’re getting activism wrong. This worries me. In my current dissertationy frame of mind, it sounds like defensiveness, not inclusion.

I think it’s incredibly powerful to stand up and say, “No! I do not like how you talk to me. I do not like how you treat me. I do not accept this. I will not disappear.” I am so down with this. But constantly telling other people how they’re doing activism wrong, or doing advocacy wrong is so freaking counterproductive. It’s globalizing an individual experience, and turning it into a set of rules.

It’s like the difference between saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me. I am here, and I want you to know how I feel.” and saying, “Do not ignore or marginalize me or anyone like me, ever, or you are a shit activist.” From a psychological point of view, the globalizing that goes with the “10 Things” lists seems like a defense. Don’t get near me. Don’t talk to me. Don’t engage with me. Don’t ever fuck up and say the wrong thing. Maybe if I write enough lists of things people shouldn’t do, I won’t ever get hurt.

Human relationships are a series of fuck ups. The taboos that allow us to marginalize and harm others are ways that we protect ourselves from our own capacity to do harm. So it seems like creating a whole new set of taboos, instead of just getting down and talking about the harm, is just more of the same shit.

The problem with this is we all fuck up. We all get hurt. We can’t renegotiate the social norms that hurt us without getting messy, fucking up, and letting other people get messy and fuck up. I like the articles that tell individual people’s stories and experiences, letting the reader relate to them as another human. I’m so sick of the ones that tell everyone how to act and how to not fuck up. This one got to me the other day so I ranted on Facebook:

This article brings up ways that fat stigma is hard to shed, even for those of us who are part of the movement. However, I don’t love that it’s framed as a list of do-nots. We all struggle to accept ourselves as we are, and that means we are not perfect activists at all times. I don’t think I even want to be a perfect activist. I just want to grow in compassion and awareness of myself and others, as I continue to deconstruct the social norms that keep me from being fully at peace with myself. It’s up to each of us to speak our truths to each other and connect as humans. I don’t think the plethora of do-not lists bring us together. I think they freeze us up. I’d rather fall down and learn than stay frozen for fear of breaking a new rule.

Is the author trying to show ways in which we are all still struggling to undo the harm done to us by bullshit corporate/patriarchal norms? Or is she/he saying, “You’d better not do this…” If it had been written as interviews or a first person story, I would be so down with it. Yes! We all still judge ourselves and others in ways that are harsh and unfair. Let’s talk about it! But that’s not how it’s written. It’s written as a warning about how you, too, might be a secret douchebag. And that doesn’t make me want to talk, or share my experiences, or learn, or expand.

I think that’s what it comes down to. Do we want to expand or contract? Do we want to live fuller, more expansive lives (wherein we are likely to fuck up, fall down, get up, and make amends) or stick ourselves in a new little box with a new set of rules guaranteed to keep us from every connecting with another person? The box may seem like it will keep us safe, but we should know by now that it will not. This is often the major difference I see between second-wave feminists in the academy and third and fourth wave feminists online. We’re constantly negotiating boundaries and norms – second-wavers often (not always) see the rules as set. And you get called a gender traitor if you violate them (Hilary vs. Bernie, anyone?).’

This is not an argument that political correctness is evil and unfettered personal expression is good. What gets labeled political correctness is just new emerging norms that take marginalized people into consideration. Considering other people’s feelings and talking about them and taking personal responsibility when we hurt or get hurt is good.

When you were little, did your parents ever tell you that you should have known better? Well, it turns out, most of the time,  you couldn’t have. A lot of the stuff we learn to do as adults — empathize, abstract, predict — kids can’t do that stuff. Their brains grow those capacities in the teen years. So we learn to feel retroactive shame for being human kids, instead of being gradually introduced to concepts that will one day make sense to us. That’s what some of this stuff feels like to me. I hate seeing the BOPO movement eat itself, but I’m afraid of the direction it’s headed in. So many other beautiful movements have dissolved into infighting and chaos. Can we find another way? Can we inquire instead of judge?

As a culture, we are just starting to deconstruct a whole lot of harmful nonsense around gender, bodies, and race. THIS IS MESSY. If it’s not messy, we’re not actually doing it. Can I tell you how many times I’ve tripped over my own privilege as a teacher? So. Many. Times. Face-planting is part of the job. All I can do is try to make amends and do better next time. I can’t avoid the next landmine because I don’t know where it is. But it’s still my responsibility to clean up the mess when I do something unintentionally insensitive.

What if we lived in a culture where we took responsibility for speaking our own hurt and anger and drawing our own boundaries? What if we were allies to those who need help without becoming caricatures of the very ideas that we’re trying to change? What if we just rolled up our sleeves and talked and listened and yelled and cried and hugged? What if we got messy instead of militaristic? Messy is scary, but that’s where the growth is.

Instead of saying, “You’re not inclusive enough!” What about saying, “I feel invisible when you ignore my body type/color/gender expression, and it hurts.” And what if I said, “Holy crap, I’m so sorry! What can I do to help?”

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:


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!

Impending Kindergarten Angst

My daughter Lillian is four years old; her birthday is in February, so she’ll be starting kindergarten a bit over a year from now. So the big decision is almost upon us. Public, charter, or private?

She currently goes to a fantastic preschool that is often regarded in the community as the “Lord of the Flies” preschool, in a not entirely complimentary way. Her day generally consists of running around, screaming, painting, getting wet, stripping off most of her clothes, painting her body (or her friends), eating lunch and taking a nap, and starting all over again until we pick her up. It’s fantastic. She’s made great friends and is socially fearless. While it looks like chaos, the teachers work really hard to nurture social skills, conflict management, creativity, and inquisitiveness. It spans 18 months to when they start elementary school, and most of the time the kids are all together on a massive playground filled with books, toys, sand, paint, bikes, carts, and all sorts of other fun stuff. The best part is the “potions” area, where kids get to mix up colored bubbly water with other substances. When Lillian started, she’d spend most of her time making potions and then dumping them on her head:

As she’s developed, she’s become more interested in her social interactions, stories, and imagination, and a little less prone towards body art, but she still has her moments. We luuuuuuuuve her school. She can do rudimentary addition and subtraction, and write her name. We spend a little time with her on letters, but we don’t push.

I think we forget that reading is an immensely complex process. It’s not just a matter of knowing the letter and seeing it in a word. “What begins with A? Apple!” No, it’s more a matter of, “What is the name of this shape? What sound does it make? What word do you hear that sound in? What other sounds do you hear in that word? What are the shapes for those sounds? How do they fit together to make a word? What sound does that word make? What does that word mean?” And probably a ton of other steps I can’t think of now.

In my human development class, I learned about the work of Piaget, a scientist who developed a system of stages to describe how children acquire the ability to learn new skills. If you have ever had a baby, you’ve probably heard the term “object permanence,” when babies learn to recognize objects still exist when they can’t see them anymore. It’s the first stage of abstraction. According to Piaget, kids stay in that stage until starting around 5, when they begin to transition to the intuitive substage. Kids become capable of learning different skills at different points–anyone with multiple kids knows that they are all different–but by about age 7, they’ve generally reached this stage.

Why is this important? Because the this stage is when they can start to learn the complex skills that allow for reading and mathematics. This leads me to my main thrust. MOST KIDS CAN’T READ WHEN THEY ARE FIVE. Maybe we should move Finland.

This research is decades old, and has undergone decades of validation. Yet our school system starts testing children for reading skills in the first grade, which means children are expected to learn to read in kindergarten. This is folly. Some children learn to read early; they develop early. This does not mean they are more intelligent, or have had better parenting, or been to a better school. It just means that a particular type of development is happening early. My husband learned to read before kindergarten. I learned in the first grade. We both write professionally.

The ability to read cannot be forced; the kind of learning my daughter is doing in her unconventional preschool is entirely appropriate for her level of development. Children before the age of 5 learn through play and absorption, not traditional teaching and rote learning. If I were following the prescribed route, she would be in Pre-K now to learn the building blocks for reading, so she would be ready to read in kindergarten. Sounds good on paper; doesn’t work in real life. You can’t fight biology.

Instead, our schools are creating stressed out kids, often misdiagnosed with learning disabilities because they are being forced to attempt skills their bodies are not capable of producing yet. Some kids will always buck the trends; but many bright, intelligent kids are getting the message that they are stupid, are being held back grades, and are forced to prep for national tests that allow their schools to keep funding. I can’t find anything in this scenario that is good for our kids, or our country.

As you may have guessed, I’m leaning away from public school for my daughter, at least for the first couple of years. There are a few good charter schools, though most of them choose enrollment by lottery. There are some Montessori based private schools, but I’m leery of Montessori based on my experience as a child. I’ll have to investigate those further. There are also religious schools, which might work depending on the teaching philosophy. While I am not christian, I teach at a Catholic college and I love the teaching philosophy which stresses critical thinking, ethics, and self-reflection.

My husband and I have some big decisions before us, and the seeming obliviousness of the current system to the developmental needs of our children makes is much more complicated (and expensive). I would love it if our public system based the curriculum on appropriate developmental science, but the evidence seems to prove otherwise. I feel somewhat helpless in the face of these issues; I can’t work to change the public system in time for my daughter’s entrance into it, so I have to look elsewhere for the kind of educational experience I want for her. It’s frustrating and sad.

My own pre-college education was mixed, but I placed into Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) in my district, which kept me engaged when my other classes were boring or frustrating. They didn’t start testing in the first grade then, however. When I became a college student, I discovered I loved learning. Public school had been tolerable, but never as engaging and energizing as I found my college classes. I would so love for my daughter to love learning before she’s 18.

I wish my daughter’s preschool extended through high school; they have the strongest grasp on how to nurture a child’s talents of any school I’ve encountered. I hope I can find something just as wonderful for her as she grows into adulthood.

Big Thoughts

This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for school. Have you ever heard the parable about the blind men and the elephant? Each grabs a different part of the creature, claiming that the thing he is encountering is a different object – a rope (the tail), a pillar (the leg), a fan (the ear), and so on. I feel like that. I’m all the blind men at one time. How do I become a specialist, or THE specialist in an area of research, without contextualizing it? I got my first two degrees in music, so I didn’t study a lot of philosophy. I decided to cram a chunk of the history of sociology into a few weeks and see what came out the other end. Ahem.

I needed a socio-historical context for my research. I’m interested in how people express aggression online. The question is why? What does how we behave online tell us about ourselves? About our era? Our future? So I boned up on Marx, Freud, Jung, and Campbell and came up with some ideas.

Marx, Freud, Jung, and the Postmodern Crisis

Marx deconstructed the idea of wage labor as a natural or virtuous endeavor, claiming instead that it created alienation in workers and encouraged labor exploitation by capitalists. He essentially saw the worker as superior to the capitalist (in modern parlance, perhaps a manager, executive, shareholder, or business owner) because a worker produces actual goods, whereas a capitalist derives profit from the labor of others. Marx believed that claiming the fruits of this labor in exchange for wages alienated the worker from his own creations; Marx saw labor as central to human fulfillment. He viewed religion as a false, externalized repository of human fulfillment, and the reclamation of exchange-value for labor as the path towards a liberated society that made religion superfluous. (Singer, 2000)

Similarly, Freud saw religion as the externalization of the self; the Devil and his works were really the sublimated, repressed desires of the Id, while our need for a loving God was the sublimated desire for the infantile relationship with the parents. Freud exploded the idea of a genetic or predetermined difference between social classes, and challenged the domination of the church at the most fundamental level.

Insofar as the idea of God being “out there” instead of “in here,” Jung shared Freud’s view of the interpretation of religion as being immature and parentified. However, Jung was not as dismissive of the mythic or religious impulse. He recognized the mystic experience as a way of connecting to an internal source of energy that humanity shares across cultures and throughout time. (Stevens, 2001) Joseph Campbell built on this idea, identifying the idea of the God within in multiple mythologies, religions, and cultures. (n.d.)

Marx saw religion as enslaving, and the industrial revolution as terribly dehumanizing. But in dismissing religion and Hegel’s more spiritual idea of Mind as God (which is echoed by Bateson), Marx also ignored human development. While Marx saw money and possessions (greed) as an unnatural cultural constraint used to concentrate power and money around a select few, my anecdotal experience does not support this.

I spend a lot of time around little kids who don’t have the neurological hardware yet for much social indoctrination. At around 2 years old, kids start wanting to possess things (and watching parents’ endless machinations to get their toddlers to behave as if they are socialized is comical) and keep other kids from taking them. Developmentally, small children seem to see possessions as potential extensions of themselves. I think, as many developmental theorists thought, they’ve got a whole operating system pre-programmed as part of their innate survival instinct. I don’t think, as Marx did, that possession and competition are all the result of unnatural indoctrination. It is perhaps at the junction of religion, government, and corporation (the self-preservation of an elite few) that “unnatural” social norms are created, alongside the necessary ones. Our salvation, perhaps, lies in understanding that our survival as individuals as predicated on our survival as a species.

While Marx described the endgame of capitalism remarkably clearly, he didn’t foresee the post-modern crisis. Many of his predictions about the increasing inequalities in capitalism were correct (unemployment, subsistence wages, income inequality), but instead of a united revolution or cooperative culture, we now have a cult culture. The destruction of the central socio-religious idea has given way to a multiplicity of social, political, and religious skirmishes. Instead of world wars, we have civil wars. Instead of a major ideology, we have ideological cults.

For example, the cult of capitalism claims that making money is innately moral and natural. Reagan’s “trickle-down economics” still influences politicians who seek election based on platforms that claim to “fix” our economy by giving tax breaks to corporations and the rich. The cult of consumerism trades the numinous religious sacrament for the transient glow of owning products whose advertising promises everything that we desire (heaven). The cult of science and rationality promises salvation through rejection of the emotional, irrational, and mystical impulses. The cult of health and beauty promises us unending youth and admiration (eternal life). Cults of political and social ideologies coalesce and decompose around issues like homosexuality, gun ownership, reproductive rights, and bullying. Our religions have become so factionalized as to be unrecognizable. The most consistent characteristic of our postmodern ideologies, is that they are subject to change rather quickly.

Positivism is alive and well, but it is applied to whatever gives the individual the strongest buffer between himself and fear of death, despair, or the unknown. Positivism seems to be working in service to a multiplicity of tenuous positions, rather than to any one pervasive perspective. Such is the post-modern world.

The Schism: The Internet, Pop Culture, and Interconnectedness

While Marx foresaw the corrosive effects of unchecked capitalism, just as Habermas recognized the numbing and self-destructive effects of the culture industry (Habermas used the term culture industry to describe the combination of media, corporate interests, and political interests that control the perceptions and decisions of citizens through media like television and advertising), particularly in the US), neither foresaw the current schism wherein capitalism continues to grow and consume itself and its resources through its religion-like status, while the culture industry is being dismantled through open access to information sharing.

While we have not done away with our consumerist tendencies, when it comes to information and entertainment, we have taken more control over what we consume. This is not to say that the internet has created a balanced and critical discourse; the wide availability of misinformation has perhaps further polarized the existing cults of belief. However dialogue, cooperation, compassion, and self-organization are taking place using the internet as a vehicle. Largely beholden to corporate interests (meaning the interests of a few very rich people) television, radio, and newspapers have typically been the vehicle used to control the emotions and perceptions of voters/consumers. Now we watch fewer and fewer commercials; the most successful television is on commercial-free channels like HBO, AMC and Netflix, and we get our news through multiple sources rather than reading the local newspaper in the morning and watching the television news at night. We curate our consumption of media and entertainment instead of having it curated for us.

Despite the chaos of our post-modern world, our need for a more universal story about our collective identity and future is reflected in popular culture in the form of superheroes, vampires, apocalyptic epics, and other mythological and archetypal stories that have been with us in some form throughout recorded history. Popular culture explores dystopian futures (Battlestar Galactica), multiplistic moral dilemmas (Ender’s Game), and complex hero characters (The Dark Knight).

While we cling to simplistic, untenable “facts” in our deeply divided political lives, we explore complexity and ambiguity in our art. Although our society is largely dismissive of pop culture, we forget that “real” art (European opera, literature, and visual art) was actually the pop of its day. The relationship of art to society is a function of history; not validity. The music of Mozart was not less artistic than that of Beethoven, but society’s view of art shifted radically from the classical to the romantic era, from a frippery of the upper classes to a vital force of human expression.

I realize it may seem lightweight to explore movies, television, and popular music, but they are the repository of the mythology of our time. To ignore them is to ignore some of the best impulses of our humanity. Fiction and fantasy are a barometer for collective hopes and fears and an outlet for the images that seek expression in our dreams and nightmares.

I see a deep juxtaposition between the post-modern fracturing of our societies and the universal, unifying themes in our popular art.

The socio-economic engine that benefits the privileged few is losing the hearts and minds of the masses through the dismantling of the culture industry. But to what then do we give our hearts and minds? Is the new age of Mind or Self or Brahman or Unity Consciousness actually coming to pass? Is something more whole and beautiful emerging from the chaos and violence of our century? Are we as a species finally moving from this concrete, cultish way of being into something more holistic and interconnected?

I have been listening to some interviews with Joseph Campbell from the late 1970s-early 1980s. In one, he posed a futuristic question. If we are becoming a world community, or an in group without an out group, what do we do with aggression? Campbell claimed we needed to transform it. Is that possible? Can we make poverty, ignorance, rape, murder our enemies, instead of people? Is it possible to stop “othering”? Or, is that just the consequence of being an animal species?

The internet seems to be simultaneously creating a ground for unity consciousness, while giving people endless opportunities to create and destroy perceived enemies. Freud and Jung identified this phenomenon: that the mythical enemy, or other, is really the projected shadow of the self. Yet wisdom traditions have also held that god/heaven is here and in all of us. Campbell points out that this is the foundation of Buddhism, and is also found in the mystical traditions of Christianity and Hinduism.

Is the internet intensifying division, or will we perhaps burn out on “othering” and find a more connected way of being? Will we realize that our individual survival is predicated on our survival as a species, which is predicated on the survival of our ecosystem? Can we focus on destructive behavior, instead of destructive people? Can we eradicate rape instead of rapists; murder instead of murderers? Or will we always need someone to point the finger at?

Concluding Thoughts

So what are my Big Thoughts after considering all of this material? While Marx, Freud, and Jung recognized the dehumanizing effects of modernity, nobody foresaw the internet and its implications (except maybe a few sci fi writers).

In 1980, Campbell pointed out that globalization was taking away our ability to “other” others, even before the spread of internet technology. Gareth Morgan (2006), too, makes an interesting comment about the potential for communication technology when discussing how technology is often harnessed to reinforce existing power structures, “…this misses the true potential [of information technology], which rests in creating networks of interaction that can self-organize and be shaped and driven by the intelligence of everyone involved.” (p.116)

Fifteen years later, society seems to take part in “othering” in smaller and smaller factions. While gay marriage was not even on the radar of most political candidates fifteen years ago, today most of the country accepts it as a basic civil right. Arguments over the scientific basis of global warming are giving way to more pervasive use of alternative energy sources. Simplicity gives way to complexity and concreteness gives way to ambiguity. Traditional battle lines break down and reform, then break down and reform anew.

While the human family seems increasingly fractured and tribal, and the internet facilitates this phenomenon through the easy creation and dissolution of communities, our pop culture is consistently reflecting universal, mythic themes. Our heroes and heroines are more complex; our stories more dystopian and complex. Yet when I look at the usual battery of summer blockbusters, the themes that emerge are about the rebirth of humanity from its own ashes (X-Men), or the retelling of ages old fairy tales from a different vantage point (Malificent).

I recently took my daughter to see How to Train Your Dragon 2. The movie portrays a battle between two fictional Viking tribes. One that espouses a patriarchal, dominator culture that harnesses the power of dragons (nature) to dominate other tribes. The other tribe has a cooperative and innovative relationship with dragons that it uses for collective prosperity. The movie also portrays a cultural transition from a fear-driven culture to a cooperation/love-driven culture.

The chief of the tribe is grooming his son Hiccup, the main character, to succeed him. Hiccup’s mother was thought to have been killed by a dragon when he was a baby. A teenager in the first movie, he tried to kill a dragon to gain adult status, but instead befriended it and learned to ride it, eventually convincing his father and the rest of the tribe to end their war on dragons. He lost his foot in a battle with a huge dragon that his father had challenged, but his dragon (Toothless) saved him and won his father’s trust.

In this movie, Hiccup encounters a tribe whose leader lost his arm to a dragon and consequently took revenge on dragons by learning to dominate their alpha. Hiccup encounters his mother, who has lived in peace with another alpha for the last 20 years. Without detailing the entire plot, Hiccup’s father dies and Hiccup takes his place as leader, with his mother and and warrior girlfriend Astrid as his counselors. The nascent cooperative culture is tested and strengthened by its interdependence between men and women; dragons and humans. I’m also giving some thought to the symbolism of the missing foot and the missing arm; the foot helps us balance, while the arm can be used to wield a weapon or defend from attack. Perhaps both characters are compensating for what they have lost.

Contrast this with summer blockbusters of yore, such as Independence Day (1996) where the world unites under the leadership of the American president to battle creepy, uncomplicated aliens, while celebrating the irreverent cowboy archetype in the hero character played by Will Smith. This “space western” summer movie dominated my childhood, but seems to be giving way to far more complex and multiplistic themes that consider the identity and history of the “other,” our relationship to the earth, and our collective fate as a species.. While we still seem to be intent on “othering” in our politics and political discourse, there are hopeful signs in our art that we may be moving beyond this. One can only hope.

DeBlois, D. (2014). How to Train Your Dragon 2. Animation, Action, Adventure.

Edinger, E. F. (1991). Ego and archetype: Individuation and the religious function of the psyche. Boston: Shambhala.

Morgan, G. (2006). Images of organization. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Singer, P. (2000). Marx: A very short introduction. Oxford University Press.

Stevens, A. (2001). Jung: A very short introduction (New edition edition.). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Weick, K. E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

The Wisdom of Joseph Campbell. (n.d.). Retrieved from

My final reflection paper for Human Development

This metaphor occurred to me during my first semester at Fielding:

Each time I read a new textbook, essay, or philosophy, it is as if I am in the dressing room at a department store. My professors select certain outfits, which I dutifully try on. Some are too tight and constricting, others hang off my body unevenly. Some seem unlikely, but surprise me with flatteringly different textures and colors, while others fit like my favorite old pair of jeans on the first try.

Despite the difficulty and rigor that this class has required, it’s been a blessing during a particularly crazy time in my life. Maybe it takes an epic nerd to feel this way, but the perspectives I’ve had to “try on” to understand Goldhaber, Overton, Kegan, etc. have had a profound effect on how I approach my studies overall. I’ve learned to be more open and flexible. At first, I was all, “Positivism bad! Postmodernism good!” That lasted about a week.

I feel as if I’m walking the same path every week (how people develop over the lifespan), but with an improved set of glasses each time. It’s kind of like when the ophthalmologist sits you in front of that weird multi-lens contraption and says, “This one, or this one?” Each time I try on a new lens, my vision gets a little clearer, a little more discerning, and a little more inclusive.

The highlight of the semester was Kegan’s orders of consciousness. His framework embedded itself in my brain. It is changing how I teach, parent, and learn. His research helps me understand how aspects of my childhood have held back my emotional development back in some ways, and helped me develop in others. I had a hard time expressing his theory in my own words; it’s much easier to look at as a Buddhist principle: non-attachment. At each order, we let go of an attachment: control, emotions, relationships, and identity. No wonder meditating is so hard!

I still have questions, some of which I brought up during our conversations. I still think there’s a particularly large schism between the study of human development and the practice of psychology. Medical researchers study disease to help doctors treat patients. The gap between our studies and the work of therapists seems much wider, to the point that I can’t always find a relationship at all. If I was in a psychology program would I study a different selection of theorists, or would the foundation be the same? Or, is there a fundamental difference between the fields of Human Development and Psychology that I’m missing?

Another realization (leading to more questions): The very framework through which we are supposed to present our work–argumentation–is not conducive to fourth order (let alone fifth order) thinking. Overton demonstrates this by espousing relational metatheory, which takes a didactic, emergent approach to studying different types of data, and then proceeds to deconstruct split-metatheory by tracing its roots back to Plato and working his way forward! What? Didn’t he just say we need to stop attacking each other’s theories and start seeing them as all part of a larger whole? Ack!

I’m concerned about how I’m going to work through the implications of this in my research. How much flexibility do I have at Fielding? Do I really have to spend an enormous amount of time and energy thinking and writing about all the people who might possibly disagree with me, and why they are wrong? Do all journals expect this? If I’m espousing a move to fourth or fifth order consciousness, spending a big chunk of my paper deconstructing my “competitors” seems unethical on the grounds that it contradicts my stated values. I will be looking for guidance on this from my co-learners and professors, as I get closer to the end of my foundational KAs.

Okay, back to the class. I’ve loved interacting with my classmates, and I’ve loved getting your feedback, reading your papers, and exchanging ideas. I wrote this in one of my classmate’s threads, but I’m stealing her elephant parable: we all perceive different parts of theory (the elephant) most clearly, but by sharing our interpretations and clarifying them for each other, we start to get an idea of the whole. We each bring a little candle into the darkness, and together they create illumination. Dr. Stevens-Long’s feedback has been invaluable, and I am so glad that both our papers and her feedback were available for all of us. I learned a great deal from both.

To return to my first metaphor: Goldhaber is the outfit that I pull out for more conservative events. Lerner goes back on the rack. Kegan is my new favorite pair of jeans. Overton is a starched suit that looks nice, but isn’t very comfortable. And Stephens-Long is a stylish jacket that looks good with everything.

Thanks for indulging my questions, prodding, and flights of fancy! This was a life-changing class.

Procrastination or Germination?

I need multiple arms and magical powers.

I need multiple arms and magical powers.

I have had a crazy semester. I’m taking three classes, teaching two, being a mom, trying to cook occasionally, and now the end of the semester is upon me. In between now and Dec. 15 I have to grade 15 papers, submit 22 grades, write a lengthy position paper that’s supposed to be publishable quality (help me! I haven’t done this in years!), survive Thanksgiving, remember to celebrate my anniversary, and not drown in dirty clothes.

At this moment, I’m dealing with the manic ups and downs of the steroid shot I got on Friday to ward off impending bronchitis and the accompanying asthma. It’s worked so far, but sleep and focus are both hard to come by. So here I sit, blogging, in the hopes that it will help me get focused for this paper.

Learning wise, this has been a mind-blowing semester. I took Human Development, Social Justice, and Feminist Theories. All life changing topics, but I think HD really shifted my perspective the most. The first part was grueling; we had to read a really dense, jargon-laden, example-free overview of the field to get the basic frameworks through which human development is viewed. The reading got progressively more interesting and exciting. Each week, we had to write a paper on the theory/theories we had read about and explore a certain aspect. I was terrified at first; the professor for the class is known as being the Writing Ninja and I was sure I was in for some hard, necessary criticism. She was actually pretty easy on me, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.

My writing is not perfect; far from it. I’m pretty obsessive about editing, so that helps. I self-edit, I always have at least one other reader, either my mom or my husband (both of whom write for a living), and I try to do at least one out-loud read-through, which also catches the worst of my errors. I’m good at critical thinking, mostly because I don’t automatically negate my own reactions and opinions, no matter how renowned the author. There’s this constant internal-external process I go through where I take note of what interests, offends, excites, or otherwise entices me to reflect in the reading, and then compare it to my own experiences, previous studies, and general beliefs. I think I picked up this process in grad school, and it is serving me well so far in my new program. So I shift in and out of analysis and personal reflection, and it seems to work for me. I think it has the advantage of taking an idea and really knocking it home; so much academic writing is entirely abstract. And BORING. Some of the best ideas are hidden by some of the worst writing! It boggles the mind. I have this wacky idea that I can write academic quality papers that are still reflective, interesting, and specific.

However, I’ve never taken this approach in a formal paper. The two I’ve published academically were not personal, and I want this paper to be personal as well as rigorous.

I’ve had a harder time in my Social Justice and Feminism classes. It’s been confusing and difficult. I love many of the readings despite how heartbreaking it is to read the stories of people who have been disenfranchised, or whose cultures and histories have been misinterpreted and rewritten by those in power. These stories help me see where we are different, and where we are the same. Where I can help, and where I should just listen. But the language of Social Justice is totally different from my language, and I often feel lost, misinterpreted, and mostly just really trivial. From my standpoint as a white, educated, affluent woman, I feel like I’m not supposed to express my opinions or try to share or relate with people who are different. I don’t get this message from my fellow students, but it’s the impression I’m getting from the field of study itself, I guess. Or at least some of it. Some of the authors and editors clarify and seem to invite me into their experience, others seem to be saying, Stay Out! I started this program because of my specific interest in aspects of feminism and human behavior, but I’m having a hard time getting the twain to meet.

So I guess I want to take the writing style that was so successful in my HD class, and use it for this SJ type of paper. Wish me luck. And thanks for reading my rambling. I’ll be posting my final HD paper shortly. It’s all about my love of Kegan.