What is my lane?

One of the most important things I’ve grappled with as a teacher is how to be empathetic, caring, and supportive to students while not crossing ethical boundaries. My work in Trauma-Informed Pedagogy (TIP) has been a big part of this, as have my studies of pedagogy, psychology, sociology, leadership, and ethics. But it goes back even further—when I was an undergraduate voice student and later a young professional opera singer, most of the voice teachers I interacted with were super fused with their students in one way or another. They gave relationship advice, screamed at us, critiqued our bodies, and in some cases, had intimate relationships with us. This happened across the field also with conductors, directors, and other people in positions of authority.

I sometimes joke (but not really) that I got a degree in leadership and ethics because my former career had none. This is an oversimplification—what we often had was leadership in the absence of ethics. The “artist temperament” was used to gloss over things like psychological abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. I witnessed many instances of highly effective, but totally unethical leadership in my first career. A talented conductor can still be an asshole and a sexual predator. A seasoned director can produce an amazing show and also be a cruel sociopath. They’re not mutually exclusive and they don’t cancel each other out. But we didn’t have HR departments watching for violations of statutes like the ADA, or the Civil Rights Act, or Title IX. We should have—but we didn’t.

I left opera because something was deeply wrong with the field and my growing awareness of this wrongness made it impossible to stay. While some of my experiences with singing were transcendent, it didn’t change the fact that it was mostly dehumanizing and awful. Auditions just sucked. Singing for a bunch of people whose job was to disqualify me, over and over again, sucked the joy right out of me. Being in a field where it is perfectly acceptable to be discriminated against for your beauty, size, height, race, and many other things that have nothing to do with your voice and musicianship was just ugly and demeaning. Having to explain to my voice teachers that emotional abuse was 1) unacceptable and 2) ineffective, got really old after fifteen years. Don’t even get me started on sexual harassment. It was so normalized that it barely registered on my radar. Decades later, in the wake of #metoo, I had to take a hard look at many of my experiences and recognize that they were often coercive and nonconsensual.

So a good part of the rest of my life (age 30 on) has been centered around figuring out who I am, what I’m good at, and what my lane is. There’s a lot of crowing about “staying in your lane” on social media or directed at artists whose opinions differ from their fans or whatever, but I mean it in a different way. Here are the big questions I’ve been asking myself over the last 20 years:

  • What am I really gifted at?
  • What makes me feel fulfilled?
  • What are the healthy limits around my assigned roles (such as mother, wife, teacher, and friend)?
  • What do healthy boundaries look like when I have a lot more power than the people I work with? (What are the ethical limits to my relationships with students? To my child?)
    • How do I support my child without diminishing or parentifying them?
    • How do I support my students but not attempt to take responsibility for problems I am not qualified to handle (drug addiction, eating disorders, mental illness, traumatic events)?
  • Where is the line between support and caring, and crossing into territory that needs to be handled by someone in a different lane, like a therapist, or nutritionist, or doctor? How do I hold that line compassionately?
  • How do I hold space for other people’s emotions and experiences while making sure my own boundaries are healthy and not fused? (If I experience secondary trauma from hearing about a traumatic event, how do I manage that?)
  • Where do I have the right to speak authoritatively and where do I not? (I piss off a very small percentage of white dudes each academic year who think that talking about the developmental effects of family child separation or racism is somehow not based in the science of my discipline. It is, but I am not an authority on many things and should not speak to them authoritatively. )
  • How does my positionality—my privilege and place in society, limit or increase the ways in which I should take up space?
    • When am I ethically obligated to speak out?
    • When am I ethically obligated to leave space for others to speak out?
    • When should I give up my space to others so they can be heard?

All of these questions have come up repeatedly during my academic teaching career. I’ve done a whole lot of ranting about the empathy gap among my colleagues, but some of that comes from our utter lack of training. College teachers are not taught how to teach. We’re not taught the ethics of teaching (and grad school is at least exploitative and often abusive so we don’t have good examples). We’re not taught to recognize how our privilege affects how we perceive our students’ struggles. We’re definitely not taught how to handle student trauma or crisis. K-12 teachers do certifications and ongoing education, but we are assumed to have everything we need because we know a bunch of stuff about one area of scholarship. We’re not taught how the ADA, Civil Rights Act, and Title IX affect our students and our jobs, beyond surface-levelˆ mandated training. So it’s somewhat understandable that my colleagues balk when I talk about understanding and responding to student trauma. Nobody told them that was part of the job—but it is.

I’ve gone about finding the answers to these questions in a variety of ways. I’ve talked to my therapists about things like processing secondary trauma and holding healthy boundaries. I’ve studied psychological theories that help me understand how and when unhealthy fusion and transference happen and how to avoid it. I’ve studied and explored many spiritual paths to understand what makes me feel centered and fulfilled. And I’ve studied ethics and leadership to understand the responsibilities that come with power. Most recently, I’ve learned about social justice, intersectionality, and the history of oppressions in the US in an attempt to better serve my diverse students and community and to minimize the harm I can thoughtlessly cause with my privilege. I’ve also leaned on my TAs, who are often from different backgrounds and have different knowledge areas. I still have to be aware of power distance—because I am their pseudo-employer—but recognizing that people with less status may have more experience or knowledge than I do in a given area has saved my ass many a time.

This is not a checklist for perfection. In fact, I think humility is possibly the best trait to cultivate if you have the ability to influence others. If you are in a position where you teach or parent or treat or manage other humans, you need to cultivate humility. I have fucked up on all of these things many times. But if I had fucked up, rationalized it, and moved on, I would have continued to do harm and I would be an unethical jerk. Unfortunately, those of us driven to learn all the things, like academics, or be the best at things, like artists, often resort to defensiveness rather than recognizing that we don’t know everything and our power gives us many opportunities to cause harm. The challenge of fucking up is recognizing that it is also an opportunity for growth. I know one more thing that I didn’t know before, and I can choose not make that mistake next time.

Early in my teaching career, I was having adult undergraduates build personal websites for a career development course. I required that all of them put good headshots on their home pages. One student kept avoiding it. I tried to explain that it was really important, but she avoided discussing it with me. We became friends after she graduated, and one night over cocktails, she told me it was because her culture doesn’t think it’s okay for a woman to put her picture on the internet, and her family would judge her. It had never crossed my mind that it was a cultural thing. It should have, but it didn’t, because I am super white and just didn’t think to ask. Now I do. I have my students do LinkedIn profiles with photos, but I also give them a pass on it if they tell me they don’t want to include a photo for any reason. So for the low, low price of apologizing to my former student for being an idiot, I learned something that positively affected all my future students.

When I taught people my own age, I would respond to overtures of friendship if I was interested and I was no longer their teacher. As I moved to traditional undergraduates, it became clear this would not work. There is too much power distance between a 45-year-old professor and a 20-year-old undergraduate. This doesn’t mean that my relationship with all my students ends when they graduate—I remain available to those that are interested, but in a mentorship role, not a friendship role. We chat over zoom about career stuff, they update me on their grad school admissions, or sometimes just ask for advice. While with adult undergraduates I had to prove my worth as an authority figure in their age range, with traditional undergraduates I have to break down some of the power distance in order to engage them fully in the material, but not to the extent that I pretend I’m one of them. I think of my role as “weird professor aunt” rather than “weird peer with specific knowledge.”

I figured all of this out on my own, and with the help of my own good professors, therapists, and friends. I learned by example, both good and bad, and I learned from my many, many mistakes. Parenting, too, is an endless exercise in humility, guilt, joy, pride, and frustration. Our society makes a huge mistake by discounting the experiences of parenthood on the workplace. I was a far less empathetic person before I had a kid and had to face my daily failures. I used to freak out every time I had to teach attachment theory because I was sure I had totally fucked up my kid. I was also far less forgiving of myself and others. Eventually, I realized that nobody does parenting perfectly because there’s no such thing. You’re different people and sometimes you don’t mesh. And sometimes you have to pass the ball to another person. When my kid was having anxiety after a couple of really scary life events, I got them a therapist because I knew that helping them work through the trauma was not something I could do on my own.

The same thing applies to my students—I’m a caring, responsible adult, but I’m not a doctor, psychiatrist, therapist, or nutritionist. I have a list of those people to refer them to when needed. And I have my own people for when I need the same help.

Anyway, I think this is the beginning of a larger body of work. I think knowing your lane is the heart of what I’ve tried to do and be in the second half of my life, and I think it can be helpful to others. How have you learned what your lane is? And how have you learned what it isn’t?

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:

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:



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.


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 http://www.audible.com/pd/Religion-Spirituality/The-Wisdom-of-Joseph-Campbell-Audiobook/B002VA9TR2