Another Week Ends

1. A segment from NPR this week poignantly illustrated how the law and the gospel play out in […]

CJ Green / 6.2.17

1. A segment from NPR this week poignantly illustrated how the law and the gospel play out in real life. The story takes place in New Orleans, where the aftermath of Katrina sent kids’ trauma levels off the charts, and schools have begun to pivot away from “no excuses” disciplinary models. The particular school profiled here, Crocker College Prep, formerly expected students to abide by a rigid set of rules; many of their students, however, had been exposed to horrific events that impacted their ability to behave accordingly. Anyone faced with an unattainable rule will either fight it or run from it; but in “a kid who’s been exposed to trauma…that fight or flight response is much more developed and stronger,” Carter [president of a New Orleans mental health agency] says.”

“A lot of times teachers want students punished because they say you’ve wronged me as a teacher,” says Boykins [principal at Crocker]. “But remove yourself from the situation and think about what that student needs. Even the students who give teachers the most grief want to be here.”

She describes a student who walked from Elysian Fields Avenue to get to Crocker, a several mile walk. “I could give him a 30-minute lunch detention,” says Boykins, “But do you really think that’s going to remedy what his issues are? … He walked miles to get here. Why?”

Again, it’s worth noting how theological this is: fight and flight are instinctive human responses to the law (as demonstrated at great length in the Old Testament). Experience taught Crocker and other schools in the area that the law could not ultimately engender what it was demanding. So rather than make more demands of kids from whom the world has already demanded so much, the schools now provide counselors to help kids through their particular traumas, to encourage them and speak to them with compassion.

Contrast this with another recent profile of an impoverished community, the New Yorker’s massive story on heroin and opioid addiction in West Virginia, The Addicts Next Door. To me, it’s less a story about the horrors of addiction (though, of course, it is that), and more a story about the absolute tragedy of living in a culture where it’s better to die than to ask for help, or to admit weakness, let alone failure.

2. In the wake of President Trump’s viral beheading, Brandon Ambrosino wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled, “Kathy Griffin tweeted something stupid. We should forgive her.” He doesn’t downplay the horror of Griffin’s photoshoot but perceptively acknowledges the way the internet tends to precipitate rage, through self-justification and self-righteousness. Quoting him at length here:

When it comes to attempts at humor, Griffin’s photo might be in a class of its own, but the swift backlash to it was pretty standard social media stuff. Every day we rake people over the coals for misspeaking or making a joke that doesn’t land or using a word we’ve recently decided is gauche. I imagine a good 20 percent of Twitter traffic to be a variation on “Look at this terrible thing this person once did!” Some media outlets even seem to have whole teams of writers devoted to the beat. “Remember when she said this? Remember when he did that? Maybe he’s tweeting this now, but let’s not forget what he tweeted back in 2009!”

But what if we did just … forget the terrible thing? What would happen?

Granted, it’s important to hold power to account, and a good deal of that involves pointing out when powerful figures are lacking the consistency they claim to possess. But when we consider the rabid glee with which we take to social media to point out people’s mistakes, it’s probably wise to take a moment to reflect on the kinds of Internet dwellers we’re becoming.

No doubt a large part of it has to do with the infinite memory of the Internet. We don’t forget things in the 21st century because our technologies don’t allow us to. But this might not be good for humans. In “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age,” Viktor Mayer-Schonberger argues that forgetfulness is an important attribute for humans to cultivate because it allows us to “act in time, cognizant of, but not shackled by the past.” When we forget, we “live and act firmly in the present.”

It’s worth pointing out that we do choose to forget sometimes — when it’s in our best interests to do so. I often find myself scrolling through Facebook’s memory feature, and sometimes I’ll come across a post I wrote that I no longer agree with, so I delete it. Or, if I agree with the point, maybe I don’t think I worded myself as properly as I should have, so I delete it. Some of my posts — especially those from my younger days — embarrass me, so I delete them. And I’m sure I’m not the only one who does this. We all have regrets, and when we’re given the opportunity to blot them out from public memory, we jump on it.

Shouldn’t that make us want to deal with other people on social media more gently? Griffin can’t be the first person to make an irresponsible joke about the president’s death on Twitter — she’s just one who got caught.

This helps explain why expecting too much from our fellow humans can actually be pretty damaging; conversely, a “low anthropology” propagates the kind of compassion Ambrosino exhibits above. It’s not just about lowering expectations or being pessimistic; a low anthropology allows us to understand that on both sides of the fence, we’ve all been there: we’ve all been victims and, most importantly, we’ve all been perpetrators.

Ambrosino concludes: “In an age where we are all one tweet away from destroying our careers or ruining our reputations, we should embark on social media shaming with great fear and trembling.” (That sounds familiar.)

3. Despite the predominance of a weirdly high anthropology in the culture, articles are constantly circulating about the end of the world. It seems dystopian fiction is more popular than ever. Jill Lepore made some interesting remarks for The New Yorker in “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction,” writing, “Dystopias follow utopias the way thunder follows lightning.” In other words, when our expectations for the perfect world are highest, a sense of doom is sure to follow.

But this week’s apocalyptic standout was definitely “End-times for Humanity,” by Claire Colebrook, at Aeon. Her essential claim is that humanity is no more fragile now than it ever has been; whatever “elite” group feels threatened by the current state of affairs has simply been turning a blind eye to the rest of humanity, which has been vulnerable since, well, forever.

How did we arrive at this moment in history, in which humanity is more technologically powerful than ever before, and yet we feel ourselves to be increasingly fragile? The answer lies in the long history of how we’ve understood the quintessence of ‘the human’, and the way this category has fortified itself by feeding on the fantasy of its own collapse. Fears about the frailty of human wisdom go back at least as far as Ancient Greece and the fable of Plato’s cave, in which humans are held captive and can only glimpse the shadows of true forms flickering on the stone walls. We prisoners struggle to turn towards the light and see the source (or truth) of images, and we resist doing so…

History suggests that the more we define ‘the human’ as a subject of intellect, mastery and progress – the more ‘we’ insist on global unity under the umbrella of a supposedly universal kinship – the less possible it becomes to imagine any other mode of existence as human. The apocalypse is typically depicted as humanity reduced to mere life, fragile, exposed to all forms of exploitation and the arbitrary exercise of power. But these dystopian future scenarios are nothing worse than the conditions in which most humans live as their day-to-day reality. By ‘end of the world’, we usually mean the end of our world. What we don’t tend to ask is who gets included in the ‘we’, what it cost to attain our world, and whether we were entitled to such a world in the first place…

That the world will end (soon) seems to be so much a part of the cultural imagination that we entertain ourselves by imagining how, not whether, it will play out.

But if you look closely, you’ll see that most ‘end of the world’ narratives end up becoming ‘save the world’ narratives. Popular culture might heighten the scale and intensity of catastrophe, but it does so with the payoff of a more robust and final triumph. Interstellar pits the frontier spirit of space exploration over a miserly and merely survivalist bureaucracy, culminating with a retired astronaut risking it all to save the world. Even the desolate cinematic version (2009) of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (2006) concludes with a young boy joining a family. The most reduced, enslaved, depleted and lifeless terrains are still opportunities for ‘humanity’ to confront the possibility of non-existence in order to achieve a more resilient future.

There’s another undercurrent to what Colebrook is saying: the more we define “humanity” as something resilient, the less able we are to demonstrate that. Essentially, the only way towards progress of any kind is in first admitting that we are not a progressive species.

If today ‘humanity’ has started to express a sense of unprecedented fragility, this is not because a life of precarious, exposed and vulnerable existence has suddenly and accidentally interrupted a history of stability. Rather, it reveals that the thing calling itself ‘humanity’ is better seen as a hiatus and an intensification of an essential and transcendental fragility.

4. It seems that the end-times are particularly near for clergyfolk in Europe, where one brave little robot has stepped up to the plate. The German robot-priest called BlessU-2 was recently unveiled in honor of the 500-year anniversary of the Reformation. I have to say, this is perhaps the best commemoration I’ve come across yet.

“We wanted people to consider if it is possible to be blessed by a machine, or if a human being is needed,” Stephan Krebs of the Protestant church in Hesse and Nassau, which is behind the initiative, told the Guardian.

The robot has a touchscreen chest, two arms and a head. For the past 10 days it has offered blessings in a choice of German, English, French, Spanish or Polish. Worshippers can choose between a male or female voice.

The robot raises its arms, flashes lights, recites a biblical verse and says: “God bless and protect you.” If requested, it will provide a printout of its words. A backup robot is available in case of breakdown.

“The idea is to provoke debate,” said Krebs. “People from the street are curious, amused and interested. They are really taken with it, and are very positive. But inside the church some people think we want to replace human pastors with machines. Those that are church-oriented are more critical.”

Aren’t they always.

5. In other news, the third season of Invisibilia premiered yesterday. This podcast, about the invisible forces that shape our lives, provided a wealth of Mocking-inspiration in its previous two seasons, and I expect this new one to do the same. Permit me to spoil a tear-jerker of a clip from the first episode: it’s the story of an anthropologist, Renato Rosaldo, who, while studying an indigenous tribe in the Philippines, came across an emotion for which there was no English translation: liget. The tribe used the word to describe how they felt when they heard the recording of a recently deceased but well-respected tribesman; it was an emotion, they said, that made them want to chop off peoples’ heads! Not quite anger, not quite despair. Only later, after Rosaldo’s wife tragically died, did he find he understood it:

He pulled to the side of the road, and a howl came roaring out of him.

And then he knew: This was liget.

The English words that best describe liget might be “high voltage”: a powerful energy running through and out of the body. Renato had no control over when this feeling would come or how long it would stay. There was nothing within the American palette of emotions or in mainstream books about death that helped him. He just knew he had to howl. And because Renato could now grasp the force and meaning of the word liget, he was able to make some sense out of the chaos. He was able to give his emotions form, and let them pass through his body.

He could begin to heal.

6. Last but not least, this week’s entry in What Your Therapist Really Thinks, from The Cut, provided some good relationship non-advice. A woman seeking advice asked why the people closest to her seemed to become more critical over time. Therapist Lori Gottlieb responded:

If you’re in an intimate relationship, you’re going to be seen from every possible angle, and whether you like it or not, this means that a mirror will be held up to you. And I’m not talking about the ones in fancy dressing rooms with the soft, flattering lighting.

I’m talking about the mirror that therapists hold up to our patients, a mirror we can hold up to them because of a phenomenon known as transference. In transference, the feelings and behaviors that were once triggered by a caregiver from the past are unconsciously transferred onto important relationships in the present; conveniently, these current relationships tend to be with close friends, lovers, or therapists. As a result, whatever clients do in their daily relationships will eventually play out between clients and their therapists during sessions. If you were to see me for therapy, for instance, I’m fairly certain that you would, at some point, feel criticized by me. Perhaps you feel slightly criticized by me right now, as you read my response to your letter, because I’m suggesting that you may have a tendency to be unreliable, or keep people at a distance. As children, often we “disown” part of ourselves we see but don’t like, meaning that we take those unwanted aspects, toss them into an emotional trash bin, and figure they’re gone. But they aren’t. Unbeknownst to us, they’re still in the trash bin. Then our best friend or partner or therapist comes along and says, “Hey, look at all that stuff in the trash!” and while consciously we have no idea what they’re talking about, unconsciously we’re squirming with shame.

Gottlieb goes on to say that this can actually be a good thing. As with the anthropologist’s story above, naming the problem gives it form, makes it seem less consuming.


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