Specifically, the idea that civility is more important than justice. The demand that we allow the powerful to eat in comfort, to never be disturbed, is nothing short of respectability politics. It’s a moving goalpost, historically used to shame, frame, and exhaust people who, despite being brutalized and terrorized, wanted not revenge, but equity. I have no patience for it.
Whiteness and power call for civility while hanging black bodies from trees.
Whiteness and power call for civility while locking children in camps.
Whiteness moves the goalposts FOR BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS while demanding that the powerful and the power-hungry, not be the least bit disturbed or discomforted.
White Americans, especially land-owning white men, have been allowed to use literally every available option to secure their freedom, including asymmetrical warfare, which is just a fancy term for terrorism.
Every available tool employed by white Americans has been deemed noble, patriotic, morally just, and necessary.
Everyone who wasn’t white? Well our actions had to meet the muster of the moral code whiteness (ostensibly) aspired to but consistently and staggeringly failed to meet. The self-evident rights to life, liberty, equality, and pursuing happiness were considered more like suggestions for the rest of us. It is the difference between sitting down at the table for a wonderful meal, and sitting down with a hungry, crying toddler, your own belly growling, and making a vision board with pictures of food. The difference a plate of food and picture of food. You are allowed to view, but you are not allowed to taste or touch. In the American context white freedom and all “other” freedom do not exist in the same moral universe.
Rather, the entirety of the mental health field and the paradigm under which it operates is a modern-day religion rife with all the familiar problems and benefits that exist in any religion. Most importantly, however, there is hope if people are willing to move beyond what society tells us we “must” do. People have been healing from great pain for 200,000 years—the mental health professions have existed for less than 200. While there are some things we have learned, we need to stop trying to re-invent the wheel. People need love, support, community, to be heard, to be valued, to be validated, to have purpose, to have health and housing, to have nutrition both physically and emotionally—it is not rocket science and doesn’t become such just because we keep saying that it is.
People who enter services are frequently society’s most vulnerable-people who have experienced extensive trauma, adversity, abuse, and oppression throughout their lives. At the same time, I struggle with the word “trauma” because it signifies some huge, overt event that needs to pass some arbitrary line of “bad enough” to count. I prefer the terms “stress” and “adversity.” In the book, I speak to the problem of language and how this insinuates differences that are not there, judgments, and assumptions that are untrue. Our brains and bodies don’t know the difference between “trauma” and “adversity”-a stressed fight/flight state is the same regardless of what words you use to describe the external environment. I’m tired of people saying “nothing bad ever happened to me” because they did not experience “trauma.” People suffer, and when they do, it’s for a reason.
If patients willingly adopt the role of defectiveness, then how is the doctor doing anything harmful or wrong? People who grew up as the scapegoat, who believe they are dirty or defective or bad, who are ashamed of their existence or believe they should be someone they are not, who have led their entire lives being marginalized and discriminated against in society-these are the people who most frequently enter mental health services. They are also those most readily vulnerable to accepting these messages under the guise of treatment and care. It is not until people are willing to start to consider that, in fact, they are not defective in the least, rather, that they are just flawed and unique human beings adapting to incredible pain that they can start to actually believe in themselves enough to heal.
Of course, there is simply the existential issue of mental health professionals that may be unbearable for them to face: If I am not fixing a distinct and identifiable problem, what, then, is my purpose? If the real healing power I have is something that any human being could ostensibly provide, if willing, why did I spend all those years in school and possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars? If these are not specific diseases related to specific biochemical or genetic flaws, why have I specialized-and who doesn’t like feeling special? And, worse, if I am not addressing people with genetic illnesses and biochemical problems, what, really, am I doing when all I have to offer are drugs and technological interventions?
This problem is not unique to mental health professionals. Medical doctors are caught in a similar dilemma when it comes to obesity, heart disease, diabetes, chronic inflammation, and many autoimmune diseases, even cancer. What do these doctors do when they realize that these problems are almost entirely due to an industrialized diet largely based on corporate interests-the sugar industry, soy bean manufacturers, Monsanto-and that if people just ate the way humans are designed to eat, these problems mostly would not exist? And, of course, these issues are entirely intertwined with mental health problems! If these are not specific diseases related to specific biochemical or genetic flaws, why have I specialized? If these problems are not really genetic illnesses and biochemically-based problems, what, really, am I doing when all I have to offer are drugs and technological interventions?
A black man spends his life being marginalized and aggressed, dismissed because of his fear and pain-should he enter the system, he is no longer “less-than” because of his blackness, now he’s marginalized and dismissed as “schizophrenic.” A sexually-abused young woman who was told she “wanted it,” was blamed, and was never given the opportunity to be angry enters the system-she now is “borderline” and once again blamed for being too sexualized, for causing staff to behave in shameful ways, and condemned for her anger, even when it is taken out on herself.
Perhaps more than any other, the most common enactment is that associated with the individual who grew up with a narcissistic parent in constant need of adulation, intolerant of discomfort or self-reflection, and who was a master in the art of gaslighting.
We live in a society that values stoicism, complete control over one’s behaviors, lack of emotional expression, “politeness” at the expense of authenticity-I love New York!-and an eerie Stepford Wife-like ideal of conformity. Mental health professionals often are selected for their ability to represent these values. Those troublemakers who tell the truth, are spontaneous(otherwise called “impulsive”), who laugh or find humor in the darkness(or “inappropriate affect”), who refuse to conform(or my favorite, “oppositional”) are ostracized and pathologized for the threat they pose to propriety. They generally don’t make it through the training process. I know I almost didn’t. It is the Anglo-Saxon way. It also is what makes most of us completely miserable.
As long as our rulers wage war on cosmopolitan culture, they shouldn’t feel entitled to its fruits.
Nice people made the best Nazis.
Or so I have been told. My mother was born in Munich in 1934, and spent her childhood in Nazi Germany surrounded by nice people who refused to make waves. When things got ugly, the people my mother lived alongside chose not to focus on “politics,” instead busying themselves with happier things. They were lovely, kind people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away.
Tolokonnikova spoke of a recent visit to the city jail at Rikers Island and her horror at the conditions at what she described as a penal colony in the middle of “supposedly progressive” New York. She found them, to her shock, worse that those in Putin’s jails.
She went to the local paper with an investigation into “who is responsible for making black snow,” and was told by the editors — who she said she’d written for before — that the story was good, but “you understand, we can’t publish it.” The company that was responsible was too powerful to challenge.
“‘You understand’ — that’s the keyword in Russia. ‘You understand,’” Tolokonnikova said.
Here is an image of a 13-year-old idealist being enlisted to participate in her own oppression. “You understand” is a phrase used to inure us to our own oppression, and make us complicit in the oppression of others. It draws us into the system that oppresses; tells us that we are already part of it; suggests that to reject it is simply to not get it. The implication is that to not understand is to somehow be lacking, to be not as smart as we would be if we understood. The young don’t understand, by their very nature. That is part of their power. They are not yet indoctrinated into the performance of the system; their powers of perception and inclination to question has not yet been eroded by years of bumping up against oppression both subtle and overt.
And I remembered Tolokonnikova’s anecdote this week amid now-regular calls from conservatives and liberals alike for liberals to be nicer to bigots, to be more “civil.” When people – including Julia Ioffe, who later apologized – questioned why news outlets were following around a lawyer who threatened to call immigration on two women speaking Spanish, I thought of how these calls for “civility” seem to be veiled calls for complacency, or even complicity. For silence. I heard “you understand” in these calls. You understand why it’s better to be polite, to be quiet, to be “civil.” Stop resisting. You understand.