Zero Tolerance

First and foremost, I’m sending a huge shout-out to the many school children across the nation who walked out from their schools this morning in protest of lax gun control laws that place the students in what my husband calls “perpetual code yellow” (perpetual potential lockdown).  Deep, heartfelt thanks go to this big, brave group and to the teachers, staff, and administrators who joined them.  (*If you have access, check out Rockbridge County High School Latin Teacher Patrick Bradley’s account of the walkout at his school.)  *Here is the Gender Shrapnel post on guns from a few weeks ago.

Next, I’d like to address the use of the term “zero tolerance,” especially in the college/university environment, as it pertains to hazing and other forms of sexual and racial discrimination and harassment.  This issue comes up in the 2016 Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace book, but I have not written much about it here in the blog.

When institutions cite “zero tolerance policies,” they are referring to the requirement that they investigate reported cases of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation, along with sexual violence.  They are not saying that they do not tolerate hazing and other forms of harassment.  In fact, such high-profile and troubled institutions as Pennsylvania State University and Ohio State University and dozens of others  tout zero-tolerance policies, while news reports show them to have tolerated for decades lethal hazing and other forms of sexual abuse and assault.  They also are not saying that, when they investigate these cases, they often find for the complainant. (*Here are some examples of zero-tolerance policies at: George Mason; Penn State (specifically addressing bullying); University of California-Riverside; University of Oregon; University of Southern Maine; news report on zero-tolerance policy at the University of Virginia.)

The National Education Association has published this interesting 2011 article on alternatives to zero tolerance policies.  The focus in the article is more on all-or-nothing punishments than on misleading rhetoric, but the content can help to guide conversations on the whole concept of zero tolerance.  The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission definitely considers zero-tolerance policies when it is presented with reports of employment violations.  Just insert “zero tolerance” as the search item on this site, and you’ll see what I mean.

The rhetoric is incredibly misleading, for it implies that school officials have eradicated violence based in structural hierarchies, when exactly the opposite is true.  I would argue that using the “zero tolerance” term in an environment where hazing runs deep and dangerous (e.g. fraternities, athletics teams, military organizations) contributes profoundly to the “blind-eye phenomenon” I write about in the Gender Shrapnel book.  It covers up an all-too-often whispered reality of lords demanding servitude through violence—something clearly allowed, if not directly fomented, by our university cultures.

I hear it in this way: Hazing will simply not be tolerated in our midst—except for when we tolerate it every day—and I mean it!  Those who created the zero-tolerance policy meant well, didn’t they?  They must have been people who believed that you could say, “Fiat lux!” and there would be light.  Oh, how easy it is to zip out the “zero tolerance” lingo.  If you just declare “zero tolerance” of an odious practice, then clearly that odious practice has ceased to exist. We have zero tolerance, and therefore nowhere on our campus do we tolerate hazing or discrimination based on gender or race.  Just like that!  That’s faster than you get a milkshake in the Cook Out line.

I remember that a long, long time ago, in my first year at the university where I teach, I saw an older faculty member sit in the back, mumble epithets, and occasionally punch the carpeted walls of the meeting room.  He was really frustrated, and also vaguely amused by younger faculty members’ naïve belief that discussion could be had and change could be wrought.  I appreciated his frank demonstrations of frustration and futility, but also thought that of course we could create change, even as I listened to the story of a fraternity whose members were suspended for using electric cattle prods on their newest “brothers.” I remember being horrified at this news, naively believing that kind of practice could never be a part of a brotherhood ritual, and stating openly that our honor system should be under question if we knowingly allowed these activities to take place for at least eight straight weeks, every year.  As we left that spring faculty meeting, at least five older faculty members gently warned me that I’d better be careful if I wanted to earn tenure.  I risked it and kept talking.  As you can see, I still risk it and keep talking.  My position at the university is less precarious than back then, but my big mouth, combined with crumbling faculty governance, still introduces an element of vulnerability.

About five years after I arrived at the university, I sat as an elected member on my university’s board of appeals, which hears cases of student discipline that have been decided upon by the student governing bodies and have been appealed.  I listened to one particular hazing case for many hours, more than I would have spent on even the lengthiest of stints of local jury duty.  As I recall, the fraternity in question had sophomores and juniors who were alleged to have tied new members’ hands behind their backs, forced copious amounts of alcohol down their throats, and left them to lie in each other’s vomit.  I believe that other cases of corporal abuse accompanied these accounts, although I do not recall that element as clearly now.  I watched as well-known lawyers and alumni of the particular fraternity arrived to testify, to indulge the “boys’” actions, and to seek the lowest possible penalty for something that surely we all understand as just a tradition.  I watched as the fraternity was suspended, not expelled, from campus.  I watched that fraternity return to campus and resume its rituals.  In fact, it is the very same fraternity that was just suspended, not expelled, from our campus for reports of the very same kind of hazing.

About a year ago, I wrote this “Loving People” post in response to the report that a Penn State University student had died, had been left to die, as his “brothers” covered up their felonious actions and the university again had to confront its indulgence of violent, supposedly underground practices, even as they continued to invoke zero-tolerance policies.

At our faculty meeting this week, I foolishly jumped back into the belly of the beast I’ve avoided for several years.  The beast is the fraternity system, whose hazing practices range from mild to lethal and whose academic focus for new pledges ranges from zero on the Fahrenheit scale to zero on the Kelvin scale.  Two years ago, I taught intermediate-level courses in the semester in which fraternities conducted “new member education.”  Approximately 72% of the students in these classes, already dominated by male students, were men receiving fraternity “new member education.”  Their performance in the class went from mediocre to piss-poor to mostly nil.  Their sense of privilege went from high to higher-than-a-kite to sky-high.  I’m too old to think this is cute, or good, or simply a rite of passage.  Mostly it seems like a huge waste of time, money, and the opportunity to learn to live at times outside of oneself.  I am definitely old enough to understand that these so-called “boys will be boys,” “brotherly” behaviors can be deadly.

How are we doing as we continue to say that no hazing is tolerated?  Have we sent the message that boys won’t be boys, that hazing is not tolerated, that our young men aren’t learning to be lords of the manor?  Recent and past events certainly tell us otherwise.

Weinstein and Company

(Table of Contents of a 1990 publication by Elizabeth Bouchard, Everything You Need to Know about Sexual Harassment)

When I was in college, over 30 years ago, a woman from my dorm was raped at a fraternity party.  One year when I was a resident assistant in a dorm, a woman on my hall was in the shower, getting ready for Sunday morning church, and saw a man entering the shower stall through the bottom.  On another day that year, women on the hall upstairs reported that a man had entered their bedroom and climbed into bed with them.  He was eventually caught when attempting to do the same thing in another residence hall.  My third or fourth year—I can’t remember now because these predatory behaviors are so common that accounts of them start to blend together—women students were told to be careful of studying in the stacks in the library because a man was walking through the stacks, holding scissors, and snipping ponytails.  I can’t know whether the creepy perpetrator knew Alexander Pope’s poem, “The Rape of the Lock,” but I can say that making light of these actions is both common and foolish.  Since the college years, many friends have recounted dozens of other stories like these, all from one college in one college town.  I imagine some of you are reading this first paragraph and recalling similar stories from your own college years and well beyond.

As a college professor, I have been made aware of more cases of sexual assault and violence than I ever anticipated I would.  As I have said many times in the Gender Shrapnel Blog (for example, here) and throughout the Gender Shrapnel book, sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are on a continuum with sexual assault and sexual violence.  If we are not reducing incidents of the former, there is no way we are reducing incidents of the latter.  The blind-eye phenomenon, practiced by so many in our communities, serves only to protect the powerful and create more opportunities for violence against women (and men, an issue that we need to address more frequently, especially in “fraternal” contexts, such as the military, sports, and Greek fraternity organizations).

I’m entering the Weinstein fray a little late because times are busy, none of this is surprising, and here we are again.  (*See previous posts on Fox News, Bill Cosby, needing better remedies for sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation, rape, and campus sexual assault.)  As I said in the Bill Cosby post, patterns tell us something.  Testimonial elements of one felony line up with testimonial elements of other felonies perpetrated by the same person.  These details matter.  These stories matter.  And I’m hoping that criminal justice experts and/or sociologists can teach us to extrapolate from the stories we know to understand how many stories there may be that we don’t know.  Patterns tell us a lot, and there are many dotted lines between incidents on which we might imagine more felonies happening.  The Guardian provides this 10-11-2017 account of all the women who have accused Harvey Weinstein “so far,” implying that we will hear more allegations of more felonies.  According to The Guardian piece and to the 10-10-2017 account in The New Yorker, Weinstein’s alleged patterns reveal, over a 25-30-year span, a deliberate pattern: finding young women (usually actors or aspiring actors); convincing them to take a meeting with him, the unbelievably powerful movie mogul; dismissing staff members present at the first part of these meetings, often held in hotel suites; asking the women repeatedly to have sex with him or give him a massage; overriding the women’s “no’s” or hesitations by appearing naked and beginning the massage process himself; forcing his penis into women’s mouths and/or masturbating in front of them.

Multiple reports tell us that women who attempted to report the incidents (we could call them “crimes,” for example) were offered non-disclosure statements and money and/or were eliminated from Hollywood movie rosters and dragged through tabloids.  When in 1997 Weinstein’s company settled out of court with actor Rose McGowan, authors of the legal document insist that the settlement’s purpose was to “avoid litigation and buy peace” (The New York Times, 10-5-2017).  Peace for whom, we might ask.  Peace for Weinstein, his all-male board, the so-called “honeypots” who arranged the meetings, and all the men who act like Weinstein or think they should get to act like Weinstein.  This is not peace for McGowan or for the many women since 1997 who allege having been harassed and/or raped by Weinstein, and the many women since then who perhaps haven’t yet come forward.  Our money-run legal system traffics in violence and silence, silence and violence, and we are going to have to generate legal remedies that do not encourage perpetrators to continue their patterns, plain as day.

In this piece by The New York Times Editorial Board, the authors emphasize women’s silence (“Mr. Weinstein controlled many avenues to advancement in his industry and could kill the career of any woman who didn’t hush up”), but they don’t address men’s silence in this piece.  Where was Bob Weinstein on this?  What about all the men on the Weinstein board?  How about all the male actors who turned a blind eye?   The indulgence, abetting, and blind eyes over all these years communicated to everyone in the movie industry (and every other industry, since examples of the powerful getting away with felony after felony are abundant) that this culture was just fine, that power wins every time, that being exposed to sexual assault and violence are part and parcel of “climbing the ladder.”  The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg makes the point in this way: “Placing a particular burden on women, rather than, say, on the Weinstein Company’s all-male board, to have done something about him suggests this isn’t really about feminist credentials at all: it’s about making women, rather than men, responsible for male misbehavior” (10-10-17). (*Alexandra Petri’s hilarious take on the Weinstein case is also worth the read.)

The New York Times has spent the last week bending over backwards to perform a bizarre liberal mea culpa (see the aforementioned piece by the Editorial Board and this ridiculously juvenile piece by Ross Douthat) surrounding the Weinstein case.  Oh, Democrats, don’t be silent.  Oh, Democrats, renounce the money given you.  Hold on here, NYT.  Slow the hell down.  The preachiness is almost unbearable, given the newspaper’s role in harassing Hillary Clinton over e-mail protocols practiced abundantly both before and after her time in Washington.  Parsing the issue of sexual harassment and assault along party lines and expressing outrage or surprise when men who support the Democratic Party engage in these behaviors is disingenuous and tiresome.  We have elected men from the Democratic Party who have harassed, and possibly raped, women.  We have elected men from the Republican party who have harassed, and possibly raped, women.  I would venture to say that the situation is worse when your “president” has bragged about harassing behaviors and half of the nation has turned a blind eye to it.  We have all seen and can all discern these predatory, felonious patterns, but some choose to say nothing, and some choose to vote for these felons.

When The New York Times decided to publish the Douthat op-ed, which I can only call offensive tripe, they allowed Douthat to diminish Weinstein’s alleged criminal actions to words such as “piggishness” and “vice.”  Douthat also employs the euphemism “caddishness.” The newspaper allowed him to reinforce gender binaries in antiquated ways (e.g. the line about the Republic of Gilead, which not only ignores the fact that men are also victims of rape and extreme violence, but also subtly suggests that we should at least move towards the gender dystopia of the Atwood novel of the Moss television series).  Douthat also claims (here and in last week’s op-ed) Hugh Hefner as a liberal icon, but I think he might hear quite differently from liberals and progressives who have actually worked on gender and race issues.  Douthat tells us, “Promiscuity can encourage predatory entitlement.  Older rules of moral restraint were broader for a reason.  If your culture’s code is libertine, don’t be surprised that worse things than libertinism flourish.”  Welcome to the 19th century, people, where women weren’t even allowed to wear the short skirts that apparently caused the violence against them and their own downfalls.  This line also reads like a threat, something like, “Learn from your promiscuity, liberal Hollywood women, or return to Gilead.”  The New York Times’s liberal auto-flagellation reinforces age-old postures that blame women for the crimes, the felonies, of men.  Stop the bullshit.

An urgent question: To whom are we turning a blind eye right now?  Why are we letting them get away with this?  Who has the courage to speak up and out?

And a reminder.  I wrote the following text in the September 19th blog post of last year, and I fear I’ll be copying and pasting it again at this time next year:

*****

Let’s think for a moment about the common denominators at the core of sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation:

  • Hierarchy with powerful, high-salaried white men at the top [e.g. Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch]
  • Reinforcement of white, male privilege through the hiring and retention of more people who look the same, thus making people of color and women a rarity [Just look at the Fox News administrative team and line-up of anchors]
  • Institutional leaders who practice sexual discrimination, harassment, and retaliation are not only protected by other organizational leaders [e.g. Bill Shine, Diane Brandi], including general counsel, but are also imitated by men below them in the hierarchy [e.g. Bill O’Reilly, who has also been the subject of complaints of sexual harassment]
  • Establishment of a workplace environment that gives power to men and takes it from women.  Examples of this include giving more and higher quality airtime to men, regulating women’s appearance in highly scripted ways, and repeatedly airing sexist broadcasts as if they were news [Check out this series of clips of Fox News’ rampant misogyny]
  • “Boys-will-be-boys” indulgence of men’s illegal behavior [See that series of clips I just mentioned!]
  • Punishment of and retaliation against those lower in the hierarchy who make people aware of the illegal acts [Fox News firings of those who came forward about sexual harassment]
  • Silencing news of the illegal behaviors, through intimidation or pay-off
  • Condoning these behaviors through high-level protection afforded the wrongdoers.  The wrongdoers stay, and those who complain of the wrongdoing must go.
  • This cycle repeats itself.

While the law (see also Chapter 6 of Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace) distinguishes between quid pro quo (usually involving requests for sexual favors) and hostile work environment (HWE) harassment and discrimination, often where there is one form of harassment, the other is lurking as well.  There are multiple ways for the higher-ups in an organization to create a dehumanizing culture in which the lower-downs are not accorded respect for the work they do, are paid too little for the jobs they do, are silenced for taking a stand, and/or are removed because they challenge the hierarchy.  It is reported that Fox News employees, with Ailes at the helm, used both quid pro quo and HWE to foment a culture of harassment and dehumanization for decades.  This is textbook, people, and there is absolutely nothing shocking about it.  (Bryce Covert makes a similar point in this New York Times opinion piece.)

*****

 

 

Charlottesville (and Lexington)

(Photographs of “flaggers” in Lexington, Virginia)

If the events in Charlottesville did nothing else, they made clear to multitudes of people who somehow weren’t yet sure that, since the nation’s inception, we in the United States have created and sustained in overt and covert ways profound systems of oppression—especially of black and brown individuals and communities and Jewish peoples.

The flood of articles, interviews, longer magazine pieces, and more informal posts on social media take our nation, and especially and appropriately white people, to task for ignoring realities and/or taking no action in the face of awareness, and they reveal the many gulfs of levels of belief and understanding between and among us.  Sherman Alexie’s poem “Hymn” speaks beautifully to the sadness and complexities of our current moment; “Renegade Mama” reminds white women that “This is definitely us” (meaning we are complicit in the system of oppression); Ijeoma Oluo’s piece on The Establishment gives practical advice on battling white supremacy; the UVa Graduate Student Coalition published “The Charlottesville Syllabus” to teach us about “the long history of white supremacy in Charlottesville, Va.”; presidents of academic organizations and universities and mayors, congresspeople, and governors have made statements about Charlottesville to condemn white supremacists and their umbrella groups.  This video clip of Toni Morrison on the Charlie Rose Show in 1993 has also recently made the rounds on social media.  Of course, we all know that our oppressor-in-chief was prepared from the very start of his term (and seemingly throughout his life) to support white supremacist groups.

I am a white woman who still has a lot to learn about the history of monuments, the rise of white supremacist groups, and the daily dangers, obstacles, and challenges in the life of people of color living in the United States.  I am writing about Charlottesville this week because I cannot think or write about anything else (except for the additional tragedy of the events in Barcelona and Cambrils), nor can I sleep, nor can I feel safe for friends, oppressed communities, or my own family.  In this blog post I’m going to provide cultural context to my own living situation and then list briefly the major issues that I have seen underscored in the week since white domestic terrorists armed themselves to the teeth, marched triumphantly through various areas of Charlottesville, chanted vile words against African Americans, Jewish people, women, and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, and killed peaceful activist Heather Heyer and injured many more.

I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, where I always wondered at the lack of nuance in official discussions about Thomas Jefferson and at the banal insistence on putting a Jefferson quote on every building stone and t-shirt.  For 20 years I have lived in Lexington, Virginia, home to Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University.  Lexington continues to confront its own problematic history of slavery, the Civil War, complicity with Jim Crow laws and culture, civil rights struggles in the 1950s and 60s, and present-day conflicts about what the city does or can represent.  This week there has been discussion here among knowledgeable and generous people of generating a “Lexington Syllabus” to make more transparent the conflicted history of white supremacy in this town.

VMI was founded in 1839.  Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson taught at VMI and is kept alive in the town through the following: his statue at VMI; his gigantic tomb, flanked by those of other Confederate soldiers, at the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery; the Stonewall Jackson House; the Stonewall Jackson Hospital (where my two children were born); Stonewall Street; Jackson Street; even Jackson’s horse, Sorrel, is stuffed and housed at the VMI Museum.

Washington and Lee University was founded in 1749.  As you can tell by the name, the university was named for its founders, two of the most famous generals (the “Generals” are also the mascot of the university) of United States History.  As president of the school from 1865-70, Robert E. Lee lived on the university campus.  “Lee House” is the name of the presidential residence at W&L.  The university’s chapel is Lee Chapel, in the basement of which you can find the crypt of Lee and several family members.  Even his horse, Traveller, is buried right outside the chapel.  A famous statue of Lee literally occupies center stage in Lee Chapel.  This statue is called “Recumbent Lee,” but I usually call it “Incumbent Lee,” because it feels as if he’s always about to return to the university presidency.  Besides W&L’s numerous reminders of Lee, the town of Lexington boasts the RE Lee Episcopal Church, the Robert E. Lee Hotel and Lee Street.

The university has celebrated Lee as just another one of its presidents.  In 2006, the incoming president of W&L said this about Lee: “Then of course, there is Robert E. Lee, assuming the leadership of Washington College after the Civil War. Offered numerous other opportunities, Lee chose a college presidency because it was the only option that allowed him to help bind the wounds of a divided nation. If the United States was to recover from the devastation and moral wounds of the Civil War, the healing had to begin with education. We build upon the legacy of Lee, the educator, with an ongoing commitment to educating citizens and leaders for a complex world.” (Here is a piece that president wrote almost six years later, more nuanced, but still adopting a rehabilitative view of Lee.)  Ultimately, though, this president did take down the Confederate flags that were displayed on the W&L campus.  If I recall correctly, the university (where I teach) has also sponsored exhibitions and workshops of “Lee the Educator.”  When I interviewed at W&L on a January Monday, the university was celebrating “Founders’ Day” (Washington and Lee), while the rest of the nation celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr., Day.

In the Gender Shrapnel Blog, I’ve written on several occasions about the oppressive nature of civility codes and the problematic silencing of so-called identity politics.  I suspect that this week’s post will be unpopular among some groups of my town and university, but I also think we must face the hypocrisies we continue to foment as we fear airing the dirty laundry of our past and present.  Four years ago, W&L rightly determined that it would publicly reckon with the institution’s slave-owning past.  To do so, the institution placed an historical marker on the side of Robinson Hall on the university’s historic Colonnade to show that donor John Robinson had been the owner of 84 enslaved people and to name those 84 individuals.  This marker was visible from my office window, and I was glad to see even the smallest nod towards understanding that W&L had benefited from the ownership and labor of enslaved peoples.  At the same time, renovation of the entire Colonnade was nearing its end, supported in large part by a big donation from W&L alumnus and former trustee Warren Stephens.  Stephens has been listed as part of the Wall Street fraternity not-so-slyly named Kappa Beta Phi.  In a 2014 article in New York Magazine, Kevin Roose recounts his infiltration of the group’s big annual event, which featured Stephens and his “fraternity brothers” doing skits.  Roose writes, “Warren Stephens, an investment banking CEO, took the stage in a Confederate flag hat and sang a song about the financial crisis, set to the tune of “Dixie.” (“In Wall Street land we’ll take our stand, said Morgan and Goldman. But first we better get some loans, so quick, get to the Fed, man.”).”  This link from the Arkansas Times used to contain a link to the audio of the performance.  As I recall, the New York Magazine piece originally included video coverage of the event, but that has also been removed.  This Salon piece comments on Stephens’ link to the Confederate flag, and extrapolates to a discussion of Wall Street’s ties with the Confederacy.

While the historical marker for 84 enslaved people is found to the side of one of the buildings on W&L’s historic Colonnade, Warren Stephens is honored with not one, but two, rectangular stones, placed right on the Colonnade itself—one at either end of the brick-lined walk.  Stephens frames the Colonnade, and W&L’s enslaved peoples are tucked to the side.  There is still much work to do in terms of the semiotics of remembrance, reckoning, and reconciliation.

One of the Lexington citizens who led the way to make illegal displays of the Confederate flag in public spaces used to own the house I live in.  Groups of “flaggers” still drive by our house every year throughout Martin Luther King Day Weekend and, on occasion, they hop out of their cars, 30-40 women, men, and children abreast, line up by the curb in the front of our house, wave their Confederate flags, and sing “Dixie.”  (See photos of this, above.) They also remark at the “Latinos for Obama,” “End Crooked Districts,” “Safe Space,” and “Take Back the House” bumper stickers on our 21-year-old car.  These are the days we don’t allow our children to walk home from school or go outside without us.

Three days ago, as the town worried about increased activity and potential for violence, especially given the events in Charlottesville, the U.S. “president’s” continued support of white supremacist groups, and our proximity to Charlottesville, I heard myself say to my daughter, “The flaggers are out.  Please be careful after school.”  After I said this, I realized how normal such a statement had become and thought about how that statement must feel more acute and necessary in homes of black and brown residents of our town.

This week my mind has done daily roundtrips between Charlottesville and Lexington.  The major issues that keep popping up include (but are by no means limited to):

-Real violence and real threats of violence being enacted by white domestic terrorists on communities of color and their allies;

-White House cultivation and support of these groups, including Neo-Nazis, Neo-Confederates, and the KKK;

-Discussion of white supremacy, systems of oppression, our nation’s history as the present, and the need for greater awareness and action, especially on the part of white people;

-Awareness of increased tensions for Jewish peoples and women as well;

-The clash between the 1st and 2nd Amendments; how to protect free speech and the right to assembly when weapons of war are used against us;

-Monuments and memorials (See Barton Myers’ interview in the Los Angeles Times);

-Complicated conversations among people on the left, revealing some intersectional and generational splits, or rifts; a recognition of the need for more education, dialogue, and action on the issue of white supremacy.

Our “president” is both a symptom of and a catalyst for oppressive systems that have been in place here in this nation for centuries.  His “vice president” can’t be much better.  Therefore, even an accelerated change in the leadership of the White House to an entirely different administration won’t reduce or eliminate white supremacy.  We citizens have to do it, and we’ll need to do so with a multi-pronged approach.  This should include firmness about the terms we use, the legal implications of the 2nd Amendment and the powerful NRA lobby, the monuments we remove, and the hours we devote.  We also need a heightened understanding of the politics and ethos of non-violent protest.  And we need to show up. The resources are out there.  It’s time to read, learn, and act.

I’m Worried

The “Loving People” post from two weeks ago ends with questions about how we navigate our world and if we can do so in more universally loving ways.  In that post, I expressed anguish over the hazing death of a Penn State student and the unbelievably cruel, violent, and callous response of the student’s “friends,” or “brothers.”  As I write this week’s post, I realize that I can’t stop thinking about that example of cruelty and applying it, in a variety of ways and with more complex social justice concerns, to the murder of Bowie State University student Richard Collins, a black student killed by a white University of Maryland student who is a self-declared white supremacist.  I am thinking about the cruelty inherent in Trump’s bombing of Syria as he tucked into dessert at Mar-a-Lago.  I am connecting the callousness to the ICE agents in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who ate breakfast at a diner where they subsequently staged a raid.  I am worried.  I am deeply worried every day about the vertiginous race to the lowest place we can be.  (This was probably the wrong week to start watching “The Handmaid’s Tale.”)

When I was little, I worried a lot, as I think many kids do.  I worried that my parents would die, that a sibling would fall ill, that a classmate would suffer hardship.  When I was eight and my family no longer even flirted with going to church, I had a weird, unindoctrinated, and fervent system of prayer that included a roll call of a lot of people and some obsessively repeated motions.  At that age, too, as I recall, I was in an experimental, ‘70’s-style, mixed third and fourth grade class, in which the third graders had the task of teaching material to the fourth graders.  I was always worried that “my” fourth-grade charges weren’t learning the material thoroughly enough.  I used to write study guides and practice tests and go over them with my classmates, hoping they would be prepared enough for upcoming assignments and tests.  When my brother had a slumber party for his birthday, I worried that one of the guests wasn’t involved enough with the group and got him to join the wiffleball game (maybe much against his will, I don’t know).  These actions might have resulted from a strange combination of extreme sympathy and a savior complex.  I didn’t quite make things up to worry about, but I certainly found them everywhere I went.

Many children let go of obsessive behaviors as they come to understand the shape of their world and to predict outcomes and consequences, and I think I did the same.  (Playing basketball all the time probably helped, too.)  Other people revealed their thoughts and obsessions, and I realized that living is a more intensely shared enterprise than I had recognized, that we take care of each other through actual administration of care, sympathy, and humor.  This was a relief.  It allowed for more laughter and company, but didn’t dictate less care of others.  There have been many carefree and happy-go-lucky times.  That makes me fortunate, I know.

The accordion of emotions, however, continues its expanding and contracting tune.  I am really worried again, and my current actions are analogs of the weird prayers, practice tests, and wiffleball politics of my youth.  Learning new software programs, figuring out fundraising strategies, meeting with small and large groups every day of the week, speaking and working with other political activists, reading books about it all—this is the job after the “day job.”  It’s the extra job of education, protest, and activism that comes from heightened worry, or anguish.

I am worried that in the United States we buy far more guns than books, that we are going to lose our public school teachers in the face of budget cuts and complete lack of support, that we are privileging health care for some over the possibility of health care for all, and that we are sanctifying meanness, cruelty, and violence.  I have these constant images of our nation as MASH unit, with the White House staff trying to stay ahead of each new gaffe and cruelty of their leader and much of the rest of the nation tending to people and groups who are bleeding in both all-too-real and metaphorical ways.  As an adult, I also want to be attuned to how individuals and groups might want or not want the care offered.  This is a delicate balance, one that requires awareness, research, specific goals and actions, and time.

This all means that I, and maybe we, need to gauge the placement and level of worry over the short and long term.  I need to figure out how much of the worry to invite in so that I can be a citizen who is aware of the increased limitations and dangers around us, but who is also capable of having clear goals—local, regional, national—and taking smart actions.  The murder of black individuals, mortgaging of women’s health and lives, limitation on the movement and autonomy of the LGBTQIA+ community, and raids on hard-working people and families cannot be what defines us, and so changing these trends must be a priority.

The example of tucking into a meal before destroying other human beings cannot serve as a “new normal” in the United States.  I am deeply worried.