Monday, July 24, 2017

There Ought to Be a Word for That: Emotional Manslaughter

There ought to be a word for when a person causes emotional damage to someone else without having any intent to harm them. Unless we have such a word, how can we account for the widespread trauma that's been caused by parents who honestly believe that they love their children, but who are ill-equipped to raise them, or are broken people themselves? Or, how can we account for teachers who believe that publicly shaming a student for falling short of the mark is truly the best way to help them learn? Or, what should we make of a person who tells someone who's struggling with having lived in a war zone to "Stop living in the past!" or "Just get over it!", believing this is the most helpful thing for them to hear?

It's true that a lot of emotional and physical trauma is the result of overt cruelty and violence. It is done "with malice aforethought." But there is a whole, more elusive world of emotional traumatization that is hard to talk about, precisely because it is not done out of overt cruelty or violence. There are as many (if not more) cases in which there is no malice behind the actions that caused the harm. Rather than acting out of cruelty or violence, the perpetrator is acting out of ignorance or even, in very misguided ways, out of care, concern, affection, or love.

Is this abuse? Or is it something else?

This kind of emotional traumatization is so difficult to talk about, because we don't have a sufficient vocabulary for it. How can we talk about something or put issues to rest unless we can name it in the first place? We have certain words like "abuse" and "neglect," but there seems to be a very important one missing. It's not exactly abuse, because there's no cruel intent. It's not neglect, because what I'm talking about is an action, not a failure to act.

Lacking such a word, we are left with only two ways to consider the causers of the trauma: as abusers, or as not-abusers. This makes it too easy to let them off the hook. Since we cannot ascribe cruel intent, it's difficult to call them abusers. And how often we hear: "Oh, they were just doing the best they could." "They just didn't know better." "That's the only way they knew to show that they cared."

For the person on the receiving end—the traumatized one—this is crazy-making. It minimizes their experience and denies their scars. It gives them no way to name what happened, to put their finger on why they feel so screwed up, and that makes them question themselves at some fundamental level: "Was it really that bad?" "Am I blowing this out of proportion?" "Am I making this up?" It can leave them feeling angry, and then mystified as to exactly why. And it leaves them with no way to resolve the cognitive dissonance of knowing that their parent or teacher or loved one cared, and yet they caused them such harm.

With a word for it, we would have a concept for it. And with a concept, we can begin to talk about it, examine it, deal with it, hopefully even start to resolve it. We have a word for the damage that is caused by it, and that word is "trauma." But "traumatization," as a word for the action, seems to be loaded with intent, in the same way as the word "abuse" is. We need something that clearly removes malicious intent from the picture.

In the legal arena, there is the term "manslaughter," which is the criminal act of killing a person that does not quite meet the criteria for "murder," because there is no malice aforethought—no intention prior to the killing—but there is still culpability for the act. The absence of intent is acknowledged, but the person in question did, by their actions, take a life. They are still held responsible for what they have done.

There ought to be a word for when a person causes emotional damage to someone else without having any intent to harm them. Let's call it "emotional manslaughter."

Sunday, January 29, 2017

"We Need Not Fear These Silences"

"I am here, and there is nothing to say." ~John Cage, Lecture on Nothing (1949)

The other day, I heard someone say that having a blog scares the heck out of him, because of having to always come up with new content. I told him that it's perfectly all right to have nothing to say. John Cage said it so well: "I have nothing to say, and I'm saying it.... We need not fear these silences."

I learned this at one point in graduate school. It was a couple of years into my coursework, and I had an essay due in a history seminar. I discovered something more fundamental than writer's block: I simply had nothing to say.

When I went to class empty handed, I told my professor that, and she laughed. She'd been there many, many times. "Don't worry," she told me. "Give it some time. Something will come to you."

And indeed, it did. The following week, an idea came to me, and I wrote and wrote. That essay become the core idea on which I would base my whole dissertation. I doubt it would have come were it forced.

Sometimes we simply have to make space for things. Let the silences be.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Thinking in Braille

About a year ago, I began participating in the Ethnographia Project in Second Life. The project, called "Virtual Worlds, Disability, and New Cultures of the Embodied Self," is supported by a research grant from the National Science Foundation. Keao Wright, another project participant, asked me to help her build something she very much wanted: a pink crystal ballroom. She wanted it to be two stories, with the top open to the sky. She wanted the lower floor to be a dance floor, and the upper floor a terrace with seating areas for people to gather and chat. She wanted a water fountain with chimes in the center, a glass entryway, and pink crystal for the walls and floor.

There was something remarkable to me about this: Keao has been blind from birth. What sort of "picture" for this ballroom did she have in her mind, if she has been blind her whole life? She was conveying her idea to me, but what was the idea itself like, in her mind? For me, it would have been a mental picture. But for her, I wondered, what? I asked her, and she said, "I just have an idea of it." She couldn't describe the form it took. She just knew.

We all carry representations (mental maps) of the spaces around us inside our heads. They're what make it possible to find our way, whether it be through our homes, or our communities at large. We all have mental maps, whether we're sighted or blind. But what do these "look" like, for someone who's blind?

People who are blind do have spatial representations in their minds. They just don't happen to "encode" the information with their eyes. They encode it by sound and by feel. Blind people read Braille using their spatial encoding abilities when they're reading a line or page of text by feel.

The picture with this post (below) says YOU ARE HERE in Braille. (It's a view of the raised dots as seen at an angle, from the lower right.) It's not a mental picture that a blind person sees in their mind when they read in Braille, but they still have a mental construct of what they feel. They have a spatial representation of those dot patterns inside their mind. Without it, Braille makes no sense.

If you are able to touch-type, without looking at the keyboard, you're using a similar, non-visual spatial construct. Without any visual guide, your mind knows spatially where the correct keys are. You type by feel. It's as simple as that.

It turns out that the "visual cortex" region of the brain is a misnomer. It's more the "spatial cortex". It's as active in a person who's blind as one who's sighted. Just because a blind person does not see a mental map in their mind doesn't mean they don't use one. Spatial is not always visual, and a mental map is not always a picture. Imagine that!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Mind Has To Poop Once In a While

"The mind has to poop a little once in a while too, you know." ~M. Blauvelt

Have you ever noticed when someone asks, "What do you think?" or "What do you believe?" sometimes you don't truly know your answer until you try to say it? You might have thought you knew, but as you express it, you might discover a few surprises. Articulating a thing is actually a necessary step in the process of knowing it. The mind really does have to poop every once in a while.

We have thoughts, ideas, and opinions on all kinds of things. Sometimes we're content with them staying inside our heads, but realize this: They're often thoughts only half thunk. They have to be articulated to be fully processed. So whether you express them digitally, or on paper, or in chats with family or friends, don't hold them all inside. Use anything from journals, sketchbooks, and notepads, to forums, meetups, and blogs. Articulacy ‒ the ability to express yourself ‒ is as important as being literate. We all need good mental regularity! What goes into our heads is important, but also, what comes out.


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Add Vulnerability and Stir

The theme of the day is courage. I'm not talking about the kind of courage it takes to do great things. We all know about that kind of courage ("he fought a big battle," "she overcame the odds"). Those make epic stories. I'm talking about a different kind of courage though: the courage to be yourself.

The courage to be yourself is a backstage kind, but it's in no way less great. It's a still, small voice that says, "I have something to say." You have to make room for it. You have to hush all the other voices that jump in to drown it out. And then, an even tougher job. You have to dare to be vulnerable. Vulnerability feels very scary, but, look at it this way: Contrary to what it might feel like, vulnerability isn't "the state of being open to injury," it's the state of being exactly who you are.

Monday, November 14, 2016

See Dirt, Clean Dirt

I once knew a person who had a remarkably clean house, and at the time, I was going through a depression and had been struggling with the condition of mine. Her husband was a house builder, and they had a fairly large house. They had two small kids, and she had a busy life. I asked her, what was her approach? Did she do the housework on a schedule? Did she hire someone to clean? She told me no, she used a "see dirt, clean dirt" approach. I've adopted that approach ever since.

Let's translate this to work styles in general. Some people do well with long to-do lists and are very productive when they have everything planned out on a schedule. I am not one of those people, however. I have much more of what I've now come to call an "ad hoc" work style. I used to get frozen in place by daunting mountains of work tasks ahead of me. Nowadays, I combine "see task, do task" together with another thing I once also learned from a friend, which is "most things take five minutes," and I'm amazed at how much can get done.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Thoughts Were Made To Be Thunk

"Learn is not a transitive verb." ~Peter Gould

When I used to teach university courses, something that I found myself often needing to say to students was: "Show me that it passed through your brain." Contrary to what most of them presumed, I wasn't interested in having information parroted back to me. Teaching is not information delivery, and learning is not delivering it back. Thoughts were made to be thunk.