Do I Need a Word for Stupid People?

My employer required a handful of DEI-related readings this quarter. Definitely a good thing, and/but the selections made me confront something I’ve been pushing aside for a while. In the spirit of facing up to my shit, here we go.

The issue is the troubling origins of the words “moron” “idiot” “imbecile” etc. Pretty much all synonymous terms were medical or legal classifications for individuals who did not conform to whatever arbitrary standard for intelligence or behavior was enforced at that time. The classifications were utilized to take away people’s freedom to live where they wanted to live, participate in society, reproduce, vote. The words were consequential and did not just designate difference, but inferiority. Although the usage has changed, the sting still lingers for folks, so removing those words from pointed use seems reasonable.[i]

The question I’ve been avoiding is the one that always lingers in my mind when this group of words is broached,

“But what am I supposed to call stupid people?”

The appropriate response is, of course, “why do I need a name for stupid people?”

“Because there are stupid people out there, and I may need to reference them in writing or conversation.”

Do I, though?

I’ve argued in at least one post and an op/ed that writing off our perceived (often political) enemies as “idiots” is not helpful. It places a nearly impenetrable wall between us and them and, yes, the language itself fortifies the wall. If they are idiots, there is no reaching them, no reasoning with them, no point in concerning ourselves with their motives or wellbeing. If they are idiots, there is no point in trying to talk to them. I’ve argued against this usage with the ride or die Trumpers specifically, because holding fast to a belief in the face of contradictory evidence is something every one of us has done. Maybe it’s not over a political election, but rather in believing in superstitions, practicing harmful habits, defending the  improbable innocence of people we happen to like. The belief that we are rational actors leads us to trust ourselves too much, and to trust others too little, and facing up to our universal irrationality may help us be a bit more forgiving.

I have come to believe that people may believe stupid things, perhaps, or make stupid decisions, but no one is an idiot. Do we need a demeaning word for someone who is incapable of thinking the way that we do? Perhaps you’re wondering about people with intellectual disabilities, diagnosed or not, apart from any ideologies you might have. Would you call those people idiots? I wouldn’t. Those words imply some element of will, not a different intellectual capacity, and all of the words synonymous with idiot have a tinge of insult and judgement that hang on them. It would never cross my mind to call someone with an intellectual disability an idiot. Besides, our definition of intelligence is far, far too narrow. Everyone who is conscious has some kind of intelligence, whether it be the ability to make something, to love well, to appreciate beauty. None of us excel in everything, and there’s plenty of variety to go around.

What if someone is unwilling to apply their intelligence? That makes them stubborn, right? Or willfully ignorant. Not stupid.

So do we need a word like idiot? Do we need a word that takes what we perceive to be the circumstantial inferiority of a person and turns it into their entire identity? Do we need a demeaning word for people with disabilities? Do we need a demeaning word for Black people? For gay people? For women?

How might the world shift if we did not have a demeaning word for people who are intellectually disabled or make harmful or ignorant decisions? Would it force us to look at them as people with flaws, like us, instead of demons? What would it look like if, instead of saying, “Those Trump supporters are idiots,” we said:

Those Trump supporters believe something that has been proven false, or

Those Trump supporters are being manipulated by greedy, ambitious people, or

Those Trump supporters are being led by their fear.

I immediately feel my compassion extend towards those people, in a way in which I wouldn’t with a mob of idiots. Which ones could you relate to? Who is worth caring for? Who might you be willing to talk to? Each one of those descriptions contains within it a clue to solving the perceived problem. Does that opening put too much responsibility on our shoulders? Is that what we’re trying to avoid?

An idiot is a person who is not like us, a person not worth considering. A person whose motives we don’t even need to think about, because even if they did have motives, why should we learn about them? They’re stupid, after all. We separate from them in word and deed. We lock them out of the human club by naming them as something other. Separation is a method to shut down compassion and a lack of compassion separates us from our companions in this journey.

I think I can live without it.

As for my use of crazy… that’s for the next therapy session.

[i]

I don’t argue that these or any words be removed from the language entirely. This is about mindful speech & writing.

Annoying Little Boddhisattvas Everywhere

Annoying Little Boddhisattvas Everywhere

I was walking with B & V after the most recent of the January 6th Committee’s televised hearings, describing the witness tampering that Liz Cheney had teased at the end, when I stopped myself mid-sentence. “My god, there’s no hatred in my voice when I say that name. Do you know how long I’ve been hating the name Cheney?” Decades of (arguably justified, if unhelpful) emotional enslavement to anger and disgust and horror around the lies, war promotion and profiteering, torture, and spying that defined her father’s vice-presidency vanished from my current self as I appreciated his daughter’s impartiality, levelheadedness, search for truth, and willingness to risk her political standing for our cherished institution of democracy. She has shown me that I can let go of the fraught attachment to the feelings, and that the letting go is not a forgetting or absolution. I think her political philosophy is inhumane, plutocratic, and destructive. I think her father was a war criminal. I would doubtless vote against her if I had a chance to do so. And I can hold all those beliefs and take any oppositional actions made available to me without hating her, without feeling any tension or revulsion at all; fully recognizing her as a part of the greater human mess and a person worthy of compassion. Liz Cheney has helped lower the bar in the best way, though I’m still working to drop it further: how little can I understand or sympathize with a person’s actions or beliefs and still empathize with them as a part of me, an interdependent element of my complicated world?

In the 90s, Ram Dass’ shrine featured Neem Karoli Baba, Buddha, Jesus, and Bob Dole. (Remember when Bob Dole was the ultimate enemy? FunnyNotFunny?) He said when his gaze settled on the latter photo, he would feel his heart tighten, and know where his “spiritual homework” lay. I don’t have a shrine, but if I did today I wouldn’t put Trump on it. I’m not welcoming that daily dose of constriction, but I know it’s something to strive for.

Last week, while picking up garbage around the community center where I volunteer to hang out with unhoused and economically marginalized and other random folks from the area, a guy started harassing me about why I was cleaning up there. He wasn’t happy about it and wasn’t, I realized a few sentences in, interested in actually conversing with me so much as lecturing me, and it wasn’t pleasant. But it didn’t take long for me to recognize several truths he had unveiled. First is my persistent desire to be liked and even appreciated, which has been a barrier for as long as I can remember – causing an often immature reaction to criticism and at times preventing me from being honest with people when it’s important to do so, and, as in this case, taking too personally words aimed at the idea of a person, and having little or nothing to do with me. I also have a compulsion to explain myself, which I guess I can attribute to ego attachment. (As my best friend once said to me, “I bet you’re one of those motherfuckers who has to explain why you’re leaving to your boyfriends.” It had never occurred to me that not doing so was an option.)

When my critic was giving me shit about “my own house,” I also had to recognize that I have neglected my own community in favor of coming to this one every week. I view the unknown neighbors on my block as unworthy of my attention – comfortable, middle-class white people who are so polite and reserved that I have written them off as repressed and dull. I have thought about hosting a happy hour, but never done it. I have convinced myself that I wouldn’t know what to say to them, yet I’m literally and figuratively going out of my way to converse with what are often mentally or chemically ill folks in another neighborhood. I’ve often declared in the past several years that my particular talents serve best through my talking to well-intentioned White people who don’t see the destructiveness of their internalized racism, ableism, etc. yet I do that almost exclusively in structured, deliberate environments, rather than creating open spaces where those meaningful conversations might unobtrusively and effectively seep in. There is work to be done here.

The final and perhaps most successful boddhisattva who came into my life recently is The Fireworks Guy. I liked fireworks well enough as a kid, but both of the dogs I have lovingly raised as an adult have been terrified of fireworks. Like most good mothers, I have loyally hated the things that cause harm to my kids. A few weeks ago we took V to our local dog-friendly restaurant patio for the first time in a year, and as soon as the server delivered her beloved marrow bone, a massive firework went off a few houses away. V started shaking, I yelled an obscenity, and B took off in anger (rare for him) to find the people who did it. What he reported back was that the guys (a racially mixed group) saw the fireworks as an intentional act of rebellion to annoy “yuppies”, protest “gentrification”, and generally disrupt people’s comfort. On the flip side, I have long held fireworks to be a deliberate act of toxic masculinity, symbolic violence, and cruelty towards nearby animals and traumatized humans. In fact, there’s little truth to either my accusation or their justification, certainly in the sense of a higher truth. Both beliefs are lacking in compassion and overflowing with resentment and blame. Something clicked in me after B’s interaction, and I made a conscious decision to stop getting angry about fireworks. V isn’t nearly as traumatized by them as she used to be – CBD chewies have worked wonders, and thunder (which we can’t pin on anyone) is much harder on her nerves – and I’m tired of crafting narratives of cruel, abusive men in my head. There are enough real ones out there. I haven’t got time for the pain.

Weirdly, that worked like an off switch. Once I let go of my manufactured justification for harboring the anger, the anger disappeared completely. I still don’t like the sound of fireworks, and I still wish it didn’t bother V, but I’m no longer wasting a single iota of energy on hating the perpetrators. Crazy, right? I’ve certainly tried to let go of emotional attachments in the past with far less success. I don’t know if this one came easily because I’ve been practicing more, or because I recognized the weirdly ideological motivation for the resentment or what, but it does give me hope for my indubitably lifelong efforts to let. shit. go.

Thank you to all my teachers.

Anything to Celebrate?

Anything to Celebrate?

Hello, dear readers.

It’s not that I haven’t been writing lately, or that my mind and body haven’t been churning with thoughts and confusions and frustrations and the need to purge them through organized language. I’ve just had a really hard time doing so. I started 5 blog posts in June that just spiraled into anger or despair or pathos. Still working on some of those, but in the interim I find it necessary to summarize the just-concluded Supreme Court term for my own sanity, to explicate the sources of my feelings of horror and doom that have been growing ever since Merrick Garland was denied a hearing in 2016.

  • A potential life (no constitutional protections for people carrying dead fetuses) potential birth (no constitutional protection for ectopic pregnancies) an embryo (no constitutional protections for IUDs or Plan B pills) a zygote is more important than the life of a living woman or other pregnant person (Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization)
  • Border patrol agents cannot be personally sued for physically abusing and harassing citizens (Egbert v. Boule), and police officers cannot be personally sued for failing to inform suspects of their Miranda rights (Vega v. Tekoh)
  • The rights of people to carry hidden, loaded guns wherever they want is more important than the rights of states to vet those people in order to protects its citizens and law enforcement officers from random or impulsive violence (New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen)
  • Our tax dollars can pay for students to attend religious schools that may choose to decline admission of students who are gay, trans, queer, or non-Christian (Carson v. Makin)
  • The right of a public school employee in a position of authority to publicly perform and encourage participation in a Christian religious practice in front of his charges at his school is more important than protecting students from religious targeting, coercion, and potentially unfair treatment (Kennedy v. Bremerton School District)
  • US carceral authority is more important than tribal autonomy Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta
  • Protecting corporate profits is more important than the planet’s capacity to support human life West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency

Hearing the Supreme Court’s decisions roll out this term has left me feeling the same way I did when I watched a before and after video of war-ruined cities in the Ukraine – art and culture and homes and lives crushed before my eyes. For what? Who does this serve? How do we let this happen? Will we ever recover?

In the excellent podcast Amicus, Dahlia Lithwick has been framing Supreme Court decisions in terms of what they say about where our compassion lies/ who and what we care about. On this July 4th in 2022 we do not appear to care about women, LGBTQ and non-Christian youth, Tribal sovereignty, victims of gun violence, people abused by law enforcement, or the environment. We do seem to care about veterans, at least in some circumstances; and although the safety of refugees and immigrants was not the impetus, I am pleased with the dismissal of the Remain in Mexico policy. I don’t know if that’s enough to keep me hopeful for this country. Nor are the January 6th hearings, despite the committee’s dispassionate, indefatigable, truly exceptional work restoring some of my faith in elected officials. There is so much worth saving. I hope the foundation will be strong enough to build on if these fires of hatred, violence, greed, and neglect burn our country to the ground.

She Always Brushed Her Teeth

Hello, lovelies.

I have neglected the blog lately not because I have nothing to write about, but because there is too much. And writing feels so petty. And what does it accomplish. What does anything accomplish?

So here we are.

I have so many thoughts about the recent killings, and I have my opinions on solutions like everyone else, but for now, a heartbreaking moment of connection.

About a week ago, there was a clip of Amerie Jo Garza’s stepfather talking to a reporter on NPR, crying as he spoke, grasping at narrative.

She was the sweetest little girl who did nothing wrong. She listened to her mom and dad. She always brushed her teeth. She was creative. She made things for us. She never got in trouble in school. Like, I just want to know what she did to be a victim.

She always brushed her teeth.

That gutted me, and I spent the next several minutes sobbing harder than I had during this entire ordeal.

A few days later, our little Socially Engaged Buddhist group met online, and our facilitator referenced the exact same line.

What is it about that sentence?

In a different context, it might even be funny. Some joke about a guy being dragged down from the locked gates of heaven, yelling, “I always brushed my teeth!”

Is it the clash of the mundane with the profound?

Is it the conflation of obedience with the Goodness? Practicality with morality?

Is it that we all can relate to it, down to the feel of the brushes on our living gums? That we ourselves avoided it, whined about it, that we were worse kids than Amerie? That we could, if we chose to, be reminded of this little girl every morning, every night?

Is it the amorphous agony of hearing this man try to understand the incomprehensible? He wasn’t trying to paint a picture of his daughter for the reporter; he was searching for meaning, for an explanation. Here are the facts – how can it come to this conclusion? How could this happen to her?

It’s such a simple question, such a standard accessory to any crime against an innocent victim that we barely notice when people ask it. She always brushed her teeth forces us to consider it again, puts us face to face with the horror of loss and injustice, makes it real and specific in its universality.

It’s a piece of instrumental music that leaves you in tears without knowing why. It draws us together like a manifestation of our interconnectedness. We bear witness to all of it – the love, the pain, and the confusion.

You can leave it there, with that man, with all of the people who loved all of those children, with all of the people who loved the victims in Buffalo, in Tulsa, in Ukraine and Syria and Yemen and anyone who has ever lost anyone. You can sit with it and let it break your heart open.

That may be enough for now.

Life Lessons From a Mouse

Life Lessons From a Mouse

Mice, really.

It’s been a good year for mice in the Twin Cities. Are the raptors in bad shape? Are mice fucking more than usual? It hasn’t been a particularly frigid winter (79th most cold, which hardly seems worth mentioning), so it doesn’t seem like their survival is under unusual threat, but many people we know in the area have had exceptional mouse problems this winter.

Ours has been a blessing.

You’d think we’d be a rodent nirvana, here. We are both messy and Buddhish. We are a philosophically and temperamentally no-kill family. Yes, we still eat fish (for the time being) and I honestly have no problem killing mosquitoes, or the wasps that have come after me that last 3 summers (because wasps are all-around fuckers and mosquitoes are humans’ most powerful enemy) but other than that, we remove insects from the home rather than kill them and try to protect the baby bunnies that their shitty mothers dump in our dog’s yard. Even the dog is exceptionally gentle. She observes and lightly bats at beetles, and tries not to drool when the bunnitos emerge. Mostly she squishes them. I think she likes the sound. 😦

We have occasionally had A mouse over the last decade. They say you never have A mouse, but since we never saw more than one at a time, we could convince ourselves otherwise. But this year, we had to face up to it. Unless they were teleporting, we had mice. The good thing about being messy is that it was easy to know where to first address the issue: we cleaned. That is, we started cleaning. We (my partner mostly, far messier than I and afflicted with ADD) are still cleaning. Because of some dabbling with diffusers and lotion-making years ago, I already had plenty of clove & peppermint oil, which I scattered all over the house (peppermint in the living areas; clove in the sleeping areas). We cleaned areas we’d never cleaned before, we shoved steel wool in anything that looked like a hole, we started picking up the dog bowl when she wasn’t eating, sealing her food in a plastic bin, not leaving plates on the floor for her to lick for longer than a few minutes, sweeping regularly.

I knew this wouldn’t fix it – most of our friends with mouse problems were clean people – but it was a start, and it was a life improvement, regardless. We were also very lucky. The mice never got on a counter, never got to even the second from the bottom shelf of the pantry, never got into the dog food or any food container. (I started keeping all my bottom-shelf food in glass or ceramic jars ever since the first mouse appearance way back when.) so when people laughed at us when we said we weren’t going to put down poison (Big No) or even traps (death isn’t the worst, but having your face or leg scraped off is), we would explain that they weren’t more than an inconvenience. Then came the emailed articles on hantavirus and other hazards. We kept cleaning and hoped the critters would find the living situation unpleasant and leave … from wherever they came … which we still haven’t figured out.

They had made it upstairs (shiver) to the bedrooms (shiver), so I thoroughly cleaned out my tiny shoe closet for the first time since we moved in, jettisoning some heels I will never again wear in the process. For a month, I refreshed the water and dropped clove oil into my diffuser every night; folded my clothes and put them on a shelf, tossed them in the laundry, or draped them over the hamper for reuse. I did not leave an AlterEco truffle or peanut-butter filled pretzel on my bedside table in case I woke up in the middle of the night and needed a snack. I (sloppily) folded up my meditation cape and blanket after I sat every morning and placed them on the designated ottoman instead of leaving them on the rug.

The mouse has done wonders for us, honestly. It told us to get our shit together and we’ve done our best to comply. We are still not clean by many standards, and we will probably never be neat, but we are so much cleaner. I have been disciplined about my bedtime habits for the longest stretch of time ever. That’s right, I have never consistently put my clothing, etc. away in my life. Better still (and YES, I AM AFRAID TO SAY THIS BECAUSE DESPITE EVERYTHING I AM STILL STUPIDHUMAN SUPERSTITIOUS), with all of these changes, and perhaps with the help of the meditations I have devoted to asking them to leave, there have been only two mouse appearances in the past month, and none upstairs, even though we’ve had some very cold days. It seems almost unbelievable. I find it hard not to believe it is a combination of right effort and right thought and right intention and … I know it sounds ridiculous, y’all, but I have learned over the past few years that there are more things in heaven and earth […] than are dreamt of in your philosophy and that it is possible that the winning combo of changing our habits and asking the mice to leave so that we didn’t have to kill them to protect the health of our dog & ourselves may have sent something out into the universe that encouraged them to find another home. The mice told us to get our shit together and we’ve done our best to comply.

Whatever it is, I hope it all continues. Not only the absence of the little guys, but my discipline, our increased cleanliness, the commitment to close up potential house holes in the spring, our squishy no-kill policy, and my spiritual concern and attention to the little guys. All of that is good, and more than that I am so happy that the path of compassion appears to have won out over the path of fear or aggression or convenience. I don’t begrudge those folks the killing of their invaders – we all have our stuff, and mice can be scary – but for us, it looks like it’s working. And I’m honestly a little astounded that I have kept up the new habits for so long. Really, I’m pleasantly surprised that I have adopted any new habit, at my age. Folks used to think that the we were far less flexible as we age, but studies of meditators, in particular, have shown remarkable plasticity. I’m not an example of a great meditator and this isn’t an example of an exceptional change, but I have to say I’m really enjoying it.

A Third Grade Lesson, 40 Years Late

A Third Grade Lesson, 40 Years Late

When you don’t love yourself, trust yourself, value yourself, whatever you want to call it, you over-invest in the judgment of others, either to confirm your worthlessness or make you feel better, depending on your mood and the occasion and, I suppose, how fucked up you are by the treatment that blinded you to your own beauty.

I’ve worked on the “love yourself” thing. I tried brainwashing myself with guided meditations specifically targeting people raised by narcissists. I tried a form of EMDR therapy. I even tried to read one of Louise Hay’s books (she of the mirror work fame), on the recommendation of a lovely young woman I met at a retreat. The pages were darkly colored & shiny, and therefore hard to read, and the content pissed me off, so that didn’t go far.

All this is to say, I Am Working On It. However, I am observant enough to know when I am being treated differently, and I don’t like it. I’m not yet at the place where I can let it go with grace, but I can trudge through it with intellect and compassion. Maybe this will help those of you out there who, like me, aren’t yet within spitting distance of the self-love mesa.

I attended a nonviolent intervention training recently, as part of my anti-racist, community engagement, minimize the police personal agenda. It was great, and really helped me feel like I could intervene to reduce the danger in some harmful situations without putting myself at unnecessary risk. The two main trainers were both very good- knowledgeable and engaging and charming and all that – but one of them called me out three times while never casting any shade on any of the 35 other people in the class. The first one was weird – referring to me as “the girl with the purple hair” (girl? and it’s multicolored, thank you), they “pushed back” on the appreciation I expressed with the first step of the process they were teaching us: Observe, and how I thought it was a good way to keep us from jumping into knee-jerk, evolutionarily obsolete reactivity. They said that, on the contrary, some of our instincts were good, and we shouldn’t shut those down. It contradicted what they had just told us, I thought, but I didn’t feel any question or explanation was welcome. The second shutdown was not worth conveying and I only enumerate it because of the other two. The third was after we were discussing what we learned from the role playing section, when I said it was good for me to get past my sometimes debilitating intellectual assessment of The Right Thing to do, and just try to help out where I could, wherein they jumped in and told the class what I had said when I first engaged, as an explicit example of how very Not Right it was. No other person’s actions were recounted by the trainers.

It was super weird, folks. I think the weirdness was amplified by them never looking directly at me when they were critiquing – there was no connection to me, no shared joke with me, no evident empathy for me, just strange commentary. My own issues amplified it as well – they were Black, and I’ve always put far more weight on any perceived antipathy from a Black person than a White (still that haunting ghost of a belief that Black folks are inherently superior to White folks), and therefore their opinions of my hold more weight; and of course, I cannot honestly say that I love myself, accept myself for who I am, believe I am enough, so that insecurity makes everything worse.

If I did believe I was enough, none of this would have bothered me or been worth writing except as an amused anecdote or flip observation about human nature. It didn’t hit me physically, or only subtly – this negativity wasn’t a crushing blow – but it did bother me a bit, and did stay with me, so here’s what I came up with to work myself out of it:

  1. It wasn’t personal. First things first. If they didn’t like me – and that’s a big if – that has nothing to do with me. I could have looked like someone they disliked or talked with a phrasing they disliked or believed something they disliked. If I accept that my own aversions are the result of my own circumstances and suffering and not the fault of the thing I’m averse to (which is an essential to my Buddhism), then I have to believe the same when the situation is reversed. And even if they disliked every observable thing about me – my looks my words my tone my ideas my movements – it doesn’t make any of those things wrong. Finally, that’s not even me, “the most inner part, entirely free of disease,” the me that matters. It’s hard for me to believe all the above, to internalize it. Every time someone I respect – for good or petty reasons – appears to dislike me, I feel worse about myself. When they like me, I feel better. It sounds natural, but why? We know how fucked up & fickle everyone is. If they like me today & didn’t yesterday, does that mean I was an inferior person yesterday? What if they had just lost a friend or were in pain yesterday? What if their ex looked exactly like me? To place our self worth in the hands of humanity is to let it slip through their grasping fingers.
  2. It doesn’t matter. Why do I care if this person likes me? Because they’re competent? The likelihood I’ll ever see them again is fairly low, the likelihood their opinion will have any bearing in my life extremely low. Am I just trying to rack up points? Why does this person’s apparent dislike count any more than the apparent rapport among the group of people I actually spent time with during the training? My self-ranking is like chess.com: I get a tiny bump for getting something right, and a big penalty for getting something wrong. Yeeshhiiiiiit.
  3. What if it was a lesson? I don’t typically get targeted in situations like this. It’s definitely not unheard of (I had at least two White, female, self-proclaimed “feminist” teachers go after me because they felt threatened by me – one even flat out said it), but it’s not common. I’m smart enough, I try to be agreeable, I’m respectful of others. But so are lots of LGBTQI, Black, disabled, indigenous, immigrant, and other folks who get shot down in petty situations all the time. Maybe it was just my turn. Maybe others learned something by this trainer’s tactics. Who’s to say.
  4. What if they were having a bad day? It didn’t look like it, but what do I know? Maybe they were hangry. If so, the impact was terribly mild, and I can handle (if not quite enjoy) a little bit of weirdness, which brings me to
  5. What if I took the fall for someone else? I know I’m off in the deep end here, but what if a target was inevitable for some reason and I got lucky? That means someone else was spared as a result, someone who might not have a practice or level of self-awareness to process it, who might have reacted by treating themselves or someone else badly in response, or disrupting the training in a negative way, having a chilling effect on everyone.

Anyway, every experience of being isolated, ostracized, harmed, or embarrassed in any way is an opportunity to increase my compassion for the countless creatures that go through that every day, and to share the ongoing struggle with all of you. I long for the day that I don’t have to work myself out of it, that moment I react to someone’s hatred towards me the same as I do to someone’s hatred of a species of flower. Until then, practice.

Peace, joy, and enlightenment to all of you,

Idiotic

Idiotic

I work for a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities. It has been an enormous educational opportunity for me, in the mind and the heart, especially the last few years as we’ve been putting more internal focus on understanding the history of disability rights and models of “dealing with” people with disabilities. This has had the added benefit of broadening my awareness of ableist language online and in print. (Y’all know I’m a word nerd.) Like every time another layer of scales is removed from my eyes, it’s a positive, but still mixed, blessing. Not mixed: recognizing the irony when a woman criticizing what she perceived as a fat joke on The Onion’s twitter feed called it offensive and “lame.” Taking the moral highground requires a bit more diligence, ma’am!

A word called out as having potential to offend folks with disabilities and their friends and associates is “idiot”. If you’re not deep diving into disability or etymology, you probably define this as something like “a person who is not smart” and something idiotic as “unwise”. The fact is, these common definitions of the words idiot and imbecile long precede the so-called medical classifications below. I don’t believe any words should be expunged from the language, certainly not because they were once associated with wrongheaded medical terms. But I do think one should know whereof one speaks, so to that end, here is the bullshit ranking of “defective mental development” from a little over a century ago.

Idiots. —Those so defective that the mental development never exceeds that or a normal child of about two years.
Imbeciles. —Those whose development is higher than that of an idiot, but whose intelligence does not exceed that of a normal child of about seven years.
Morons. —Those whose mental development is above that of an imbecile, but does not exceed that of a normal child

Edmund Burke Huey, Backward and Feeble-Minded Children, 1912

You may also be familiar with the illustrious Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ infamous statement in Buck v Bell (1927) that granted the right to ultimately sterilize thousands of people without consent: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

You can understand the painful potential of these words. But at the risk of appearing insensitive, the pain is not my primary issue. The Right Speech element of Buddha’s Eightfold Path encourages you to consider the following questions before you speak (… write, tweet, post):

  • Is it true?
  • Is it helpful?
  • Is it kind?
  • Does it contribute to harmony?
  • Is the timing right?

(Folks mostly refer to the first three. Harmony is a tough one to determine, but as a standup comedy aficionado, I love that timing is included.)

My objection to the way I hear these words being used today (and have used them myself) is less about kindness and more about truth. The too-common and too-casual use of the term Idiot to describe people we don’t agree with is increasingly grating on me. I admit I don’t always fight it, in part because it’s so pervasive and slips so easily into casual conversation, but I do balk when friends refer to anti-vaccers as idiots, for example. Because I think it’s inaccurate. People who believe a certain thing, as illogical as that thing may seem to us, don’t believe it because they have some overall intellectual failing. They believe it because people around them believe it; the sources they go to for information believe it; they don’t trust the people who are trying to convince them otherwise; or sometimes, maybe, because they were never taught critical thinking skills. But none of those circumstances are examples of stupidity: they’re examples of humanity, or bad luck. There is nothing inherently lacking in those people – they came to their beliefs by accidents of location, wealth, association, etc. just like all the rest of us. It’s also illogical that “stupidity” would have led folks to one belief unless “intelligence” likewise led all other folks to the opposite belief. There are widely varying degrees of intellect and comprehension on all sides. If you don’t think there are sheep-like, intellectually lazy Democrats and Progressives, you’re choosing not to see it.

Would any of this matter if it were just namecalling? Maybe, but not enough for me to be writing about it. The misapplication of these and similar words is both irresponsible and false. That is, it fails to recognize our inherent interconnectedness and removes us from responsibility for our fellow humans. If we write off Trump supporters or people who don’t see racism or flat earthers as inherently flawed, we fail to recognize the elements of our society and our humanity that encourage the groupthink or lack of intellectual rigor that we have decided they exemplify. If people don’t know how to recognize an illogical statement, it’s probably because the elements of logic weren’t discussed at home or in school. If they believe what they believe because their social group believes it, that’s no different from everyone else. Humans are evolutionarily designed to conform to their society – that’s what keeps us alive in a collective, thus we feel good when we agree with others and they agree with us. If people fail to easily recognize racism, it is in large part because our country has worked incredibly hard to hide blatantly racist policies and practices for the last 55 years, in particular, so that we will believe that everyone got where they are through intelligence, hard work, and good character, or didn’t get anywhere through some combination of failings in those areas. If some working class White guy with a public high school education born and bred in a rural, White area is told that Black people are discriminated against when he sees a Black President, a Black VP, Black sports stars and actors and business leaders, should we surprised when he laughs it off?

If there is a defining characteristic, a character flaw that should be called out in folks who cling to what many of us see as indefensible ideas, it is a refusal to change, to learn, to allow their assumptions to be questioned, to listen with the brain and the heart instead of the ego. Let’s call them rigidots. It’s free of any connection to disabilities in development, verbalization, or learning, and describes only a temporary state of being, not an inherent lack. And all of us are rigidots at one time or another. I’m a rigidot at least three times a day, perhaps only better than I used to be in that I often recognize it and try to soften when I do. There are antidotes to rigidocy any time folks with different ideas and perspectives can talk to the temporarily rigid like they’re not idiots, to approach them with compassion and curiosity and communal responsibility, instead of writing them off as sub-human or enemies. All terms that separate us, that mark groups of people as Others, reinforce our illusion of separateness and put another brick in the ego wall that keeps us apart.

Imagine no Imagination

Imagine no Imagination

You know those things you say about yourself, tag lines that silently cling to or loudly proclaim what you believe are core, unchangeable elements of who you really are? I’ve been working on my own blurbs casually for the last decade or so; not refining them so much as trying to eliminate them and the restrictions they put on how I live my life. What are they really good for, except crafting an identity that limits my own capacity and power from inside my skin, and attempting to script what others should think of me looking in, instead of making their own determinations based on what they observe.

A standard one of mine was originally phrased as “I’m not creative.” People would sometimes argue with me on this because I was an actor, but for me acting was an interpretive art, not a creative one. Yes, I write, but I don’t write fiction or poetry and I consider the writing I do, again, analytical. I chalked this flaw up to being raised by someone who could not see reality as it was, who believed in black magic and negative energies and that my singing Bad Moon Rising on a road trip is the reason he got pulled over for speeding. In reaction, I chose to be practical, believe what I could see, and take responsibility for everything that happened to me. (Also not a great way to live, and one I’ve moved away from as well.) At some point in the too-near past I came to accept that I possess a certain creativity in thinking and looking at the world, so I narrowed it down to, “I have no visual imagination.” It’s true that I have a hard time picturing sets when I read plays, no matter the detail of the description, or really putting a face together in my mind when articulated in a novel. But I think I’ve also been turned off by the word Imagination, and haven’t worked very hard to embrace it. Partly because of the anger of that parent whenever I didn’t conjure up his idea of what I should be imagining, partly a reaction to New Agey teachings and preachings and “if you can dream it, you can do it” thinking (which is, IMHO, bullshit), and partially because it just seemed … well, like a waste of time. I mean, I’m not a real artist.

But in the social justice engagement I’ve done over the last few years, imagination has come up again and again. And I see the limits of people’s imagination really, concretely get in the way of progress. There are so many well-intentioned (eyeroll) people who simply cannot imagine an America without capitalism, without a desperate struggle for meaningless subsistence work for the poor, without fossil fuels, without police, even with racial equity. And I’ve come to believe in a version of James Baldwin’s oft-used quote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” To wit: Not every transformation that is imagined can be accomplished, but no transformation can be accomplished without being imagined.

Maybe that’s right.

Which brings me to Lennon’s famous and infamous song. It’s not one of my favorites and never has been, but I have a different understanding of it these days, informed in part by hearing a bit of an interview with Lennon shortly before he was murdered, but perhaps more from my own widening perspective. I always thought of the song as an endpoint. That the imagining was the goal. But really it’s just a necessary step. We can all imagine worst-case scenarios: our government and law enforcement systems let those nightmares shape a lot of practice & policy, for better and worse. But most of us don’t spend much time imagining significant, creative change. Maybe that’s why we keep implementing small, makeshift changes instead of restructuring the systems that created the countless small problems. Instead of inventing an energy-intensive meat substitute, dismantle corporate farming; instead of reducing some criminal sentences, create alternatives to incarceration.

Hard to imagine? Exactly. It seems worth the glucose (a term for energy usage that Roshi Joan Halifax uses regularly, and which I am stealing) to try. How much glucose do we spend catastrophizing? I read an excellent article a few years back arguing that Black writers had wasted too much of their energy writing to a White audience, defending their humanity or what have you, when they could have been writing for each other, and Imagine what they could have accomplished if they had.

One more point on imagination, and a bit of credit to your writer. I think someone did my astrological chart when I was a child and even though (even then) I didn’t really believe in that stuff, I liked the interpretation that I was good at seeing a situation from all sides, so I clung to it. This is, of course, an act of imagination. It may be a kind of cognitive resonance, a logical imagining, but it’s still creative. I clearly passed judgment on different kinds of creative thinking and decided this one was okey dokey. Why? Perhaps because I wasn’t criticized for using this skill, whereas my other creative failings were not infrequently critiqued or diminished. It’s a skill I still prize, but one that I keep to myself more these days. Being able to understand someone else’s motivation or thinking leads some vocal parties to align you with “them:” the other, the criminal, insurrectionist, White supremacist, etc. so introducing any understanding, which is a form of compassion, is counter-revolutionary (or just plain old evil). A lot of people simply don’t want to imagine why others might think a certain way. Are they afraid they’ll be sucked into the dark side? afraid they’ll have to see the enemy as human? afraid to feel compassion for someone they have judged as “bad”? It’s a disturbing and frustrating blind spot, and an impractical strategy as well. If we don’t try to understand the other, we’ll never be able to genuinely reach out to them and make our case in a way they can hear. And I don’t believe we can succeed in resolving the enormous, wicked problems of our time without recruiting as many folks as possible.

I admit, I still feel my body tense up when someone asks me to take a moment and imagine something – when I’m on a Zoom about prison abolition or white supremacy, for example; but I try to just note that physical reaction and dive in for as long as I can stand the water. If nothing else, it can be a fun exercise. At least when I am able to silence that voice in my head telling me my ideas are uninteresting. What the fuck does she know, anyway?

How to Reify Half a Million People

How to Reify Half a Million People

500,000 dead.

The number itself is beyond my capacity for imagining. I assume others have the same problem. Reporters and folks in the public eye sometimes do a good job of contextualizing it- how many deaths per day, per second; what cities have comparable living populations; how COVID mortality compares to cancer, heart disease, car accidents; or, as the President did, how the number compares to war dead: more than American deaths in WWI, WWII, and Vietnam combined – in less than one year. He listed American war dead because that 1/2 million, remember, is just American deaths. The worldwide total is now nearly 5x that.

Compassion is a special interest of mine and how we avoid or draw out compassion/empathy is fascinating to me. I found Biden’s speech quite moving when he talked about the pain of loss, something we know he knows intimately.

For the loved ones left behind, I know all too well — I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands. There’s a look in your eye, and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivor’s remorse. The anger. The questions of faith in your soul. 

For some of you, it’s been a year, a month, a week, a day, even an hour. And I know that when you stare at that empty chair around the kitchen table, it brings it all back, no matter how long ago it happened, as if it just happened that moment you looked at that empty chair. The birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays without them. And the everyday things — the small things, the tiny things — that you miss the most. That scent when you open the closet. That park you go by that you used to stroll in. That movie theater where you met. The morning coffee you shared together. The bend in his smile.  The perfect pitch to her laugh.

Beautiful. Truly. What it did was artfully done, in the best sense of the word. Even those of us who haven’t had a loved one die could connect with the specificity of the images of love lost, and effortlessly intuit the pain of eternal loss, if just for a moment. Nonetheless, it connected us with the pain of the people left behind, not with the people themselves lost to COVID. “There is nothing ordinary about them” didn’t sit right with me. It may be more true that we all are ordinary, and perhaps thereby even more worthy of love and compassion. Poor, messy, fascinating, trudging little humans. I came out of that tribute with great feeling for those left behind, but only a generalized sorrow for the dead, nothing specific or tangible.

Of course, that wasn’t the goal of that address and of course, the answer to the question of how to humanize the dead is easy – listen to the people who loved them as the specific, ordinary humans they were. There’s no shortage of that if you’re willing to look for it. And there is something special about the series that NPR’s morning edition is doing. Songs of Remembrance gives one person a chance to choose a song that reminds them of their beloved and then talk about whatever they want – sometimes the song was what she always sang at karaoke, or what they danced to at their wedding, or what he taught to his choir students, or just a song that recalls that human for that particular individual.

I think the song idea is so brilliant and effective because it’s again connecting the specific to the universal, as Biden did for loss. You get funny or admirable or romantic details about the person themselves and what they meant to the speaker, but you also get to hear a song through their story. If it’s a song you know, you can see it from a different perspective or connect to the shared familiarity. Some of the songs I don’t know, but I know they are known and shared across countries and cultures and political beliefs. The contributors and their friends and family members all took the universal – a song, heard millions of times – and crafted it into something unique. We can accept the offer of that inimitable experience and make it universal again.

That is what compassion is, after all, right? That’s why Metta meditation starts with wishing yourself well, happy, safe, enlightened – starting with someone you know well, even when you pretend you don’t – and expanding out a bit more – a good friend, an antagonist; followed by someone you don’t know well, but interact with. From them you expand your good wishes out to your neighborhood, city, country, world, picking up animals and plants and such along the way. And the next time you sit, you start the same way. We don’t pretend that we can easily access a genuine concern for the great abstraction of “everyone’s” wellbeing. It takes time and work. Eventually my hope is that it will be easy, because the distinction between the specific and the general will fade away; the arbitrary, imaginary line between myself and the rest of life will blur and love for anything will be love for everything.

Until then, I am grateful to read and listen to these tributes and cry for the beauty and loss of the achingly human connection to another human, and recognize in their words and music that the love doesn’t die when the body does, and hope that they hear it too.

Fucking the Poor: Health Care Edition

health careThe whole country is in emergency response mode now. But there were plenty of people in emergency response mode before coronavirus reared is crowned head. So many great ideas are being thrown around – tuition forgiveness, free health care, rent forgiveness, money simply sent to people who need it – all of this because people are in economic distress “through no fault of their own.”

When is the fault their own?

When they are mentally ill and can’t maintain a job? When they didn’t have access to enough education to secure a job that pays their expenses? When their spouse dies and they can’t afford childcare during work? When their employer won’t give them enough hours to support themselves? When they were forced to flee their country to avoid rape or murder or starvation?

We (in the US, and many other places) act as though care is a zero-sum negotiation, that if we give to others, that mean less for us. While this may seem reasonable when we’re talking cold, hard cash, the logic breaks down pretty quickly. Money isn’t real. It’s a symbol to be exchanged for things we need and want – ostensibly, if we have enough, for things that make us happy. Even some of the richest folks in this country are starting to support a redistribution of wealth, because fucking the poor ultimately fucks everyone.

We could exemplify this with education or housing too, but given the PANDEMIC, let’s start with healthcare.

What happens when we deny people health care?

  • they don’t go to doctors, which means
    • they don’t get preventative care, which can have long-term effects that lead to exponentially more expensive care in the future
    • they are less productive
    • if mentally ill, they can negatively impact the people around them with their depression, anxiety, anger, etc.
    • when they are infected with viruses, they infect others
    • they go to emergency rooms, either because they don’t have doctors or because their illness is so severe they can’t wait anymore, which crowds ERs, increasing the wait for people with non-preventable medical emergencies

OR

  • they do go to doctors, which means
    • they have to sacrifice something else to afford it, perhaps
      • nutritious food, increasing their chance of illness
      • rent, perhaps leading to eviction, increasing their health risk, stress, and potential burden to the system
      • child care, forcing them to stay home and lose income or their jobs entirely
    • they are given a prescription which they may not be able to afford, leading to
      • not filling the prescription, and remaining ill
      • rationing of pills, maybe taking half the antibiotics they were prescribed, contributing to antibiotic resistance which truly could kill us all

and so on. Factor in our lack of paid sick leave and the risk is magnified.

If we hadn’t made testing and treatment for the coronavirus free, these people might simply die a horrible death. It’s still possible, even likely, that undocumented immigrants are too afraid of ICE and deportation to seek treatment.

How does this help us?

I’m no big advocate for selfish decision making, but when empathy fails, it’s a good backup. Helping others helps us all. We are all interconnected, whether we like it or not (we like it, whether we know it or not: no one reading this wants to produce all their own food and create all their own entertainment, even. Good god, if I was my only source of entertainment, I would snap like a twig.). Contagion is just one, obvious example of that. If everyone is healthy-ish, people are happier, more productive, more creative, more compassionate, smarter, better people. How do we not all benefit from that?

We can embrace our mutualism, or we can destroy ourselves in an attempt to destroy the other, while the thieves in power feed off our corpses.

Sorry, got a little apocalyptic there. I’m losing my patience, and it seems a lot of our human and non-human friends are, too.