Category Archives: Marginalization

I am no better or worse than anyone else

Over the holidays I went to the movies and saw Les Miserables.  It was an emotional experience which got me in the reflective mood.  As I watched the revolutionaries struggle and die I felt a strange sensation, a growing internal conviction that I no longer wish to think of myself as better or worse than anyone else.  Perhaps this is my newest resolution (which just so happens to fall near the new year).

Losing the desire to be better than others goes against much that I was taught growing up.  As a child I remember wanting to be special, and competing with other children to prove that I was.  I remember boys performing feats of strength in gym class or feats of numeric processing in math.  We measured each other in order to decide who was worthy and unworthy.  Such measurement then expressed itself in envy towards the achievers and abuse towards the underachievers.  And, as we measured each other, the school measured us with grades and test scores.  For me, I felt a desire to compete that I think came from other peoples’ expectations of me but my heart was never in it.  In school I saw the stress of the overachievers and determined that I did not want to be like them.  Outside of school my father enrolled his sons in wrestling.  I often won informal matches during practices but could not stand the pressure once there was competition between teems and an audience in the bleachers.  Yet looking back I realize that, while I became uninterested in competing with people athletically or scholastically, I embraced a sort of moral competition.  I did want to be superior.

I have spent a good deal of my life watching others and judging them in order to convince myself that I was better than them.  I have listened to the words of good people who meant me no harm and, from the safety of my unspoken thoughts, I have thrown litanies of vulgarity at them.  This includes things like,

  • Why are you wasting my time?
  • That thing she said was stupid
  • He is an idiot
  • I would never get myself in that situation
  • You are not as special as me, and also
  • racist, classist, sexist, and ableist epithets

These thoughts were never the only ideas I had about people but they would pop into my head, and they often disturbed me.  My mind went back and forth between, I deeply admire you, and, you’re a piece of shit; and these contradicting ideas would exist at the same time about the same person.  As I grew up I came to notice my judgmental hostility more and more.  Meanwhile I desired more and more compassionate ways of relating with people.  Through much meditation and self-help experimentation my ability to listen grew and my tendency to judge lessened.  Then, as I noticed these changes, I became oppressively smug.  I wore my moral victories as a badge to prove that I was superior.  This had always been a hidden motivation for me… or perhaps it was a motivation hidden from me though obvious to everyone who knew me.

Eventually I realized that the self was really constructed by society (for example, kids judging other kids is learned by how the school system judges kids via grades).  As I figured this out I shifted from a self-help focus to a social change/collective liberation focus.  Now I think that my desire to feel special was a predictable response to a society that runs off of artificial scarcity.  Basically, we need to prove that we are special in order to prove that we are worthy to receive the resources we must compete over (for example, money).  Only a small minority of us are able to have truly secure livelihoods, have our ideas represented in government or the media, find work that is appropriately challenging and fulfilling, and be taken seriously by the people around us.  In a socially just world these things would not be treated as scarce privileges but instead as basic human needs.  However we live in a world which normalizes and indoctrinates us into accepting less than we deserve; and we behave according to the world we are indoctrinated into.

I also came to see how my desire to be special reinforced racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, and other forms of oppression.  The privileges afforded to me by my white skin, Y chromosome assigned male identity*, and parents’ income give me an upper hand in the competition for those scarce societal resources.  For example, as a man I am not expected to cook and clean and do the daily domestic work.  My father did not do this.  Many fathers and grandfathers I have known did not do this.  Unpaid and under valued domestic labor has been the role given to women.  This privileges me and other men because, without having responsibility for domestic chores, I am afforded more time, freedom, and respect when I chose to pursue the things which will actually earn me that scarce societal recognition.  I have more time to work and to play.  I have more time to network and more expectation that I will not be home with the kids.  I have more access to the language and culture of men who, overall, hold more power.  And it is a challenge for me to resist this privilege by, for example, spending an equal amount of time as my wife on domestic chores.  This is because I am scared of giving up the privilege that helps me to compete, get what I want from life, and not be as exploited as others.

Lessons about the basic mechanics of privilege and oppression were taught to me in my twenties.  But, even as I have learned how the competition for superiority is just a tool of artificial scarcity by a dehumanizing societal machine, I have held on to the child’s dream of being recognized as special and extraordinary (which are ultimately just nicer sounding ways of saying “superior”).  But I have a growing sense of the vanity in this child’s dream because convincing myself that I am special does not actually provide me with the world I wish to see.  I wish for true love, true friendship, and true camaraderie.  I wish to be with people, to share in their joys and their struggles.  I wish for no accolades, no shallow rewards, no teacher’s stars to measure zir favor (zir is a gender neutral pronoun; like his or her).  Liberation is my desire, and I believe it is only possible when we lose the ambition to become better than others and the fear that we are worse.

Like all good resolutions, I need help to maintain this.  I expect to fail often and don’t really care because failure is part of the learning process.  But I would like for people to show me where I am wrong because that helps me learn as well.  In later posts I will explore what it means to live as though I am not better or worse than anyone else.  This resolution entails an awful lot which I am excited to discover.

*I first wrote Y chromosome thinking that the Y chromosome was a trait that could represent many traits that are associated with being male.  It was brought to my attention that this was cissexist because it excludes people who identify as male but do not have a Y chromosome and people who have a Y chromosome but don’t identify as male.  In  other words, having a Y chromosome does not necessarily mean you have a male identity.  I found a link to another blog which describes cissexism in more detail.

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Gun violence ain’t about the crazies. And crazy is a horrible word.

Last week the vice president of the NRA, Wayne Lapierre, gave a speech designed to elicit a state of perpetual militaristic panic against violent people with mental illness.  He stated; “our society is populated by an unknown number of genuine monsters–people so deranged, so evil, so possessed by voices and driven by demons that no sane person can possibly ever comprehend them.”  Lapierre finds the source of gun violence in these “monsters,” and proposes we protect our children through a national database that keeps track of the mentally ill.  I believe this is a terrible idea.

“Mental illness” is not a well defined concept.  Looking in retrospect at someone who goes on a shooting spree, it is easy to say they are ill in the mind.  But can we really predict the potential violence of a person, and is “mental illness”–a very broad and nebulous term, really the predictor we want to use?  Does it make me appreciably more likely to kill people if I talk to myself, lay in bed for months with depression, struggle to empathize, experience unexplainable amounts of anxiety, or other fairly common behaviors we like to link to “mental illness?”  Could mental illness actually at times be a source of strength, like having communication challenges that come from focusing on things others do not or having depression that comes from increased sensitivity to the struggles of the world?

“Mentally ill” is a label we use to marginalize people, and I know this because I have spent a lot of time worrying about my own sanity.  As a wee boy I learned, as all children do, the language and logic of my parents.  This language and logic outlined a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “crazy” which was contrasted with a spectrum of thought and behavior that was considered “normal.”

crazy normal spectrum

The man who went to work everyday to provide for his children was “normal.”  The man who waded into water carrying a baby over his head and declaring himself to be Jesus was “crazy” (this was a news story I vaguely remember from childhood).  All good boys and girls were supposed to be “normal.”  Those who were within the spectrum of “crazy” were dangerous, unpredictable, liable to make bad romances, wallow in endless sorrow, and go on violent rampages.  To me, the actual behavioral confines of “normal” seemed to involve wearing middle class clothing, enjoying sports (for boys) and makeup (for girls), rooting for the home team, not feeling a great need to question authority or critique society, and tending to be uncomfortable with displays of emotion (which were often associated with “imbalance”).  But I had a problem because, although I did not know if I was “crazy,” I also was not “normal.”

I was a bizarrely spiritual boy.  I meditated.  I had mystical experiences (a sense of oneness with the universe).  I did this before I knew what meditation and mystical experiences were.  I came to think of myself as “talking to god,” and I heard quotes like this from Thomas Szasz; “if you talk to god, you are praying; if god talks to you, you have schizophrenia.”  But the thing was…  in my mind, this talking to god was a two way street.  While I was engaged in mystical experience, I had many moments of clarity where I felt the wisdom of an all-connected higher mind come to me.  I also had a vision when I was three where I saw an illusionary inferno that was premonitionary of a house fire that happened moments later.  Now, in truth I don’t know the significance of these experiences and, increasingly over time, I don’t care.  I have met many people who I know find my story very bizarre, even inconceivable.  Others relate to my story.  Others try to use my story, against my permission, to validate their own religious perspective.  But the point here is that I grew up feeling like a damn weird kid.

I was terrified of being crazy.  It haunted my dreams.  I saw the word “crazy” wielded like a club that bludgeoned all the people the bludgeoner thought deserved to be dismissed.  Here are some examples of what this looks like:

  • “Don’t listen to John, he’s just crazy,”
  • “if you say you take that position, people will think you are crazy,”
  • “[insert political or religious group you don’t like] are just a bunch of crazies”

This deep-seated fear of insanity gained deeper perspective for me when I went to a very small college with a very politically radical population, Antioch.  Prior to Antioch I learned that Anarchists, Communists, and other radicals belonged in that “crazy” range of thinking.  Although in retrospect I think I had a lot of leftist inclinations, I was politically what I now call a “militant moderate”–to me the middle ground was always best.  I think I felt that way, in large part, because few people accuse moderates of being crazy, and I was so scared of being diminished for who I was in my head.  Because of this fear I tried to embrace “normality” and, at Antioch, I thought of people as crazy because I was internalizing my own oppression.

It took me a long time to learn this but I have figured out that actually, like the Anarchists and Communists I once marginalized, I was a radical too.  Now, when I embrace my radical identity, I feel the spiritual liberation of simply being present with who I have always been.  It is healing.  And yet I also know that, by calling myself a radical, I open myself up to the same marginalization I have always feared–the marginalization bound within the words “crazy” and “normal.”

I realize I am somewhat conflating mental illness with abnormality but this is because they are conflated.  As I said earlier, mental illness is an ill-defined term.  Should you study psychiatric diagnoses you will find that “mental illness” actually is defined  and diagnosed by abnormal behavior.  In fact, the DSM (manual for diagnosing mental illness) keeps getting updated as society renegotiates what we consider normal and abnormal.  Homosexuality, for example, used to be called a mental illness (and just spend a moment contemplating what this fact would signify for a mental illness database).  And the thing is, there are many abnormal people in the world.  I suspect there are far more people who exhibit abnormal behavior than those who do not.  This points out that abnormality is not really about how often a behavior occurs but how shunned a behavior is in mainstream society.  Many shunned behaviors are problematic (going on a killing spree, at least within one’s country, is one of them).  Many shunned behaviors might actually be beneficial (like having an unusual ability to empathize or think critically).  But, of all the people we might decide to label as mentally ill or abnormal, only a very small minority actually commit physical violence.

We do not live in the nightmarish world outlined by Wayne Lapierre.  If we did, mass shootings and attempted mass shootings would be much more common.  But thinking that our safety is constantly besieged by mad individuals causes real problems.  When mental struggles and abnormal behavior are seen as excuses for marginalization people are actually disincentivized to seek and find help, which makes them more likely to act on destructive impulses.  Further disenfranchisement by stamping crazy on peoples’ permanent records is an ill-informed attempt to make the world better which will actually make it worse.

So you may wonder, what do I propose to prevent violent people from acquiring weapons.  Dismantle the military industrial complex!  While we’re at it we can also dismantle the small-arms industrial complex (which involves the NRA).  These groups benefit from guns, the use of guns, and from the mindset that guns represent legitimate ways to solve problems.  In general I think we need a more serious analysis of violence in society, but unfortunately massive amounts of propaganda make it hard for us to really look at ourselves.  Still, it is immoral to avoid difficult tasks just because they are difficult when peoples’ lives are on the line.  And, in the spirit of seriously examining violence in our society, I ask you to ponder the following:

We are upset by the mass shootings committed by a “crazy” person in Connecticut.  It is tragic, horrible, angering, and saddening.  Most disgustingly, it is only a ripple in the overall waves of violence that are produced by frightened people with destructive technology.  Consider how many children have been killed by “normal” people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Pakistan?  Cruise missiles and drone strikes do not have an avoid children switch.  Could it be that there are people with power who have an interest in dismissing and destroying human life?  Could it be that this is what is done in any war, every mass shooting, and even in the label of “crazy” itself?  And, if you want to further explore the expendability of human life by people with power I suggest viewing the video on this page.  I will warn, it is extremely violent, disturbing, and potentially triggering.

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