Let’s begin with a story. Teaching requires great emotional dexterity whether it’s in Colombia or Canada, among children or adults. When you teach more discussion-friendly material–such as literature, ELL, social studies, and political science–you will run into moments when students disclose extreme events in their lives. (If that happens in math or physics classes, too, apologies for the exclusionary language!)
For me in Colombia, I have quite a few students who speak as a matter of course about losing family members to violence in Medellín’s history; students whose parents were displaced or who grew up in extreme poverty; students who will mention offhand details about growing up near violence, or with blackouts and the knowledge that you couldn’t visit family outside the region due to active guerrilla groups on the highways.
In Canada, I had students like this, too. Many were immigrants to the country, and struggled with the weight of these stories alongside the general hardships of adjusting to Canadian culture, administrative and otherwise. Others were born in Canada, to marginalized demographics with a different body of struggles not always well represented in the mainstream and its histories.
The difference in Colombia isn’t necessarily in exposure to violence and tragedy, then, but rather… the extent to which those experiences are naturalized within a community’s broader narrative. I’m not teaching to the down-and-out of society, after all; I’m teaching middle- to upper-middle-class employees and upper-class bosses of major tech, financial, materials-production, and insurance firms in the region. Yet when someone mentions a murdered father, say, or being kidnapped and stuffed into a trunk for a few hours, others nod along without batting an eye. Maybe there’s a “sorry that happened to you,” but no one is shocked. The history of suffering–even if unequally distributed on the street–is widely understood across demographic lines.
Conversely, in Canada a great many information silos exist, enough that many are genuinely stunned to discover the kinds of violence, neglect, trauma, and instability, that exist right at their doorstep. Enough that many of us resist word of others’ systemic suffering, and rush to find other explanations. Explanations, mind you, that invariably foist blame on the individual for not having attained better socioeconomic outcomes.
And to be perfectly compassionate across the board… I can understand that knee-jerk deflection. After all, to “us”, the system seems more or less in order, and then someone comes along and tells us that this sense of order is arbitrary and unjust. Yikes. How could our view of the world be so bent out of shape?
Sharing Trauma in Our Communal Narratives
This past week especially, the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how quickly society can reframe its responses to trauma–if it wants to. I’ve been reeling, myself, to read of some of these changes, because a year ago folks would sometimes comment here that I was “asking too much” of society when I reflected on our litigiousness, hard borders, and approaches to communal discourse. Now we’re seeing plainly, though, that society can change much of its natural order. Not always for the best, mind you (e.g. the hoarding of common household goods has some serious downsides for collective health and well-being), but enough that humanists should pay close attention to swiftness with which seemingly rigid barriers drop when a collective emergency rears its head.
Countries closing their borders. Schools, universities, and businesses going virtual overnight. Evictions cancelled. Internet restrictions dropped for improved home and business service. Paid sick days established or re-instated. Mortgage relief, too, to say nothing of massive market bailouts in the trillions, plus more targeted bailouts for major players in the travel and food industries. It’s dizzying, really, how quickly the pretense of “invisible hand” free-market economics can wither on the vine, and how quickly the pretense of special accommodations being too burdensome can fall away, once a mainstream narrative naturalizes the existence of suffering.
But the hardest part, for me, is watching all of this unfold while remembering my Western history: remembering, that is, plagues in Thucydides’ written record, and Samuel Pepys’s, and around World War I. Because with those accounts of our history of plague, and our societal responses to it, comes the understanding that… we’re highly likely to forget the lessons that this pandemic should teach us, too.
Because, in an ideal world, we’d remember that this sort of collective action is the end-game of many socialistic societies (like Northern European countries, and Canada in its better days), and we would put a stop to attempts to turn government efficiencies into opportunities to siphon profit into private hands. We would give up the lie that says there’s no way state solution for getting decently priced internet, say, without becoming the next Stalinist Russia, China, or Venezuela. We would instead compel the political spectrum to smooth itself out again, just as we’re trying to flatten the curve for COVID-19 infection rates. We would start to have a real conversation about what 21st-century society needs to ensure that anyone on the lowest rung of society’s inevitable hierarchy is still as well off as possible.
NB: And lest U.S. readers think I’m slyly picking on you, I say this as a Canadian from Ontario, where 45’s rise in U.S. office emboldened the rise of Doug Ford as provincial premier soon after. With him in office, a tremendous number of public health and well-being organizations’ have been slashed, and a number of other industries–education, unemployment services–have been reframed in ways that are either outright privatized, or else that create blatant vacuums for private companies to fill [their coffers].
For outsiders looking to understand how privatization pressures can erode even an ostensibly democratic-socialist society, here’s a great piece from ten years ago, on how past Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s privatization of nuclear isotope profits, while the government had an obligation to shoulder the industry’s risks, destroyed a key component of a globally essential medical supply chain.
Likewise, when current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to stop an unconscionable arms deal with countries perpetuating genocide, claiming that the economic relationship was too important; and when he aggressively defended pipeline expansion against both environmental concerns in general and the treaty status of First Nations over unceded territory (First Nations, mind you, who had even tried to work with the oil companies and offer alternate routes around protected waterways and reserves!)… this supposedly “Liberal” leader also illustrated that our sense of the political spectrum has been crumpled like an accordion by corporate and plutocratic pressures, with right-of-centre in our democracy now seemingly the only “left-leaning” discourse in town.
So, no, it’s not just the U.S. struggling with this persistent individualist nonsense… but hey, I’m still going to wag a finger at “you” for electing 45, dear U.S. friends. Don’tcha know that we gullible Canadians tend to fall in with U.S. political trends in our next elections? Give us pushovers a break, please and thanks!
To be sure, then, in this critical moment of pandemic discourse, even many folks who more often vote against collective-minded policies are being reminded that everything they’ve been taught about “self-sufficiency” is contingent on health… and that genuine individual health requires a commitment to genuine communal health.
But, this revelation will probably pass, and individualistic nihilism will probably become status quo again soon. Why? Because cultural reframing isn’t hard–not on the policy level. Not at all, as we saw this past week, on the level of change we can effect overnight.
It is hard, though, on the ego.
The Humility of Reframing
After all, one of the most selfish things we can do, when we hear about another person’s hardships, is to try to make them a threat to our own triumphs. And yet, when many marginalized demographics in our societies talk about ways in which they have faced systemic and institutional barriers to advancement, a common refrain is, “Well, I had to work hard to get where I am, and I did! Are you trying to tell me I didn’t work hard? That I don’t deserve what I’ve earned?”
And a similar refrain, when faced with proposals to improve life outcomes for the next generation, goes: “Well, I had to work hard to get where I am, and I struggled, and it was difficult. Why should it be any easier for anyone else?”
Even atheists, this past week, have not been particularly generous in our “victory” over spiritual healing. Yes, we know full well that there was never anything sacred or miraculous about faith healing and holy water… and yet, has it really been necessary to gloat about COVID-19 measures closing down places that, for many, are vital community centres? Whole hubs of social activity that many elderly and isolated people no longer have access to during social distancing?
Is it just possible that a more humanistic response would better serve than one contingent on shaming others for doing the right thing, and avoiding making their communities sicker?
What my time in Colombia has taught me, if anything, is that it is possible for trauma to be handled with greater calm, dignity, and proactive response… if it’s a trauma held together, and learned from together.
But to do that, we have to be willing to admit that any hit to another’s humanity–to another’s ability to find safety, shelter, opportunity, and community–is also a hit of our own.
And for that particular lesson to stick? Well, we need to make a concerted effort to reframe ourselves. For instance:
Can we carry our panic over material-goods shortages–a panic that arose within just days of epidemic fears!–into how we respond to refugee crises, after this is over?
Can we remember our fear for our families’ well-being in the future, when other families tell us new government policy threatens their access to basic essentials, like health, housing, food, and pathways to better employment?
Can we remember how difficult so many people are currently finding social distancing–mentally, and physically–when we next confront the epidemic of loneliness caused by our city planning, especially around elderly and disabled populations?
We have all that we need, in this pandemic, to teach ourselves that empathy can change the world. To drive home the fact that if we treat something as a serious enough problem, seemingly rigid societal expectations can sometimes dissipate overnight.
Will we do it, though?
Will we turn this current outbreak into the shared narrative of interdependence through which a myriad of other critical changes–environmental, socioeconomic, political, and cultural–might finally come to pass?
I know what answer I’m hoping for, as a humanist.
But also as a humanist… I know nothing’s ever as easy as all that.