When we fail to be shocked

When we fail to be shocked

Omran DaqneeshIn August, I wrote a piece urging us not to buy into the language of ‘shock’ when it is used to describe images of children caught up in war.  I was trying to help us fight the dangerous pull of sentimentality, when our human emotions easily cloud our ability to look upon harsh realities.

What do we think war looks like, I asked?  Of course it looks like children dazed and covered in blood.  There is nothing shocking about that image of Omran Daqneesh.  He is a child caught up in terrible war.  Yes, the image is haunting, awful, gut-wrenching.  But it is not shocking.  It is depressingly predictable.

Haiti devastationMy theme was picked up by blogger Tim Dunwoody, writing about the devastation that has occurred in Haiti as a result of Hurricane Matthew.  He asked why the images were being described as ‘shocking’, given that Haiti is the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere.  He wondered whether those of us who don’t live in abject poverty subconsciously protect ourselves from acknowledging its reality by telling ourselves, in times of disaster, that we are shocked by what we see.  He challenges us to be real: “If we are honest with ourselves, surely we know that natural disasters always hit the poor the worst.  Do the images from Haiti really shock us?”

I found myself returning to this theme once again as I looked at another of the week’s news images.  This time, though, I wondered why we were not using the language of ‘shock’.

The answer is that we were, instead, using the language of ‘cute’.   Our laughter at all the cuteness kept us from seeing the possibility of a harsher reality: a child being objectified.

Trump holding up baby

On 10th October, US presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted one of his largest rallies yet.  Nearly 10,000 people gathered in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania to hear him speak with anger and vitriol about the current state of America and its leaders.  Approximately 45 minutes into the speech, he spotted a child dressed up to look just like him.  Lots of people had donned costumes for that rally, and the parents of this two-year-old toddler had joined in, dressing him up as a mini-Trump, complete with dark suit, red tie, voting badge and a full head of similarly combed-over hair.

When Donald spotted the child, sitting high on a set of shoulders in the crowd, he invited his security guards to bring him up onto stage.  The rapturous crowd loved it.

Crowd at Trump rally

“What’s your name?” Donald asked.

The child responded with one of the abilities common to all young children learning to talk.  He repeated the last word he heard: “Name!”  Some of the papers explicitly noted that repetitive pattern in their coverage of the story.

“Are you having a good time tonight?”

“Night!”

“Where’s your daddy, and your mommy?  Do you want to go back to them, or do you want to stay with Donald Trump?”

“Trump!”

The roar of approval was deafening.  You can hear that “beautiful moment” for yourself here:

It wasn’t just the crowds who loved it.  So did the media.  ABC News declared that ‘Mini-Trump Steals the Show.”  The Toronto Sun said ‘Mini-Trump upstaged Donald Trump’.  The Daily Mail charmingly called him the ‘Doppelganger Baby’.

So what’s wrong with any of that, you might ask?  It was funny.  The kid was cute.  Nobody got hurt.  The child didn’t even cry.  If you look closely, he was smiling.  His parents were there the whole time.  What is the problem?

My problem is that our collective response was to laugh indulgently as an angry demagogue used a child for his own political purposes.

It’s not surprising.  In fact, it’s a common strategy amongst demagogues.  When they smile at children, they seem more likable.  When they get us to laugh with them, we remember ourselves as having had a good time.

Stalin & Hitler propaganda posters

And if we’re having a good time, we’re more likely to overlook the ways in which a person is being used to manipulate us.  That person (in this case, a small person) has been objectified, used as a pawn in a bigger game.

We have become pawns too.  Donald played us all brilliantly: the crowd, the newspaper editors, those of us who looked at that photo and smiled.

Let me be very clear: I’m not particularly criticising him.  He was doing what all politicians do: kiss babies.  (The Atlantic published a lovely little piece in 2011 on why this “clichéd propaganda” works so effectively.) Donald was also doing what we might expect of a politically ambitious bully under severe threat:  he was seizing an opportunity to shift the public mood.  Three days previously, most folks around the world had been outraged by the way he had objectified women.  He vaporised some of that anger instantly by getting himself photographed being sweet to a cute kid.  It’s a brilliant strategy.

Politicians & babies

I am not in any way reproaching the child’s parents, either.  Loads of parents involve their children in political struggles, using their very youth as part of the political point being made.  The follow-up interviews (and even the pre-interviews) with Hunter Tirpak’s mother made clear that, as a strong Trump supporter, her aim was to bring positivity to a negative campaign.  She is absolutely free to dress her child up as Baby Trump if she wants.

Nuclear & abortion rallies

Rather, my critique is focused on us, the public.  Why were we so easily entranced?  Why did the language of ‘shock’ not appear in any of the papers?  Why was this story dripping in froth and fluff, rather than scrutiny?

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One answer is that Donald has offered us so many shocking moments during this campaign that we’ve become a bit inured to his antics.  And this moment did come just after the meltdown created by his comments about grabbing women by the pussy.  It is understandable that, in the face of such blatant objectification, we might miss the more subtle objectification involved in holding up a smiling child for public viewing.

So if you didn’t spot this interpretation, don’t feel bad.  Nobody else did either, as far as I can tell.  Donald is a very talented showman.  He’s better even than Derren Brown.

And if you disagree (perhaps vehemently) with my reading of Donald’s performance, that’s okay too.  Debate on the objectification of children would be terrific.  It would let us address my earlier question: “What’s wrong with any of this?”

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What’s wrong is that objectification is the first step on the journey to exploitation, xenophobia and abuse.  When we are astute enough to spot objectification, we stand a better chance of preventing things from getting worse.

One other event occurred in the British media this week that highlights how ‘worse’ it can get.  Louis Theroux produced a courageous television documentary exploring how he had failed to spot the sinister depths of his predatory friend, Jimmy Saville.  What signs had he overlooked 15 years ago?

The programme made for unsettling viewing – but not because we were watching a man trying to make sense of his own guilt and gullibility.  It was unsettling because Theroux was compelling viewers to ask themselves what they too had missed, as they laughed along with Saville, during all the scenes of smiling children.  He was trying to help a nation not to get lost in a cloud of guilt and shame, but to have the strength and curiosity to ask:  what signs did we miss?

Jimmy SavilleWell, objectification is a pretty good sign.

The creepy, crazy thing about objectification is that it doesn’t have to feel bad.  It can easily feel like entertainment.

Come to think of it, maybe objectification is at its most powerful when it comes wrapped in sentimentality.  Who could possibly question laughing at innocent cuteness?

stalin-hitler-black-white

 

There is nothing shocking about this image

There is nothing shocking about this image

There is nothing shocking about this photo.  It is totally predictable for a country at war.

Omran Daqneesh - AMC Photo 2Yet that is the wording chosen by the Guardian“Shocking image emerges of Syrian child.”

And by NPR News:  “A wounded child shocks the world.”

And by CBN News“Child’s shocking image becomes the face of Syria.”

And of course by the Daily Mail:  “Harrowing image shocks the world.”

Yes, the photo is distressing, but that’s not the same as shocking.  ‘Shocking’ implies we should somehow be surprised.  How can we be legitimately surprised?  Syria is at war.  This is what war looks like.

If we are genuinely shocked, either as a society or as individuals, that tells us more about ourselves than about this 5-year-old child.  Being ‘shocked’ says we are living in denial. What do we think war looks like?  What do we think the reported deaths of approximately 50,000 Syrian children have looked like?

The BBC News website has a page that shows those children’s names, each in turn.  You need to watch for 19 hours to view the complete list.

Omran Daqneesh - AMC Photo 3
Yes, the photo of Omran Daqneesh is distressing.  His blank face forces us to look upon the psychological trauma of war.  We are right to be distressed when we see such a “still, silent child”, as the NPR story put it.

The trouble for the human psyche is that distress is hard to feel.  We have to do one of two things in response to it:  1) move toward it or 2) move away from it.

If truth be told, most of us choose the second option.  We move away.  We turn over the page.  We shift our gaze.  We deny.  Turning away makes perfect sense when we can’t do anything useful.  To look distress in the face and stand helpless is deeply painful.

That’s why our psyche needs the tools of denial and repression.  They are coping mechanisms that serve a key psychological function. They save us from becoming overwhelmed.  They keep us from being stopped in our tracks with sadness and horror.  Denial and repression enable us to continue with our day.

However, saying we are ‘shocked’ takes us to a deeper, darker place.  It implies that we are somehow surprised that a child should be traumatised by war and bombing.  That is disingenuous.  There is no way we can be legitimately shocked that war should bring such consequences – and we know that.  In our gut, we know that.

Ultimately, then, these headlines are insulting.  They make a mockery of this child’s trauma, trauma that will haunt him his whole life.  The headlines encourage us to believe his distress is somehow surprising.  Every news editor who opted for the headline of “shocking” should feel ashamed of their choice.  It panders to sentimentality.  The power editors have to help us see the world more deeply has not been exercised.  I know that is entirely common for the modern day press.  It still doesn’t make it okay to use a child’s pain in this way.

Omran Daqneesh - AMC Photo 2The insult is made worse with statements like this one:   “Warning: this article contains images that readers may find distressing.”

Warning?  Why do readers need a warning about looking upon distress that is predictable?

Most of the adults reading the story of this child will never have known the sound or smell or gritty residue of a bomb.  They will never have known the death of their child or the terror of going to the market to be able to feed them.  Most of us will never ever have to know the horror of such things.  And yet we need a warning about a photo of them?  Are we meant to look away if we are too upset?  Five-year-old Omran Daqnessh is living inside that photo.

I acknowledge, though, that a very real problem remains.  How do we look at that photo and then get on with our day, filled hopefully with absolutely important acts like getting breakfast on the table for our own children, hugging them, taking them out later to play football or for ice cream, laughing with them in the car on our way there?  It is precisely that question that leads most of us to reach, unconsciously, for repression.  It is a tool to help us resolve this dilemma.

Repression is normal.  It is ordinary.  It is understandable.  Repression saves us from being overwhelmed by knowledge too painful to bear.  But just because repression is normal and ordinary and understandable doesn’t make it okay.  Or kind.

Omran Daqneesh - AMC Photo 2What would be kinder for this traumatised lad is to sit and stare at his photo.  We honour his distress when we find the courage to stop ourselves from turning over the page.  We strengthen our capacity not to be overwhelmed when we practise looking distress in the face and accepting it.

Children need adults who can do that.  Children need adults who are able to acknowledge their pain, to see it and sense it.  Children need adults who do not rely on turning away as a coping mechanism.  To feel safe, children need to know the adults around them will not desert them when they are struggling emotionally, with traumas big or small.

We may not be able to do anything at all that directly helps Omran Daqneesh, but we can use his presence on our front page to help us serve other children.  Something worthwhile then comes out of the terrible, stupid tragedy that has been inflicted upon him.

There is a power that comes from the strength to stand and look distress in the face: we are impelled to action.  So if you want ideas about what to do, here are some options:

  1. Donate money or time to a charity supporting Syria. The Guardian published a welcome article this week listing nine charities doing active work.  The fabulous organisation I Am Syria lists more.
  2. Write to your MP and ask why the UK government has so far resettled only 1602 Syrian people out of the 20,000 planned over the next five years.
  3. Donate money or time to a charity in your local area that supports children traumatised by circumstances such as domestic violence, bereavement, a parent with mental illness.
  4. Ask yourself why the prison population is filled with adults who were once children in the care system. All people who spent time in the care system have trauma in their history – or they wouldn’t have ended up in care.
  5. Next time you find yourself about to speak sharply to a child (usually for some bit of behavior you didn’t like) ask yourself if there is a gentler way you could convey your thoughts – because underneath all behavior is an emotional need, and it isn’t a need to be told off.
  6. Hug your child, knowing that lots of parents in Syria no longer can.  That includes Omran’s parents, because his older brother, Ali, was killed in the same bombing raid.  That terrible fact, though, was not reported with the same breadth as his younger brother’s photo.
  7. Put Omran’s photo on your refrigerator, so that you can practise looking into the face of distress without denial or overwhelm. When you’ve gotten good at it, replace his photo with the face of another Syrian child.  You can find a distressingly wide selection of them on the Aleppo Media Center’s Facebook page, here.

Omran Daqneesh and sisterThe comments of Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a medic from Chicago who volunteers in Aleppo, received widespread coverage this week when we said that the children of Syria no longer have need of our tears.  I agree.  Our sympathy mocks their pain if it does not lead to action.

Denial protects us adults, but it does absolutely nothing for children.

What attachment theory teaches us about responding to Brexit 

What attachment theory teaches us about responding to Brexit 

I think that, over the last week, I have read just about every Brexit opinion piece published anywhere.  What is there to be said that hasn’t been said?  What words are left that could be of use?

How about these three words? “Rupture and repair.”

The concept of ‘rupture and repair’ lies at the heart of contemporary attachment theory. That cycle is regarded as the key to understanding what makes relationships emotionally healthy.  Ripples, storms, even tsunamis are a part of any long-term relationship. Modern day attachment research shows that it isn’t the ruptures that matter most to relationship sustainability.  Instead, it is the repairing of ruptures.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit2That is what we face now in the UK.  Brexit has created a terrible rip in the fabric of our society.  Remain Voters feel betrayed by Leave Voters. Leave Voters feel irritated with the continuing ‘whinging’ of Remain Voters.  Voters everywhere feel unsettled by the resignations of so many politicians, supplemented by fury at the lies the campaign was based on.  Racist acts have increased five-fold. Friendships and families have been injured, split over the anger and dismay that has erupted within them.

A nation ruptured indeed. John Litchfield did not exaggerate when he described Britain as being “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”.

Over the past two weeks, Brexit has been analysed from any number of angles.  Tim Lott guessed that social inequality lies at its heart. Matthew Goodwin recounted the sense of alienation felt by Leave Voters.  Ollie McAninch explored the deliberate use of misdirection to support a fear-based agenda. So much of what has been written have been attempts to understand what has happened.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit3The piece that has stayed with me the most, though, is the one written by Henry Kissinger. He looked in the opposite direction — toward the future.  He asked what we should be striving for now (whether or not or whenever Article 50 is eventually implemented).  His focus wasn’t trade agreements, free movement or immigration quotas.  He wasn’t talking specifics.

Instead, he emphasised the spirit that needs to guide our next steps.  Kissinger brings to his comments the experience he gained serving as Secretary of State for two US Presidents (Ford and Nixon).  Whatever you may feel about his political decisions while in office, his comments here breathe the wisdom of a statesman.  Kissinger’s piece urges us to keep our eyes on vision – on the purpose of the EU, rather than its structures.

Here is Kissinger’s core message:

“Britain will want to maintain extensive ties with Europe while easing the constraints of its many legislative and bureaucratic requirements.  The EU leadership has almost the opposite incentive.  It will not wish to reward Britian’s Leave majority by granting Britain better terms than it enjoyed as a full member.  Hence a punitive element is likely to be inherent in the EU bargaining position….[But I] hope the EU will transcend itself, seeking its vocation not in penalising the recalcitrant but by negotiating in a manner that restores the prospects of unity.  The EU should not treat Britain as an escaper from prison but as a potential compatriot.

Kissinger is talking about repair.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit4Attachment research shows that in healthy, ‘good enough’ relationships, the ordinary cycle of attunement travels through three phases.  Roughly one-third of time is spent in actual relating (attuned connection), one-third in rupture (mis-attuned connection) and one-third in repair (recovering attuned connection).  Repair is the most important phase in the cycle.  Repair not only rewires patterns of behaviour, it also establishes trust.  You come to know that you can fall out with someone while still trusting that your connection with ‘the other’ does not risk being severed forever.  Rupture does not have to equate to the terror of abandonment.

Allan Schore, one of the world’s leading attachment theorists, stresses that ruptures are an inevitable and natural element of relationships.  We should not seek out relationships in which there is never any rupture (which in itself actually signifies dysfunction).  It is learning how to engage in repair that creates healthy relationships.  Although Schore, along with other leading theorists such as Dan Siegel and Ed Tronick, is best known for discussions of parent-child relationships, the explanation applies to all relationships, whatever the age of the human beings involved.

So what is needed to achieve repair?  Here’s how one mother, Michele Deen, describes her own efforts to do that in her relationship with her daughter:

“First and foremost, repair involves parental insight and awareness that leads to a type of healing reconnection. For instance, for me it means noticing when I’m being emotionally reactive, stopping in my tracks and analyzing the situation. Next, I tune in to the experiences and feelings of my daughter. From here it’s essential to find a way to communicate with the child so that he/she feels understood and regarded by you, the parent. This allows an opening for the noxious effects of the incident—shame, humiliation and any number of seething emotions—to dissipate.”

Guess what?  That’s what is not happening within Britain.  We are nowhere near noticing when we are emotionally reactive or allowing noxious effects to dissipate. Instead, the Rupture is getting worse.  Surprise after surprise, uncertainty after uncertainty, anger after recrimination, is unfolding.  And our leading politicians, caught up in their own self-obsessed wrangles, are entirely incapable of reflecting enough to move us toward repair.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit5Pam Jarvis, one of the core members of the Save Childhood Movement campaign team, made that same point even more sharply in her brilliant piece:

“The disaffected British population has in this sense behaved as the collective dysfunctional ‘offspring’ of a ‘parental’ ruling class whose lack of care most recently sunk to the depths of risking the nation’s future as collateral in a high-stakes game of personal one-upmanship that began in the classrooms and playing fields of Eton; 64 million pawns sacrificed to internal Westminster in-fighting in a high-stakes game without a contingency plan.”

So: if our neglectful parent-politicians can’t help, then we need to seek out opportunities for repair ourselves.

Like everyone else, I have no idea how long the anxious uncertainty will go on for.  What I do know, based on attachment theory, is that the longer it takes, the more toxic this national rupture becomes, and the harder it will become to achieve repair.  Great risks lie in the failure to achieve repair. As Kissinger warned, “Ignoring the concerns that Brexit manifests is a path to greater disillusionment.

We have been reminded all too starkly this week of the terrible consequences that arise from failure to repair.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit6One reminder occurred on 1st July.  That date marked the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.  On that single day during the First World War, nearly 20,000 young British men died.  Over the next five months of the Somme campaign, over one million British, French and German men would be killed or wounded.  Words that have been used to describe the madness of that day include ‘gory’, ‘bloody’, and ‘horrific’.  Soberingly, this week Simon Tinsdall traced that “muddy, futile battlefield” to the tensions he sees as driving Brexit.

On the morning of Friday, 1st July 2016, UK citizens woke to a surprise public art event.  In public spaces throughout the UK – train stations, bus stations, shopping malls, streets, steps of civic buildings – the public found themselves walking past young men dressed in WWI uniforms.  If they stopped to speak to one of these volunteer actors, they were handed a small card containing the name, rank, battalion and regiment of a man who had died at the Somme.  Entitled ‘we’re here because we’re here’, this living, largely silent memorial was the tribute created by prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller to mark the waste that occurred one hundred years ago this week.

Perhaps the tribute will have brought some healing to families such as the Guyons, who described in an interview the inter-generational consequences of their grandfather’s death at the Somme.  “We have grown up with a father who was very seriously damaged by his mother’s grief at his father’s death.  It totally blighted his life.”  For the Guyon family, and countless others like them, the Somme left a “wound that hasn’t healed”, even one hundred years on.

So let’s put the sacrifice of those young men into a wider historic context.  What happened after their deaths? – deaths which many have now argued were needless political folly?  What happened was that a mere 21 years later, merely a single generation, another war descended.  As any student of 20th century history will tell you, WWII was largely a result of politicians’ failure to focus on repair.  The victors of WWI sought to punish the losers.  That led to the economic depression, despair, nationalism and polarisation from which WWII was born.  WWII took another 50 million lives, not forgetting the 6 million people who died as scapegoats in Nazi concentration camps.  The European Union was founded to prevent such catastrophic division from ever occurring again within Europe.  Simon Tinsdall observes, unnervingly, that that possibility seems “less unimaginable” than it did two weeks ago.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit7A second event that occurred this week, which also laments the failure to repair, was the publication of the Chilcot Report. The basis for the UK-US coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, under the banner ‘Operation Freedom’, has been totally discredited.  The degree to which lies (or ‘mistakes’, depending on your viewpoint) underpinned the arguments for action have been exposed, along with the lack of any follow-up plan.  The thinking bears uncomfortable similarities to elements of Brexit.

Simultaneously, reports continue to pour in of the consequences of the Iraq War.  This week, for example, one report highlighted the lack of a functioning health service.  Most of Iraq’s 1700 healthcare centres have no running water or electricity.  There is no system in place to train sufficient health professionals, and the equipment available in hospitals is appalling.  The World Health Organisation has described the situation as “bad, really bad, and getting worse”. Yet in the 1980s, Iraq’s health care system was one of the most advanced in the Middle East.  Trauma that the UK helped to cause, on the basis of ‘mistakes’, which the leaders involved have this week continued to defend, will rumble on for generations. We contributed to our own suffering in the West, which has come in the form of terrorism and mass refugee desperation.

I realise that it has taken 7 years to gain the perspective afforded by the Chilcot Report.  I recognise it has taken 100 years to see the enduring devastation of WWI.  And I accept it is too soon to begin recovering from the wounds caused 2 weeks ago by Brexit.  For wounds they are.  Brexit has turned out to be about much more than a democratic process.  It has challenged more than our beliefs about economics, sovereignty and political leadership.  Brexit has become, at its core, an assault on our sense of identity and belonging.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit8Identity and belonging are precisely what attachment is all about.  That is why it is so deeply troubling for us all.  Who are we now?  To which ‘tribe’ do we belong? And which ‘tribes’ do we choose to see as the ‘them’ in contrast to the ‘us’?

Yet, difficult conversations are what repair is all about.  Repair is often not easy.  How do you listen to another person’s feelings when your own emotions feel intense, legitimate, overwhelming and simply RIGHT? How do you listen to the feelings of the person whom you feel has betrayed, ignored, humiliated, abandoned you?  How do you resist blame and accusation?  How do you do that when your leaders are incapable of seeing their own emotional reactivity or owning their responsibility?

These are the questions that organisations like the Centre for Nonviolent Communication and the Restorative Justice Council deal with all the time, in their search for ways of promoting connection, via compassion rather than polarisation.  And that’s what Kissinger is trying to get us to think about.  “The needed restoration of faith will not come about through recriminations.”  It’s what Susie Orbach said this week too: “Agony can gain temporary relief through attack….but almost inevitably, whether in politics or personal life, attack compounds things.  Our eyes are drawn to the wrong target.”

If we cannot find our way back to (enough) unity, then we risk rupture taking on a more lethal form.  We risk future families, like the Guyons, bearing wounds that travel down the generations.

So what do we do if repair simply feels too soon, too raw, just now?  My answer is this:  what if we just try to keep the rupture from becoming worse?  Here is one tiny thing I did this week:  I refrained from tweeting everything I felt.  I kept myself from expressing every negative emotion and thought that went through my head.  My goal was not to feed the negativity and fear felt by others around me in my social media circle.  It wasn’t easy.  Sometimes it meant I had to kick the table instead.  But I figured that my hurt toe carried less chance of unintended consequences than would my angry, accusatory words.  I tried to do what our politicians and much of the media have been unable to do:  I tried to take responsibility for my actions.

I choose to have faith that my acts matter.  Even the small ones.  Because one day we will reach repair.  We will have to renew our ties to one another.  The fewer ties that have been broken, strained, bruised and cut, the easier the process of repair will be.

Don’t take my words for it.  There are better words than mine available.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit8There are the words of esteemed MP Jo Cox.  She said: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

There are the words of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, who survived Nazi concentration camps and who died this week: “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”

And there are the words of the woman who sent me this Facebook message last week: “A few months ago I attended an attachment training event you gave on ‘challenging behavior as distressed feelings’. That day inspired me in my care of the kids I work with. I think a lot of hearts were touched that day. Months later, I can see the benefits of a gentle approach…. A compassionate supportive approach is unbelievably more helpful than is calling on selfish blame.”

Maybe it really is enough, for right now, if all I can think to do – all each of us can do — is try to avoid making the rupture any worse.  We can fight fear, rather than each other.

The compassion challenge posed by Jo Cox’s death

The compassion challenge posed by Jo Cox’s death

The killing of MP Jo Cox has profoundly shocked the UK.  The country has been plunged into mourning, heightened by the dedicated way she lived her values of compassion, humanitarianism, equality and public duty.

A number of deeply thoughtful articles appeared over the days after her death, situating this devastating tragedy within the dark political mood that has descended on Britain as a result of the divisive tone of the EU Referendum.  Joan Smith said:  “It should be blindingly obvious that an atmosphere rank with misanthropy, distrust and the worst kind of populism risks dehumanising decent people.”  Jonathan Freedland put it this way:  “If you inject enough poison into the political bloodstream, somebody will get sick.”

Jo Cox stood against division and poison.  Her playful, cheeky style allowed her to fight determinedly for a fairer, more just and peaceful world.

Over the same few days, the media also brought us insights about the man arrested for her murder, Thomas Mair.

So here is the very difficult challenge that Jo Cox’s death presents us with.   How do we extend the compassion for which we are esteeming her…to the man accused of killing her?

This is a profoundly uncomfortable question for most of us to contemplate.  Some readers may feel that is demeaning to Jo Cox’s memory that it is even being asked.  We are in shock from this utterly senseless loss.  How can it be respectful to offer compassion to the man accused of killing her?  Is he not, instead, deserving of condemnation?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Jun2016-JoCox2This is the dilemma that we face in celebrating Jo Cox’s life.  The bitter backbone of a philosophy of compassion is that we do not get to offer it only to the people we like.  This philosophy says it has to be offered to everyone, including people who commit actions we hate.  I understand it can feel crazy to contemplate that a person who may have caused such needless  grief — to two young children, a loving husband and a whole country – should be deserving of compassion.  Yet that is what Jo Cox’s life calls us to consider.

One of the reasons it is difficult to hear that people associated with hateful acts deserve compassion is that blame makes it easier for us to cope with our distress.  It gives us somewhere to focus our grief and anger and loss.  It makes us feel better to castigate and revile.  Such sentiments make it feel like we have solved the problem.  We know who to condemn.

Condemnation takes energy.  The energy makes it feel like we have taken action.  But our action hasn’t actually solved any problem. We have just made ourselves feel better.

When we turn to blame and shame and hate, we solve nothing.  If we want to fight violence, we have to look beyond our immediate feelings of distress.  Jo Cox knew that.

I am not negating what happened.  I am not condoning violence.  What I am saying is that it is in our gift to ourselves to choose whether we let another person’s actions drive us to more hatred.  Adam Bienkov put the same sentiments this way, in his own piece this week: “We all have choices.  Our politicians and our press…can choose to help the vulnerable, inform the public and calm fears.  Or they can choose the opposite.”

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Jun2016-JoCox3The only effective solution to violence lies in fighting disconnection.  It has not yet been proven that Thomas Mair killed Jo Cox.  That remains to be seen through a legal process.  Many people have read information about him already in the press, though, and the summary of that content is that he is a man who has  suffered disconnection in his life.

The press stories have documented a long history of mental health difficulties.  One of the ways he is reported to have coped with with these was through volunteering.  For some period of time, he even attended a day centre, from which he said he gained considerable support.  He is described as having lived alone for the past 20 years, following the death of his grandmother, continuing to live in the house he had shared with her since he was a child.  He has not, seemingly, had a partner for years, having once had a girlfriend, but, as his brother reported, “his mate took her off him and he said he didn’t want another one.” Some of his neighbours describe him as “a bit of a loner”, even though he regularly did the shopping for his mother.  And it is striking that while few individuals interviewed have described him as unfriendly or violent, neither were any of them apparently ever invited into his house.  Overall, a picture emerges of Thomas Mair living with a fair bit of disconnection and loss.

I know that some readers might end up thinking, if he were proved to have killed her, “Such things have happened to me and I haven’t resorted to violence.  Plus, he’s had help with his mental health difficulties.  So that’s no excuse.”

I am not trying to excuse violence.  Compassion doesn’t mean excusing actions.  It means not condemning the humanity of the person who committed them.

What I am trying to do is think about what causes violence.  I am trying to be curious about what attracts any person to neo-Nazi political parties.  I am trying to imagine what motivates any apparently mild-mannered person to extreme action.  I am trying to ask myself what physiological state any person has to be in to decide to resort to violence.  It is only curiosity about what causes hatred that gives us any chance of preventing it.

All the science that we have tells us that disconnection and trauma make people emotionally vulnerable.  It undermines their ability to regulate their own behaviour.  It makes them more subject to emotional swings and mental illness.  It makes them less resilient.  Emotional connection and resilience are essential for human well-being.

Whatever the court finds in regard to Thomas Mair’s guilt, it is sobering to realise that he has himself spoken to the theme of disconnection.  In 2010, he was interviewed by his local paper and had this to say about why he volunteered:

“I can honestly say it has done me more good than all the psychotherapy and medication in the world.  Many people who suffer from mental illness are socially isolated and disconnected from society.  All these problems are alleviated by doing voluntary work.”

It sounds very promising.  But 2010 is six years ago.  That’s a long time in anyone’s life.

Screen Shot 2016-06-20 at 18.32.58Why am I reflecting on such details?  They matter because our society does not take emotional suffering seriously enoughOne in 10 children in the UK now have a diagnosable mental health problem.  That’s not a hidden statistic.  It was quoted in the press this week, in a story about parenting support.  The Royal College of Nursing called this week for more attention to be given the “crisis” in children’s mental health.  The Duke of Cambridge gave a Father’s Day interview to the Sunday Express, concentrating in particular on the importance of children’s mental health.  Yet no one seems, as yet, to have wondered about Thomas Mair’s mental health as a child.

We really do not take mental health seriously.  Even the Sunday Express, not known for its liberal leanings, said (pg 29, 19th June) that it would be a fitting tribute to Jo Cox’s life if mental health cuts were “reversed as soon as is possible”. But we have watched the opposite happening in this era of budget cuts. Durham have closed 12 of their 17 adult day centres this year, in a bid to save £1.5million. York’s only public adult mental health hospital closed in October 2015, with only five days’ warning, and with no replacement of the beds it contained.  Six weeks ago, South Lanarkshire announced the closure of an award-winning centre, which service users deemed a “life-life”, in a bid to save £150,000.  Yet who was it that was helping Thomas Mair to feel connected and engaged in 2010, when he gave his interview?  His local mental health support centre.

Thomas Mair was known to his neighbours and family members as a polite, reserved, non-aggressive man.  They have clearly been shocked.  This tells us that emotional disconnection is not always apparent from the outside.  We can’t know what story, what emotional burdens, what physiological vulnerabilities another person is carrying inside.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Jun2016-JoCox5What we do know, both from the science and from our own human experience, is that trauma begets trauma.  Disconnection begets disconnection.  Hatred begets hatred.  When we do not take seriously the human need for connection and respect, we bring about suffering that can rebound on us.  Jonathan Freedland extends that point to our whole society, in his piece tracing the impact of rancorous UK politics over the last few weeks:

“The veil that separates civilisation from mayhem is thin.  The tragedy is that it took the death of a devoted, admired and adored woman to teach us that lesson.”

The papers and social media have been filled during the past few days with reflections on the grief that Jo Cox’s two young children will face.  The reality that “they will never again feel their mum’s hug” stares us starkly in the face.

Yet, there are children all over the country who face a similar kind of grief:  children taken into care.  We rarely give deep thought to their pain – an oversight that was highlighted at last week’s National Youth Justice Conference. We adults may know that we have removed them from their parents’ care because it was deemed to be in their best interest.  This does not assuage their grief, though.  In fact, the disconnection creates deep emotional conflict and physiological scars for most of them.  So many live with the feeling that their parents did not/could not/would not love them enough to keep hugs reliably available.  And our care system is set up so that, having formed a bond with a foster carer, too many children are moved on to another placement, never ever again to see that person whom they had come to trust.  No one intends it, but our foster system creates bereavement.  It is easy to see why children living in that system so often unconsciously decide it is safer not to ever trust again.  It is safer to disconnect.

Our prisons are full of people who were once, or still are, traumatised children.  In England, one third of boys in custody are in care. This compares to the wider population in which only 1% of English children are in care.  Guess what the rate is for girls in custody?  Two-thirds.  Let me repeat that.  Two-thirds of girls in custody in England are emotionally traumatised.

Figures relevant to Scotland include facts such as: a disproportionately high number of people in prison come from a background of poverty. Their health is markedly worse than the general population, with key health problems including alcohol, drug use, heart disease and sexual health.  All of these factors have been linked to emotional trauma in childhood in the now famous study of Adverse Childhood Experiences.  Yet we still do not apply the seminal insights of this study in public policy or cultural attitudes.

By and large, our country does not mourn for traumatised children, even when they experience the same kind of loss as Jo Cox’s children have this week.  We think of bereavement from an adult perspective, not through the lens of the child.  Indeed, some children in care may never have been lucky enough to ever have experienced a hug from their mum.  Prison can turn out to be the safest place they have ever known.  Yet still it is common to think that harsh condemnation is a justified component of imprisonment.  The 2014 proposal to ban books from UK prisoners is a good example of such inhumanity.  The announcement this week that staff shortages in prison have led to a dramatic increase in the use of force and solitary confinement for children as young as 10 is another regrettably good example.

So what’s the best tribute we can now pay to Jo Cox?  Answer:  To walk in her path.  To look hate and disconnection in the eye and then fight like hell against it.  To refuse to let our grief fool us into thinking, in the coming weeks, that railing against Thomas Mair will offer any solution.  It is wiser, smarter, cheaper, and kinder to use our grief to prevent future violence from hurting more families.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Jun2016-JoCox6We are caught up just now in esteeming Jo Cox’s bright light.  She has been called by one politican (Jack Dromey) a “champion of all that is best in Britain.” If we really want to honour her, then we need to emulate her mindset.  Ironically, that means extending the humanity she preached to the man accused of killing her.  To do anything else is hypocritical.

In her maiden speech to Parliament, made only last year, Jo gave us such guidance herself.  “We have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”  It is our common humanity that binds us to the man who killed Jo Cox.  James McEnaney said the same uncomfortable thing last week, writing about the humanity of the man who shot dead 49 people in Orlando, Florida.  We gain nothing useful if we turn killers into evil monsters.

If we find ourselves wondering whether Jo Cox would really have agreed that her compassionate stance should be stretched this far, then we have only to turn to the statement offered by her husband, hours after her death.

“Jo would have wanted us all to unite to fight against the hatred that killed her. Hate doesn’t have a creed, race or religion.  It is poisonous.”

Brendan Cox has asked us to unite against hate itself, not against the person who killed his wife. Brendan Cox is calling for compassion.  If her heart-broken husband can find the strength to walk in Jo’s footsteps, then so can we.  It’s a choice each of us faces.

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A fund has been set up in Jo Cox’s honour, which has, at the time of writing, raised £950,000 to support three key causes she worked for: helping Syrian families; fighting extremism and hate; and combatting loneliness.  You can donate to the fund through this GoFundMe page:  https://www.gofundme.com/jocox

How attachment theory explains Trump’s success – and Hitler’s too

How attachment theory explains Trump’s success – and Hitler’s too

Donald Trump has done it. He’s won the Republican nomination, having convinced enough Americans that he has the qualities needed to be a Presidential candidate. The rest of the world is looking on with disbelief, confusion, terror and derision.

Many commentators are firmly of the view that, given the statistics, Trump has no chance of actually being elected Presidentcome November 2016. But in many ways, that’s irrelevant now. Trump has already changed America. He has unleashed extremity, humiliation, suspicion and blame. He has done that with a personal style that is abrasive, rude, narcissistic, belligerent, untruthful and ludicrous. Yet he has drawn support from across the USA.

How can that be explained?

Some analysts have put his appeal down to the economic struggles facing many AmericansOthers have attributed it to educational divides. Statistician Nate Silver has highlighted Trump’s ability to manipulate the media. Journalists for the magazine The Week ascribe his success, alternatively, to conservative Republicans’ willingness to abandon traditional norms of governing and also to liberal Democrats’ intolerance of views that they find objectionableThe commentator Steven Poole even jokingly (or maybe not jokingly?) put it down to linguistics: Trump loves to punctuate his dazzlingly vague speeches with the thrillingly seductive morpheme ‘so’. “Together”, he says, “we are going to win so much and you are going to be so happy.” Presumably his supporters are so so happy now.

I want to add another explanation to this mix. Attachment theory can go a long way toward helping us make sense of Trump’s popularity.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump2I think we will need such an analysis in the coming months and years – regardless of whether or not Trump wins the election. The American political system is in meltdown. So are other political systems. The UK will shortly hold a referendum on withdrawing from the European Union. The outcome of that could well prompt a second Scottish referendum on separating from the UK. The refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe is prompting the return of very real, razor-wire boundaries between countries. Political distrust holds consequences that matter for the whole of our globe. Political distrust is driven by fear. And that’s what’s driving Trump’s success. Fear.

So what is attachment theory? It’s an explanation of why humans (and all other mammals) seek out a sense of safety. Attachment theory helps us realise that this search is a biological drive. We humans have a physiological need to feel safe – not simply to be safe, but to feel safe. Our brains don’t believe we are safe until we feel safe.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump3Attachment theory first emerged in the 1950s, led by paediatrician and psychologist John Bowlby. Since then, the core tenets of attachment theory have been repeatedly affirmed. Particularly helpful has been the development of technologies that allow neuroscientists to track brain development. This new evidence confirms what Bowlby and his colleagues suspected: early life leaves a long legacy. Our experiences as babies and toddlers lay down neural pathways in our brains that determine how safe versus how risky the world seems. Those pathways are obstinately robust.

Thus, fear starts early in life. If the environment often feels scary to you as a baby, then it’s very likely to feel scary to you as an adult. That continuation happens because your brain and body became wired with enough fear sensors to keep you trapped within the physiological emotional framework your brain set up as an infant. Your brain sees no reason to question that framework. Why question reality?

How, then, does attachment theory help to explain Trump’s success?

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump4The answer lies in appreciating the extent to which fear is driving Trump supporters. Last September, a political scientist named Matthew McWilliams gathered some striking data while completing his PhD. His findings are drawing considerable attention across social media. He found that the factor most predictive of support for Trump is authoritarianism. The surprise was that this factor cuts across conventional demographic boundaries: education, income, religiosity, age, class, region. McWilliams argues that what binds such diversity together is authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is a type of personality profile. It characterises someone who has a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. Authoritarians look for a strong leader who promises to take action to combat the threats they fear.

In short, authoritarians are seeking a sense of safety. Their political choices are driven by an attachment need. Trump makes his supporters feel safe.

That’s why Trump supporters can hold views that can sound scarily extreme to others.  Muslims should be banned. Mexico should pay to build a wall. Gays and lesbians should be prevented from marrying. In fact, let’s ban them from the country too! And while we’re at it, why not critique Abraham Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves?

McWilliams’ data are compelling because they have proven so predictive. He has conducted several large polls, and the factor that keeps coming up as most predictive of Trump support is authoritarianism. Here, for example, is the graph showing his data from the South Carolina primary. The higher a person’s score on the Authoritarian Scale, the more likely they said they were to vote for Trump. The slope of that line is so steady it’s unnerving. Little wonder, then, that Trump has won 26 primaries so farThat’s half the states in the USA.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump5

McWilliams isn’t the only one to have highlighted the importance of authoritarianism. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler reached similar conclusions in their 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarisation in American Politics. They argued that the Republicans, as the self-proclaimed party of law and order and traditional values, would inevitably prove attractive to large numbers of Americans with authoritarian tendencies. They just hadn’t predicted it would happen as quickly as 2016. But what’s happening completely fits their predicition: “Trump embodies the classic authoritarianism leadership style: simple, powerful and punitive.”

How is authoritarianism measured? It’s astoundingly simple. You just ask four straightforward questions:

  1. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

These four questions were devised by political scientist Stanley Feldman in the 1990s. The responses that emphasise behaviour, as opposed to internal qualities, are associated with authoritarianism. Feldman’s studies showed that these four questions turned out to be so reliable in assessing authoritarian tendencies that they now form the field’s ‘industry standard’ and are regularly incorporated into all sorts of political surveys.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump6It was, though, earlier research that had provided the platform for Feldman’s thinking. Psychologist Diana Baumrind carried out ground-breaking work in the 1960s that identified three main parenting styles in America. Her findings have stood the test of time.

  • Authoritarian parents tend to be rigid and controlling, focusing on external behaviour rather than internal experience. They expect a lot from their children, but without offering warmth or being responsive to their emotional needs. Children are expected to do as they are told, without questioning. The data showed that children raised in environments where they have such little control over their own lives tend to be unsure of themselves, don’t trust easily and have difficulty completing tasks. Baumrind emphasized that parents might adopt such a style due not only to their own personality but because they were trying to protect their child from a dangerous environment.
  • Permissive parents offer lots of warmth. However, they don’t set limits or impose expectations. These children often grow up impulsive and frustrated, with difficulty in adjusting their own desires to meet those of the wider society or relationship partners. It is harder for them to adapt to the restrictions of adult life.
  • Authoritative parents have high expectations of their children, like authoritarian parents. However, they also offer warmth, like permissive parents. They are responsive to their children’s emotional needs; they are flexible; they listen. Children’s internal experiences and emotional needs matter to them.   These children tend to become self-reliant and independent, with high self-esteem and respect for others. They function pretty well in the adult world.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump7While three descriptive categories absolutely do not explain the whole of a person’s character, Baumrind’s account provides a starting point for making sense of adult behaviour that can, at first, seem bewildering. It helps us to see how a parent’s style of relating to their child intersects with that child’s attachment needs, resulting in a mindset for the child as to how risky or safe the world is.

Except its more than a ‘mind’-set. It is actually a biological orientation to the world. It is a reflection of the child’s early emotional experiences, which may bear absolutely no relation to the present, but which is now woven into their very physiology. Their brain is stuck in the past, filtering the way they perceive and react to the present.

What’s really sobering is that Baumrind’s research with the children started when they were 3-year-olds. Children were already of an age that “rendered them unlikely to alter their genuine, instinctive reactions.” That sounds unbelievably early to most people who are new to the science of the early years. Yet, the age of 3 years is commonly identified by neuroscientists and by attachment theorists as marking a shift in children’s developmental trajectories.

This all explains why it does not matter to Trump’s supporters whether he grasps international affairs, diplomacy or honesty. What matters is that he makes them feel safe.

And guess what? That’s exactly the approach that Hitler took too.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump8Hitler made Germans of the 1930s feel safe. No, not all of them. Far from all of them. Many resisted his vision, including his fellow politicians. But Hitler made enough of his citizens feel safe. His message resonated with enough Germans to to allow the Nazi Party to prosper.

The problem wasn’t Hitler. The problem was support for Hitler.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump9I hope that, at this point, you might have taken a deep breath. It is very clear that I have just compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. I am not, of course, the first to do that. The Mexican President, Enrique Pena Nieto, has done so, as has Holocaust survivor Zeev Hod. Commentator Adam Brown carried out a detailed policy analysis of that comparison in October 2015, and the Philadelphia Daily News made the same comparison on the front page of their paper in December 2015. The historians Robert Paxton and Fedja Buric have taken such uncomfortable debates to a new level by seriously discussing whether a comparison to the fascist Mussolini might be more accurate. The NY Daily News chucked Stalin into the mix.

But even with such illustrious company, you might wonder if I haven’t taken things a step too far. It is not a bit far-fetched to compare Donald Trump to Hitler? Is it not just a bit too insulting or too unimaginable? Is it not according him slightly too much power – especially as he hasn’t yet been elected President and many think he hasn’t got a hope in hell of that anyway.

No, its not. Because, as I said, the problem wasn’t Hitler. And the problem isn’t Trump. The problem is support for Trump.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump10In his brilliant book Parenting for a Peaceful World, published in 2005, psychologist Robin Grille carried out a psycho-historical analysis of 1930s Germany. He traces the parenting advice popular at the end of the 19th century, just at the time when many Nazi supporters would have been young children. His review shows that the most popular childcare experts were promoting an authoritarian parenting style. They recommended ignoring and even crushing children’s emotional needs, in order to raise well-behaved, obedient adults.

It doesn’t take much to start crushing children’s capacity for connection – especially if experts are encouraging you down a harsh, unwavering path of relating. You can make a pretty good start by the age of 3. By then you’ve had a lasting impact on a child’s brain. And you don’t have to be a parent to achieve that change. Institutions charged with caring for young children, including childcare, social work, orphanages and hospitals can do a lot to damage children. It’s easy. You don’t even have to intend to. Just create policies that prevent staff from meeting children’s emotional needs, make the staff ratios so high there’s too little opportunity to meet them anyway, and be sure to humiliate, exclude and punish bad behaviour.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump11Adults who had been raised in authoritarian settings were just what Hitler and the Nazis needed — adults who would dispense with compassion in order to have safety. Adults who could feel so good about themselves in the process.

Robin Grille makes the point that such political success didn’t require all German parents of the early 20th century to follow expert authoritarian advice. He has no doubt that many German parents were highly empathic. Indeed, when comparing autobiographical accounts of Nazi sympathisers versus Nazi resisters, he is able to identify distinct differences in the way their parents treated them during childhood.

So  a country – whether that’s Germany or America or anywhere else — doesn’t need all, or even a majority, of its adult citizens to adopt an authoritarian parenting style in order to wreak widespread cultural havoc. All that’s needed is enough of them. As Robin Grille puts it (pg. 120): “Only a critical mass of harsh, authoritarian upbringing is needed to skew a nation towards dictatorship and war.”

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump12The articles currently circulating on the web that explore this issue tend to focus on ‘American authoritarianism’. And its certainly true that there’s plenty of that about. For example, Daniel Kolman (@kolman) recently tweeted that he was shocked to discover that 19 US states still allow corporal punishment in schools.  I have myself previously written about the book No Greater Joypopular amongst the Christian Right community in the USA, which advocates training babies’ behaviour by regularly beating them with a 12-inch piece of lawn-strimming cord. After the age of 1 year, the authors recommend upgrading to plumber’s supply line, which is thicker and which you can find at any hardware store, in a variety of colours for you to choose from. The book gets plenty of five-star ratings on Amazon.

A petition in 2011 tried (and failed) to ban Amazon from selling the book. A member of the UK Parliament tried to at least get its sale banned in the UK. But Amazon is global, isn’t it? Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries.

And that’s my real point in this piece. Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries. It isn’t present just in America. It is present in all cultures where humiliation, shame or violence is used to control children. It is present in all institutions where adults become more concerned about managing children’s behaviour than responding to their feelings. It is present in many of the homes in your community where parents are simply trying to do their best to raise their kids.

Donald Trump is dangerous NOT because he is now the Republican nominee.

Donald Trump is dangerous because he legitimises fear.

Leftover baby fears are oh so powerful, lurking in the dark of our neural pathways. That’s the point of attachment theory.

SuzanneZeedyk-Blog-Trump13If you’re worried about this election, whatever country you live in, don’t fight Trump. Fight fear.

If you’re worried about world events beyond the American election, do the same thing. Fight fear.