Monday, April 8, 2019

Social Rejection & Social Change

I delivered this reflection on April 7, 2019, at Community Christian Church. After introducing some of the growing body of research that documents the impacts of social rejection on human health, I raise some questions about how we might more strategically build community and work for social change. It is lightly edited.

CW: Sl-t shaming, bullying, social rejection

I was finishing high school when Bill Clinton was elected president of the United States. By his impeachment trial, I was in graduate school. And by the time he left office, I was married and working at a university. So it was that Clinton’s administration provided the context for me as a person growing into an understanding of myself, the world, and humanity’s place in it. The policies and debates of that time, both good and bad, invited me to think critically about all sorts of things that remain important in my life.

The North American Free Trade Agreement got me thinking about economic justice and the reality of international labor and trade practices. Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appointment to the Supreme Court marked the first time I paid attention to that process, or its importance. I was introduced to budget debates, Newt Gingrich, and federal shutdowns. We talked about the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 and the Children's Health Insurance Program of 1997, and I first started thinking about universal health care as a human right because of the proposed and (never voted on) Clinton Health Care Plan of 1993. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, with its work requirements and lifetime limits, stoked arguments about poverty and the poor.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was a handy excuse for people to spew vitriol at LGBTQIA+ folks, while the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act opened the gates for arguments about gun violence. Discussions about the 1994 Crime Bill revealed people’s long held prejudices, continued the trend of increasing mass incarceration, and exposed deep racial inequalities. I also learned about Alan Greenspan, Milton Friedman, deregulation, Glass–Steagall, and the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act. We started the Brownfields National Partnership, signed the Kyoto Protocol, and argued about environmental protections. In foreign policy, the headlines were filled with news about Somalia, Kosovo, NATO, and the PLO. You get the idea. A lot was going on, issues that remain relevant and important today, and I began my political education.

An Affair to Remember

But, for all that, we know that these things are not usually what first comes to mind when we think about Bill Clinton. To be honest, I could only recall about 2/3 of that list from memory, and I didn’t trust myself enough to do so without checking my facts. What’s difficult to forget is the political spectacle, day in and day out, that revolved around Ken Starr, Whitewater, Paula Jones, and Monica Lewinsky. It was a different kind of political education.

The people around me that spoke loudest about Bill Clinton were usually those folks who were already against him, and they appeared to me to be people in search of reasons that proved them right. This was not the case, however, when it came to Monica Lewinsky. They didn’t know her name before the scandal hit the press, and their vicious assaults on her spoke volumes. These words were meant to reinforce repressive sexual mores through disgust and shame. While the impeachment trial focused on perjury, it wasn’t the lying that captured my community’s attention; it was the sex. And it wasn’t so much the adultery as it was the specific sex acts that both fascinated and repulsed them.

Lewinsky was not much older than I was, and I think her youth made her that much more of a target. Our elders wanted to make an example; they wanted to bully us into living up to their repressive expectations. We were warned constantly to resist our “urges,” to resist using our hormones as an excuse to do things they called immoral and sinful, and, above all, to remember God was watching us at all times. As much as they wanted Bill Clinton out of office, what they wanted even more was for us to embrace what they called traditional values. So, in keeping with time honored misogynistic traditions, Bill receded from view and Monica became the focus. It was a morality play, and, if they could have sewn a scarlet letter to her chest, they would have.

Broken Hearts & Cold Shoulders

Lewinsky recently described that time for her in an interview with John Oliver for a segment about public shaming on (March 18, 2019’s) Last Week Tonight. ( ) She called her experience “an avalanche of pain and humiliation," an apt description of being suddenly overwhelmed and buried by a very public spectacle. Even as an onlooker of those events, I found it all confusing and scary. Questions ran through my mind: Why did people care so much about this? Why was it captivating to so many people? Why did people feel permission to say such cruel things about a stranger? And why was the threat and experience of social rejection so painful?

I didn’t have answers at the time, but it stirred a deep interest in better understanding shame and rejection. Eventually, and beyond the specific topic of conservative hangups about sex, I found great help in studies on the biology of social pain. Naomi Eisenberger, a prominent researcher on the topic, has explained that:

“As a mammalian species, humans are born relatively immature, without the capacity to feed or fend for themselves and instead rely almost completely on a caregiver to provide care and nourishment. Because of this prolonged period of mammalian immaturity, the social attachment system—which promotes social bonding—may have piggybacked onto the physical pain system, borrowing the pain signal itself to indicate when social relationships are threatened, thus promoting survival.” ( )

In practical terms, this means that social pain feels similar to physical pain, because the experience of pain is meant to warn us that something threatening is happening. Eisenberger and her colleagues came to this conclusion after comparing images of brain activity “in people who had experienced social rejection and others who had experienced physical pain. ‘We were sitting next to each other and noticed how similar the two brain images looked,” she says.” And that similarity led to further research that established that physical and social pain are both -

“processed in some of the same regions of the brain. Physical pain has two aspects: the sensory experience of pain and the emotional component, in which your brain decides how negative or distressing the pain is. It is the latter that is shared with social pain, although some research has suggested that severe social rejection, like being dumped, can also be processed in the part of your brain that handles the sensory component of pain.” ( )

This doesn’t mean that physical pain is the same as social pain, but it does mean that physical and social pain share an alarm system and that our brains experience and process them in similar ways. In other words, we really can feel it when we are given a cold shoulder, feelings can get hurt, and hearts can be broken. And it is this way because humans, by and large, depend on one another to survive. Social rejection feels scary and threatening because, for long stretches of evolutionary history, being rejected by our kin group was almost definitely a death sentence. All the dangers we faced already – predators, starvation, disease - were intensified, and all our vulnerabilities exposed, when we were left alone. Social pain became the alarm system we needed to stay alive.

Social Rejection and Social Control

So our experience of social pain helps us survive, value relationships, and be willing to do some of the hard work of community building, when we might otherwise give up. But there’s this rather obvious vulnerability, too: the disturbing habit we’ve picked up of weaponizing social pain in order to control people’s behavior. In that interview with John Oliver, where Lewinsky described her experience as “an avalanche of pain and humiliation," she went on to say:

"I think at 24 years old, it was really hard to hold on to a shred of dignity or self esteem when you're just the butt of so many jokes … . … It was, I say, extraordinary — not with any positive connotation — not only just the sl-t shaming, not only just having had an intimate relationship with someone who was now describing me in a way that no young woman would want to be described, … . … Not to say that I wasn't flawed and that I didn't make terrible mistakes or do [foolish] things or say [foolish] things because of course I did, … . I watched this sort of deconstruction of me and rebuilding of me. … When I couldn’t find a job, either someone offered me a job for the wrong reasons like, 'Oh, you'll be coming to our events. That's your job and there's media there.' Or it's people saying to me the opposite. 'Could you get a letter of indemnification from the Clintons,' … . There was this wide range of not being able to support myself and also have a purpose, which is equally important." ( )

Lewinsky is pointing out several important aspects of social pain here. First, there’s the use of ridicule and shame as a weapon, dehumanizing Lewinsky and reducing her to being the butt of a joke. All of us have experienced these kinds of things, both in giving and receiving. In terms of social control, these tactics often act as a check, as much as on the larger community as on the person being shamed. The dehumanization is meant to serve as a warning, and, especially unheeded, can lead to being shunned and betrayed. In extreme cases, the community may actively work to make sure the shunned person is cut off from resources, as they did to Lewinsky when she tried to find meaningful employment. She had to fight for the right to recover from her mistakes and the overwhelming circumstances, to support herself and have a purpose. In her words,

"From personal experience I know that one of the most insidious effects of bullying is the feeling of isolation, … . Especially for vulnerable populations, like our youth, it’s feeling alone and suffering in silence that breaks down confidence, degrades self-worth and leads to even worse consequences." ( )

Because of all this dehumanization and rejection, Lewinsky has had to insist on her humanity and create opportunities for herself. Thankfully, she has been able to cultivate the resources, relationships, and skills to fashion a fulfilling life, and one that has also included doing important work to prevent bullying.

Dehumanization Paves the Way

So what does this mean for social change? Shame, ridicule, dehumanization; shunning, betraying, isolating; these all are important parts of our experience of life, all painful, and all painfully relevant to our work for social justice. But I’d like us to pause briefly and reflect on just two aspects this morning: one from the perspective of fighting back against oppression, and one from the perspective of building community together.

First, it is important to notice how dehumanization paves the way for social rejection and social control. Because of the stakes involved, human beings generally don’t want to reject someone they care about. Dehumanization makes it much easier. ( ) So whenever we notice dehumanization going on, we should also pay attention to the social rejection that might be coming in its wake. This is why governments have created propaganda that dehumanizes their enemies at war ( ), and it is why you hear people like Donald Trump using dehumanizing language to describe the folks that will suffer from his policies. ( )

If you can get the public to believe the victims of oppression are somehow less than human, then that public is much more likely to tolerate violent policies. And if you are involved in the oppression, dehumanization makes it easier to live with yourself. After all, you don’t think you are harming actual people. As Brian Resnick put it, “Dehumanization is a mental loophole that allows us to dismiss other people’s feelings and experiences. If you think of murder and torture as universally taboo, then dehumanization of the ‘other’ is a psychological loophole that can justify those acts.” ( )

In terms of social justice movements, this means we need to: 1) pay close attention to the language of public discourse, taking note of what groups are being dehumanized, 2) take strong stands against dehumanizing language and policies, from private conversations to White House Press Briefings, and 3) actively support and welcome communities that are subject to dehumanization.

From Social Rejection to Beloved Community

This last point brings us to the question of how social rejection impacts the hard work of building community. More concretely: how do we go about building communities based on social and ecological justice in a place like southwest Missouri, where the safest assumption is that the folks around you tolerate bigotry, and may even celebrate it? The first level is straightforward: having a community, like this, where we know that others hold similar convictions and are committed to acting on them shifts the risk of social rejection. It will always be painful to be at odds with those we work with, with our extended families, or with our neighbors. But the sting of rejection is lessened when we know we have each other. We know we are not alone when we say “NO” to injustice, whether it is stopping someone from using a racial slur at work or working to end concentration camps on the southwest border. Our gathering together empowers one another to speak up and act up, knowing that we have each other for support, because our gathering is built on our shared commitment to social and ecological justice.

But we also need to acknowledge that many of us – most of us? - have had painful experiences on the road to getting to this place. We have some deep wounds and even unresolved trauma that bring their own challenges to building community. How do we create community that supports our ongoing healing, creates healthy boundaries, and makes opportunities to both feel and be as safe as possible in our shared spaces? These are questions to raise, reflect on, and discuss, because there are no fast and easy answers. But our awareness of social rejection can help us in this journey, giving us a better understanding of our struggles. For example, fear of social rejection can lead us to choose to stay silent when we should speak, be passive when we should act, or even support injustice when we should fight back. Similarly, the pain of past experiences of social rejection can make it difficult to trust others, encourage an exhausting hyper-vigilance, or tempt us with rejecting others preemptively as we try to avoid more pain.

I emphasize this because I believe that community building is an essential and radical act in the journey for justice. Justice cannot be abstract; we have to embody it. The great social change movements of history have demonstrated both our wonderful potential and our terrible vulnerabilities to actually practice and live out equality in community, to create and sustain the beloved community. The concept of social rejection is another tool for us to take up, to help us be ever more skillful in doing just that, especially with our society’s tendency to minimize the reality of social pain.

In that interview with John Oliver, Monica Lewinsky said something more that lingers in my memory: "I'm not proud of all of the choices I've made in my life, but I'm proud of the person I am.” Creating beloved community is about this: we will make mistakes, we will have conflict, and we will not be proud of every decision. But the beloved community can provide the support and accountability we need to thrive as human beings and grow into our human potential, despite the obstacles we face or the mistakes we make. By creating communities where we are healing from internalized oppression and dominance, co-creating new systems and cultures free of oppression, and empowering one another, we give ourselves the best chance to be proud of the people we are, and hopeful of the people we may become.