The Posthocalypse: Allyship and Imperfect Activism

scenery from Ohio farmland with a collapsing barbed wire fence int the foreground
Image by mpaulmd / CC BY

“Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”

-Andre Gide

*

I’m amazed that an outstanding individual like you exists. I half-know it’s a trap when I see the compliment. A foot in the door towards a more explicit proposition.  Because that’s the sad state of affairs. A lot of compliments are instrumental.

“Homeboy’s thirsty,” a friend agrees.

I thank the compliment writer anyway. And the followup message confirms my suspicions: You’re welcome. I was gonna send a pic of me and my FWB or one of my dick but thought it would be rude lol.

“Well, at least he gets credit for not sending it,” I say to Skyspook.

“No,” Skyspook says. “Fuck that. You don’t get credit for being a decent person.”

I’m so used to getting unsolicited dick pics though that I am seriously grateful and relieved. I feel spared. Even if he is humble bragging. Fishing for validation and continued conversation. All things I have no intention of giving.

That seems to be the theme of the last few weeks: You don’t get credit for being a decent person.

Or do you?

*

Allyship is a lonely road. You don’t get a cookie for being decent, for fighting for people that you don’t have to fight for. Not from them and certainly not from the people you try to convince to change their minds.

More than anything, what you encounter at every turn is criticism. Your aid is interpreted by those you’re trying to help as being doled out for selfish means. When you adopt a symbol for solidarity, like wearing a safety pin, you’re told it’s activist theater – that you’re wearing it to make yourself feel better.  You’re only making a show out of helping, they say. Pretending to help, writing a check you never intend to cash. You’re not actually helping, don’t you know?

When you do help, it’s never enough. Or delivered in the optimal way. You’re challenged at every turn to offer more aid. And while scaffolding is an effective instructional technique, where students are challenged to achieve more and more, morale and motivation dance hand in hand. Learning without either? Extremely difficult.

*

A few days after the election results, I rise at 3:30 in the morning to drive 3-1/2 hours through the red counties of Ohio. I am deep in Trump country.

JESUS IS REAL, one billboard declares.

I pass a makeshift cardboard sign stuck in someone’s yard that reads About time that bitch went down. A photo of Hillary Clinton is pasted on crookedly. Next to what appears to be a cartoon phallus.

I switch my radio from satellite to local stations, set to NPR frequency. Strains of organ come through my speakers, a kind of pentatonic that reminds me of fusion harmonies but with gospel instruments. “God will help us defeat our enemies,” a placid woman’s voice states, sweetly like music. She sounds half elated, half exhausted.

My heart sinks, and I change back to satellite. I’ll have to listen to more Journey.

*

My trainees are a very conservative group of nurse managers. I meet them where they’re at.

I’m here to teach them about how to best manage their stress. They’re confused as to why their patients are so upset. Especially their patients of color.

At every turn we run into teachable moments. I feel myself taking risks, challenging them gently when they say things that are subtly bigoted.

It confuses them even more, makes them defensive. I have white skin. I look like the girl next door. I’m one of them. Why am I talking like an Other?

It’s terrifying as I push through the conflict. I can lose my job over this. But I keep talking to them. I appeal to what details they have told me about their lives. Bridge the gap between them and the Other.

It happens in slow motion. I feel nauseated. My legs shake. Later on, I’m not even sure what I say exactly, only what techniques I use: Forced perspective switch and motivational interviewing. When my adrenaline kicks in, I throw up flowcharts in my head, problem-solving trees. And what happens, happens.

I slowly steer them around to understanding: It is not Us and Them. You have more in common with marginalized folks than you realize. And that ignorance of your commonalities? That’s by design.

I deescalate the conversation. I teach them to meditate.

They apologize to me afterward and invite me to stay for lunch.

As we talk more over the meal, it occurs to me that these folks are stuck in the middle of a storm that they don’t understand. And that can’t be easy either.

I teach them empathy-boosting tools for themselves and those around them between bites of salad. It keeps me on site an extra hour, but I leave feeling like at least a bit of it might stick.

Driving home from the training, I gush to my best friend about the experience over voice to text. They’re supportive of me and elated on my behalf.

But even as the words escape my lips, I realize that I don’t deserve a cookie. What feels transcendent to me, someone else would declare unimpressive and find fault with. I’m not doing Big Work. Or Perfect Work.

I’m being decent. Maybe.

I broke bread with The Enemy, after all.

The radio agrees. High school students have walked out of their schools and into the streets, protesting the presidency.

All I did was call a few people out. And it was my job at stake, not my life. It’s not real activism.

I remind myself of Skyspook’s words: “You don’t get credit for being a decent person.”

However, if psychology has a baseline tenet, its own law of gravity, it’s that you reinforce the behavior you want to see again.

Depending on the situation, it takes a lot of courage to be a decent person.  And maybe if we’re unwilling to reward decency, we should reward courage. Patience. Grit.

When an accident on the highway forces me off the larger roads, the miles of farmland whirl into a blur.  This part of Ohio reminds me of where I grew up in rural Maine, except the fields are greener and the land is flatter.

In my mind, a see-saw teeters between “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and “Can’t we do better?”

The Posthocalypse

Welcome to the posthocalypse, where so many terrible things are becoming clear in hindsight. Where we have only a post hoc understanding of catastrophic societal failures currently making themselves known.

I find myself wondering what new thing will become painfully obvious in time. What will be the next thing that we will have whispered “Oh, it can’t possibly be as bad as we think,” only to find that surprise posthocalypse descending upon us?

What will be the next things that are self-evident 5 minutes after they happen?

The sentiment of the week is that we are living in a post-truth society, that facts have begun to matter less than emotions, especially in politics.

In the posthocalypse, social contagion is king. We catch emotions from each other. Whoever runs the better echo chamber rules the truth.  Attractive messages are selfish, easily consumed. But ultimately shortsighted. They spread like wildfire.

The posthocalypse capitalizes on bystander effect and paralysis that leads to inaction. The forces of oppression are working in agile cycles, and the opposition launches waterfall solutions, better thought out to be sure but slow to implement and outdated by the time they launch.

It’s a conundrum. How do we fight the thing that hates us without becoming the thing we hate?

As Sam Rayburn famously said, “Any old jackass can kick down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.”

How can we be constructive at the speed that others are destructive? How can we build barns faster than they’re kicked down?

And how will we survive the next posthocalypse without succumbing to learned helplessness?

 

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