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Issue #59: Belonging and the Dark Side
"We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell." — Oscar Wilde
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I’m having a difficult time writing about belonging these days in light of current events. Between the bans on gender affirming care, the rollback of reproductive rights and protections and now the shocking end of the public transit mask mandate, it feels like the Powers That Be are gleefully dancing on our future graves for selfish gratification.
I’ve longed to write about the dark side or shadow side of belonging, but haven’t been prepared to manage the heaviness that accompanies exploring the depths of human depravity. Alas, avoidance or denial does not make COVID or this dark side of humanity go away. There’s value in understanding antithesis. So here we are.
If true belonging consists of the following components — safety and comfort, emotional connection, meaning and sense making — the dark side of belonging promises the following: endangerment and terror, erasure, and perspecticide and epistemicide.
I want to try to unpack each of these, but realize each of these components deserves its own deep dive.
Endangerment and terror
What changing with identity, place and relationships
Safety and comfort are the first arena of belonging because they focus on identity, place, and our closest relationships. These are the bonds, spaces and places that influence us first and shape us most strongly because we spend most of our time and energy figuring out who we are, finding safe spaces to be ourselves, and seeking close relationships with people who support our self-expression.
The first component of belonging — safety and comfort — addresses this key question:
How free is one to authentically express themselves to others?
Endangerment and terror turns this question on its head to ask:
How free are others to suppress authentic expression?
If home is where the heart is, so is violence and inequity.
When you look at broadcast and social media, you could be forgiven for believing that senseless mass shootings most commonly occur in at schools, markets or other public places. Unfortunately, that belief does not align with reality. According to researchers at Northeastern University who manage a shared database of mass killings with USA Today and Associated Press:
“The majority of mass killings happen in private, at a home, involving family members. Since 2006, 319 out of 460 mass killings (69%) have taken place in a residence or other shelter; 506 out of 575 killers were men, 38 were female and 31 were unknown….the majority of the mass killings involve domestic violence.”
The largest analysis of domestic violence to date, covering 161 countries, found 27 percent of women under the age of 50 years experience intimate partner violence. Their abusers force them to walk on eggshells, eroding their identities, controlling and coercing behaviors both within the home as well as outside of the home, and cutting them off from other safe relationships.
Imagine how the hidden nature of domestic violence terrorizes millions of people into submission within the private sphere. Compounding this, apathetic public response and judgmental rhetoric further endanger the same millions of people terrorized away from authentic expression. Domestic violence survivors receive insufficient support for their physical, emotional, and financial safety. Instead, they receive blame, judgment, and even punishment from individuals and institutions. Collectively, these dynamics contribute to the disheartening fact that on average, it takes seven attempts before survivors successfully leave abusive relationships.
This pursuit of “power over” in intimate relationships is one of many manifestions of social dominance orientation (SDO): “the extent to which one desires that one's in-group dominate and be superior to outgroups.” People high in SDO prefer hierarchal structures and relationships where high-status groups exercise unlimited power and dominance over low-status groups.
One signal of potentially high SDO mainstreaming in new ways comes from the recent court settlement awarded to a college professor. Nick Meriwether was disciplined for violating the university’s policy for discrimination-free learning environment after refusing to use a transgender student’s chosen pronouns. In response, Meriwether sued the university for breaching his free speech rights, eventually receiving a $400,000 settlement.
The growing minimization of the violence and harm from misgendering and deadnaming as righteous praxis parallels the tacit normalization of domestic violence, underlining of how poisonous it is to autonomy and agency for choosing, embodying and expressing one’s identities. Rather than transgender students showing up as their full selves in the classroom, they are forced to accept the imposition of identity from a “higher status” person eager to and capable of exercising power over those students. Aggressors claiming victimhood inverts the very notion of safety, using protection to reinforce dominance. Intentional misgendering in the classroom makes it unsafe for them to participate within class as well as the larger educational ecosystem and surrounding community, impairing the formation of safe, supportive relationships with other students and professors. Others will see how this professor “won” this settlement and be reluctant to stand up to others doing the same or worse despite university policies.
What’s changing with networks and communities
Emotional connection is the next arena of belonging, largely centered on the networks and communities that we occupy. Although I haven’t found satisfactory definitions teasing apart networks and communities, I usually say that communities largely consist of relational interactions while networks largely consist of transactional interactions. Erasure occurs when communities are forced to act transactionally like networks and networks make unwanted or unforeseen interactions possible.
In communities, there are expectations of reciprocity of care, empathy and ultimately emotional connection among everyone within the community. These connections can be breached when formerly relational bonds turn toxically transactional like they did in Detroit. The city overtaxed over 100,000 homeowners, illegally collecting $600 million in revenue that ultimately led to unjust foreclosures that affected homeowners and their families, most of whom are Black. This erasure of these families from these communities carries several layers of harm beyond the homeowners including the generation of young people they care for now faciing housing instability and a breach of community care, and the communities themselves broken by institutional ineptitude and malfeasance. Erasure is never a “one-time hit” to belonging, but rather intergenerational, epigenetic trauma.
Surveillance has historically acted as a lever to erase belonging. Consider how the Holocaust demonized certain communities and compelled neighbors to report on neighbors, actively committing erasure through genocide and undermining solidarity and empathy. Consider the parallels with Texas’ anti-abortion bill SB 8 that relies on private enforcement by neighbors and community members, allowing them to sue anyone they suspect of having or aiding and abetting an abortion. Turning neighbors against neighbors destroys the emotional bonds that undergird belonging in communities.
Surveillance capitalism puts all of our behaviors and connections under a microscope, ostensibly to erase danger but in reality to erases the agency to disclose how, when and with whom we disclose vulnerability, extracting public profit from private exchange. In a bizarre sense, surveillance capitalism demonstrates the value of communities and the relationships within them.
One signal of the dangers of ubiquitous surveillance comes from San Francisco Police Department. News leaked that SFPD analyzed DNA from a rape kit to allegedly incriminate the victim for a property crime. Somewhat related and even more troubling, Orange County prosecutors have adopted “spit and acquit” as a strategy for managing cases. Prosecutors offer plea deals and dismissals for misdemeanors as minor as walking a dog without a leash if the accused consent to contributing their DNA to a database, the only known DNA database run by prosecutors in the United States and one that resembles the “social credit” system in China so loudly criticized by Americans.
The reach and capabilities of technological networks have unlocked indescribable capabilities to both surveil and commit violence, a phenomenon called “omniviolence” by political scientist Daniel Deudney. With rapidly emerging bio-, nano-, cyber-technologies, virtually anyone can wreck havoc through invalidation, appropriation and impersonation. It’s important to note that this isn’t just a technology story, but also reinforces how technology unlocks and enables human depravity and cruelty by making these interactions fast, cheap and easy. The still ongoing critiques of Facebook/Meta center on how the social network harms people at scale because of the algorithmic optimization of anger, rage and extremism on the platform. Exposure to abuse and toxicity in our networks perpetuates and amplifies abuse and extremism in ways that have real-world impact.
Perspecticide and epistemicide
What’s changing with narrative and culture
Meaning and sensemaking is the final arena for belonging, typically involving societal narratives and cultures that support communal consensus building. Inversely, perspecticide and epistemicide prioritize denial and dismissal of both communality and consensus, finding power in fostering division and chaos.
Perspecticide is the death of your personal perspective or viewpoint, largely seen in manipulative, controlling relationships like those in cults, abusive relationships or following brainwashing. Without the ability to know what you know, you are subject to accept whatever narrative of meaning and sense making is handed to you. Somewhat related, epistemicide is the death of knowledge through systematic destruction, amounting to cultural genocide. An easily understandable example of epistemicide comes from colonialization, which often eradicated cultural texts, languages, monuments and other artifacts, rituals, religions, and other cultural practices and lifestyles at odds with American and European standards.
Following Ed Yong’s vulnerable and thoughtful reporting throughout the pandemic has been a case study in how narratives and cultural imperatives can doom people. Families who have lost ones due to COVID are suffering from inescapable, impermissible grief. Tropes like “learn to live with COVID,” “COVID is just like the flu,” or “only people who were already sick or immunocompromised” serve both as propaganda and narrative victimization of those who have died, deeming them unworthy of existing and deserving of their deaths, much less belonging. Shame by association represents secondary trauma for families through perspecticide of what constitutes valid grief. Those same tropes hurl shame, judgment and ridicule to undermine the understandable pain, disappointment, rage and grief at a still raging pandemic that was far more deadly as a result of those same harmful narratives.
“The personal is the political” is a longstanding feminist slogan that notes that lived experience always coexists and dialogues with a political ecosystem of power, narratives and culture. In that vein, this silent epidemic of grief makes the notion of necropolitics seem terrifyingly real and close to home.
Philosopher Achille Mbembe describes necropolitics as “the capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” In other words, necropolitics is a framework that illuminates how governments assign differential value to human life. The closer you are to dominant power, the more your life is worth. In the United States, if you’re a straight, white, able-bodied, cisgender, wealthy, Christian man, this is great news for you. But the further away you are from those axes of privilege, the less your life is worth under the logics of necropolitics — and the more precarious your existence becomes.
Politics are inextricably intertwined with culture. The words, language and narratives we adopt combine in countless ways to produce what we experience as culture, creating constraints of permissibility as well as context. Sarah Kendzior noted the preponderance of what she calls “preemptive narrative inversion” among the Trump administration and its most vocal supporters.
Essentially by flooding the zone with fringe ideas, the horrors of the truth also seem ridiculous and conspiracy theory worthy. Another iteration of this behavior is “the accusation as the confession,” flooding the zone with false perpetrators to mask one’s own aggression. This inversion softens the blowback to the eventual reveal of atrocities and while simultaneously creating more fertile ground for future transgressions. Similar to erasure, systemic preemptive narrative inversion erodes what we know to be right and wrong within our culture, annihilating moral standards and cultural norms that serves as epistemicide of justice.
Researchers at Stanford created a “threat dictionary” to “measure different kinds of threats over time and track how they correlate to cultural responses as well as how they predict political and economic shifts.” By aiming to understand and predict how narratives influence cultural change, their research found that threatening language is contagious, akin to any other microbe. Increasing societal exposure to threatening language can manipulate voting, public opinion, investor behavior and more.
Upcoming subscriber meetup
Our April meetup is scheduled for April 27 at 4:30 pm. Monthly meetups are free for paid subscribers and $5 for non-subscribers. We will have a couple of activities to stretch our futures thinking mindset and explore the possibilities for mutualism and belonging.
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