Mourning

I feel like I’ve been mourning you my entire life.

Mourning the loss of you while you were alive.

Mourning the loss of you when you chose to die.

And still mourning you ten years after.

Decades of mourning the person who gave me life

and unwittingly taught me about death.

Karl Popper on Tolerating the Intolerant


If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. […] I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.

Karl Popper, Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 265

What do I Know?

What do I know?

I know what it is like to be thrown against a wall. I know what it is like when the darkness eclipses your field of vision as your mind scatters in different directions and your limp body bounces off the wall back into his hands to be thrown again, and again, and once again.

I know family is supposed to build you up, hold you up, and keep you up on your feet when the pain of existence threatens to knock you down – well, at least that’s what I know that I have heard. I know what it is like when “family” kicks your legs out from underneath you, spouting epithets of trust and love, then mocks you, berates you, and ignores you as you lay on the floor, curled up in on yourself, crying.

I know how childhood traumas create self-perpetuating cycles, repeating the traumas over and over, in different forms, throughout one’s life, and I know of the relentless insomnia and nightmares that follow each rendition closely. I know that such traumas change the way the world looks and how you see your place in it – it is to feel small and threatened, all of the time, by everything and everyone.

I know that I replace the pronoun “I” with “you” in an attempt to transform the abstract signifiers on this page into some sort of meaningful understanding between us, because I know how chronic loneliness fractures a heart.

I know the physical and psychological pain of isolation, like a garrison wall designed for war and fortified with socially paralyzing anxiety and distrust, constructed upon the paradox of self-preservation. I know of a loneliness that peers through the fissures in that wall into a world of acceptance, belonging, and love that it knows it can never be a part of, but yet obstinately clings to a hope of someday residing there.

I know of a hope that slips through your fingers, accumulates at your feet, and buries you deeper with each year. It is a hope that threatens to stick to the inside of your lungs like wet sand and suffocate you in self-delusion. I know what it is like to cling to that self-destructive hope because that hope is the only thing that gets you out of bed every day.

I know of the vultures who circle around the corps(e) de l’amour et l’espoir, agitated, aroused, and eager to pick the flesh off of the vulnerable in order to satiate their own appetites. I know the insignificance of being nothing but a body, to be used until broken or outdated, then discarded and forgotten.

I know the fear of being precariously and perilously teetering on the edge of falling but having no safety net, no net constructed of family and friends, to catch you if you fall. I know what it feels like to know that if you fell and disappeared into the void, the world would be as if you never existed.

I know of a sadness that reverberates throughout every nerve with each heartbeat, locking your entire body in a pain that ruptures poorly glued together pieces of your heart. I know the cruelty of having that pain mocked and disregarded as being selfish, childish, imaginary, attention-getting, weak or insignificant. I know cruelty, no matter how unintentional or ignorant, is no less cruel.

I know what objectifying and patronizing pity is – when you become nothing but a thing to be fixed, when your voice is lost to a despotic, bleeding heart, do-gooder who presumes to know exactly what is wrong with you and what you need but who refuses to hear who you are. I know the cruelty of callous indifference to the voice that screams out and begs to be recognized and acknowledged for all of its pain, complexity, and longing but instead is met only with rejection and dismissal.

I know rejection. I know the longing for belonging, for a smile from a friendly face. How your hand reaches into the world seeking a friend to pull you out of the void, to be met with a  hand mockingly extended then pulled back leaving you grasping at the nothingness of empty space. I know how your rejected psyche internalizes the anger and shame, turning the violence against itself. I know how your body seeks to comfort itself in its own embrace, rocking back and forth repeating over and over again the same thought: “there is something intrinsically wrong with me that makes me entirely unlikable, I am a mistake, a freak of nature, and there is nothing I can do about it, it will never get better.”

I know that they do not know you because they never wanted to know you. They projected their privileged life experiences and prejudices about who you ought to be unto you, all conveniently wrapped up in the “mentally ill” labels they have affixed to you, to categorize you neatly into their psycho-social pre-packaged for the masses worldview.

Above all, I know that people are nothing but consistent in harming you. I know how year after year the walls close in. What I don’t know is what happens when hope finally buries you.

A Letter to My Students…

I am currently teaching an intro level, basic problems of philosophy course. We’re discussing some pretty heavy topics and how these topics relate to several prominent thinkers throughout the historical practice of philosophy. I recently decided to switch up the syllabus to coincide with the recent national scholar strike to discuss racism. Here’s a letter I sent to my students in regard to this decision:

I would like to share with you why I wanted to change last week’s readings and class meeting to discuss racism and policing. Our next conversation is about the problem of evil – another potentially volatile discussion.

Consider the context in the US right now. After the shooting of Jacob Blake, unarmed anti-racist protestors and far-right militia armed with AR-15s met in Kenosha, WI. Three anti-racist protestors were shot, two of which were killed, by one man from the militia. For many years now, armed far-right militias and white supremacists have shown up all over the country – in practically every state – in response to anti-racist protests. As a counter-response, anti-racist groups are now arming themselves with guns for their own protection. Try to imagine what will happen if militias and protestors start shooting at each other in the streets of various US cities – the country will either descend into a civil war or an authoritarian military rule, no one is going to be better off.

This isn’t a democrat vs republican issue. This is an issue of how we talk to and treat each other in order to solve our collective problems. Philosophy, personally, has taught me how to engage in difficult conversations with people who perceive of the world very differently than I do – to learn how to understand their perspective even though I might disagree with it and still treat them like people.

To be clear, the trauma Black people have faced in the US is very real. It is something that the US needs to acknowledge, remedy, and make amends for. This is a collective problem that needs to be taken seriously. Other collective problems that we need to take seriously: climate change, coronavirus, poverty, unemployment, healthcare, food insecurity and more – many of these problems go beyond countries to the worldwide level. But, none of these problems are going to be solved if we cannot talk with each other.

We are in this together – on one level people are bound together by sharing a country while on another level we are all bound together due to sharing the same world. People have failed to understand how, whether they like it or not, we’re in this together. None of us alone created the mess that we are now in. We live in a world with a long dysfunctional history, created and set in motion without our consent. We are thinking, feeling, and acting beings who have been shaped in different ways by this history, but whose lives are deeply intertwined through the world we share. No one is going to be able to have a good life if the society around them is falling apart – when societies fall apart, there is no food, no running water, no electricity, no economy, no healthcare – there is, instead, a lot of violence.

We aren’t responsible for the mess we inherited by living in and being shaped by the dysfunction in this world. We are responsible for how we choose to respond to this mess. We need to learn to listen to each other, not with the aim of proving each other wrong or berating each other. We need to listen to each other with the aim of understanding why we think the way we do, why we are the way we are, and how we got here. We need to learn how our minds work and how the societies we live in have shaped us and each other. The more we know about why we think and act the way we do, the more we can be better. The more we know about why others think and act the way they do, the more able we will be to address the core of their position in nonviolent ways. What this means is that we need to understand what people think and why – even when we disagree with them.

The problem isn’t disagreement, the problem is people not seeing people whom they disagree with as people. If the people whom we disagree with don’t reciprocally perceive of us as people, despite our honest attempts to respect and treat them as people, then we have a difficult choice to make about how best to ensure the stability of society and the world – I’m not going to pretend to have an answer for that problem, but I just hope we’re not there yet.

What we can perceive right now is that people all over the world are suffering in a myriad of ways. When people are in pain and they feel like they have no control over making the pain go away, they get destructive and violent – either against themselves or others – in order to gain some sense of control over their lives.

In the US, we are a heavily armed country with millions and millions of people in pain who at best have very tenuous conceptions, and at worst have no conception at all, of their shared political obligations to each other. This country is at a precipice. We can choose to continue to deny the humanity in each other, to be cold and indifferent to each other’s suffering, become more and more polarized and descend into absolute violence, or we can start talking and listening to each other as persons whose lives depend on the well-being of each other.

My aim is not to try to convince you of anything. My aim is not to push any particular viewpoint. My aim is to encourage you to think about and understand positions that are different from yours – to learn how to take the perspective of someone who thinks differently than you do, to disagree and still treat thinking, feeling, and acting persons with respect. Please do not feel that you have to fit into my perspective – I’m a philosopher, I appreciate constructive and respectful disagreements. Feel free to disagree with me – so long as you do so while treating me and other people like the feeling, thinking, and acting people that we are.

I wish you all only the best,

Betty Stoneman

John Lewis on Creating the Beloved Community and Activism

John Robert Lewis

Feb. 21, 1940 – July 17, 2020

John Lewis was an exemplary human being. He was beaten and arrested numerous times, but he never lost hope and grace. His moral principle: If there is an injustice, we have a moral obligation to right it for the sake of creating a beloved community. He was a true hero.

There is no surviving child abuse for some people.

I ugly cried as I read this piece by Wil Wheaton — “No child deserves to be treated the way the man who was my father treated me.” So much of Wheaton’s experience resonated with my own experiences with child abuse. The two issues I still struggle with today are, first, not knowing what in the hell I did wrong to deserve the abuse, and second, the normalcy of it all. I think what people don’t understand is the constancy of child abuse. For me at least, it wasn’t one or two bad things perpetrated by one or two dysfunctional people — it was years and years of many psychologically and physically violent acts perpetrated by many people in my family as well as family associates. In addition to the child abuse by family and family associates, I was also bullied at school — I was called fat and ugly a lot. I had rocks and food thrown at me. No one, at home or at school, ever protected me.

As a child I learned to walk on egg shells all of the time, trying to figure out how to avoid the abuse. Most of the time I never knew what I did to get yelled at or called names or to be hit or to be thrown against a wall. I became afraid of people and I stopped talking. I remember being so scared to talk — I was never a fighter or a flighter. I just froze. So, I would get yelled at or hit or bullied for not talking. And, it was all so normal. No one thought that what they were doing was wrong. No one to this day realizes just how wrong it all was. Instead, I’m portrayed as the sensitive one who should just let it all go.

Today, I struggle with interacting with people because I am afraid. What I think people fail to realize, is that childhood is a time of habituation. We become socially habituated to respond to stimuli in childhood. I was habituated to perceive of threats everywhere and to perceive of myself as a piece of sh*t. So, now, every time I interact with someone I feel afraid and like I’ve done something wrong. I ruminate on the experience, tearing it apart and tearing myself apart and I see all of the horrible things I said and did. I literally see myself from a third person perspective as a horrible person all of the time. People often tell me that I’ve done nothing wrong at all, but I don’t believe them. When you grow up being told by your family that they love you one minute, but then they throw you against a wall or call you a stuck up little b*tch the next, you learn very soon never to trust what anyone says. I am completely incapable of seeing beyond the image of myself that was instilled in me by abuse from my childhood.

I have never, ever, felt loved or cared for. I have never, ever, felt safe. I know that care is not dichotomous, that there is a gradation in levels of care. People may care in some degree, but I know that if I were to disappear no one would miss me. I very much want to have loving relationships. I very much want to feel loved and cared for and safe. I imagine it is an incredible feeling. I imagine that when people have stressors in life, they can find comfort and relief in going back to a time when they felt loved and safe. I don’t have those resources. What I have is the ability to over analyze situations for signs of a threat and the ability to completely tear myself down. So, I isolate myself from the world. It’s not what I want and it’s very painful and lonely, but it’s the lesser of two evils.

I have very little contact with my family. I spend almost every “holiday” and my birthdays alone. A holiday and my birthday might as well be any other day for me. I feel the pain and loneliness Wheaton describes when witnessing people living their happy and loving lives with their normal families. It’s very painful to witness loving familial relationships because I want that, I don’t have that, and the only reason that makes sense to me for why I don’t have that is because I am entirely unlovable. So, in response to Wheaton’s statement that no child deserves to be abused, all I can see is that I must have deserved it. Otherwise, why would so many people over so many years have done it?

At this point in my life, I’ve all but given up. I’m becoming resigned to the fact that I’m never going to feel loved or cared for or safe. I’m trying to make myself okay with the fact that my life doesn’t matter to anyone and my words are just a soundless scream muted by the world’s cacophony of suffering.

Peaceful Revolution Made Impossible

Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.

JFK’s statement here was not a threat. It was a warning. Malcolm X gave the same warning. Malcolm X and JFK are talking about societies of inequality where having money and power equals being able to survive and having the ability to control your situation; money and power = freedom and a decent life. A society in which some people have money and power at the expense of everyone else — a society where people fear for their survival, feel like they have no control over bettering their situation, and have grown angry and frustrated because the people in power who could better their situation are neither listening to them nor taking them seriously — this is a society that is going to descend into violence. People need to feel a sense of control over their situations — feel that they have the ability to make their lives better. If the society does not provide people methods for controlling their situations and making their lives better, then people are going to take control however they can and in whatever way they can.