There’s no Harm in Crazy

A few nights ago, I was out of line. But I don’t take it back.

I’m sitting in class and we’re discussing Alcoholism. We were assigned Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. It’s a story not unlike other AA lead speeches you might hear at any typical Wednesday night meeting. Knapp’s brilliance as a writer is matched only in her profound inability to grasp the logic of her addiction for the majority of her life. By the end of the book, she discovers that her real problems stem from a confusion about what role alcohol plays in her daily ritual, what sort of relationship she had with her father, and how to cope with a lack of self security that manifests in close relationships. She realizes that her problems didn’t lead her to drink; it was the drinking that lead to her problems. At the climax of the story, she paints the picture of a scene in her father’s hospital room where he tells her, in a moment of clarity, “Insight…is almost always a rearrangement of fact” (p. 218).

“See, I think that she had fetal alcohol syndrome,” says a class member. The others sitting at the table respond by raising their eyebrows. My mind turns over, revealing the underside of thoughts I’d already pulled out of the oven. I hear the voice in my head try and cope with the half-baked bottom of this idea I thought was cooked through.

“So does that mean she was predisposed to Alcoholism? That means she’s sick, right? A biological connection to the behaviors she exhibits as an adult. Must be something wrong with her. She’s different, so she’s an alcoholic, so she’s prone to non-normal behaviors…Hm…No… That doesn’t seem fair. That kind of labeling would make me wanna drink. That’s a slippery slope…”

I rest there. Seems like something isn’t baking in right. I reject my classmate’s statement. Suddenly, a bubble forms in my thinking, rises and bursts into a question, exploding the smooth, glossy surface that the voice in my head was hoping for.

“So does Alcoholism count as a disease? I mean, is it, really? Because I’m just uncomfortable with framing it like that. Doesn’t that make something ‘wrong’ with her, if she had fetal Alcoholism and we attribute her Alcoholic behavior to it? Doesn’t that let her off the hook and say that she was just born that way?”

I have a serious problem with labels that even inch near the idea of mental illness. “Mental disorder”, “mental problem” and “mental challenges” aren’t much better. To me, the mind is an ecological space that involves a person’s entire perception of the world, not just what happens chemically in the brain. Perception can be a dangerous thing, especially when labels like “sick” and “crazy” are used as a recipe for identity. Saying that a person has a mental problem is really saying that their whole life is fucked up—that their family, friends, and worldview are outside of what counts as normal. True as a claim like that could be, that’s for no one to decide but the person whose living the fucked up life. As far as I’m concerned, we’re all crazy and we’re all normal at the same time. Labels that contextualize someone else’s perceptual ability can’t be anything but naïve because they’re based on assumptions that we can know how another perceives experience.

Thoughts that try to connect the dots between medical diagnosis, behaviors and strong labels should stay thoughts. They should go unsaid. Always.

Gregory Bateson’s seminal work in Steps To an Ecology of Mind approaches both the idea of schizophrenia and alcoholism, giving a detailed account of how both issues stem from communicative maneuvers that reframe the limits of reality for “sick” individuals who struggle with emotional or behavioral incongruities. Other helpful sources that discuss the medicalization of mental illness are Dr. Thomas Szasz’s startling address to the Citizen Commission of Human Rights International, Jane Elliot’s “Brown Eyes vs Blue Eyes” experiment after the death of Martin Luther Kings Jr., and Josh Walters performative speech on bi-polarity and being “just crazy enough” to be innovative.

Another classmate speaks up with absolute assurance, ready to make a big claim.

“Well, she did mention that she rocked back and forth uncontrollably as a child. I mean, we can even look across species and see that if an animal is rocking back and forth, that’s a clear indication of having some sort of mental problem. That definitely means that something’s not right…”

I lose it.

Without realizing it, the oven door of my mind snaps open and 500 degree flames shoot out in her general direction. I lose control of the level of my voice, turn my expression into a dragon and, at the frightened chagrin of the rest of my classmates, fill the air with an offense boom that throws my voice over the chatter.

“WHOA! WAAAAAaaait a minute! I think we should be careful about drawing conclusions that try and make biological distinctions not only between species, but that try to link medical ‘facts’ to normative behavior. That’s a slippery slope and I take offense to it, personally. People have labeled me crazy because I did things as a child; I’ve also been labeled in my adult life, and I just don’t think judgments like that are fair. In fact, they do more harm then good. Can you really say that there is something WRONG with a person because of the way they act? I mean, do you really want to connect those dots between brain function, behavior and what’s “normal”?

She looks at me cross, struggling to defend herself as I shout over her, unwilling to budge or let her respond, not listening to anyone but myself. I get stares of disapproval from others. Backs turn. Misunderstandings and murmurs circle the room. Silence. I’m left sitting with my words echoing in my own head and my foot in my mouth. No one moves. I feel like I’ve flown off the handle and I question my prerogative. Maybe I got just a bit too excited.

“You’ve lost your mind, yet again. When are you gonna learn how to control yourself?..” The voice in my head is unforgiving.

Did I have a slight manic episode? Was I acting a bit crazy and unprofessional?

Perhaps.

Was it justified? That depends on your definition of crazy.

Something set me off and I couldn’t seem to hold back. Maybe it was the labels, so easily being tossed around a room full of “enlightened” people; maybe it was the fact that we were reading and talking about addiction, an issue that hits so close to home; maybe it was a form of protest, a “showing” and a “telling” all wrapped up into one, me refusing to allow stigmas to flourish because of poor use of language. Maybe it was all of those things.

Either way, I know this:

When we live in an age where the medical paradigm appropriates the mind as a site of illness, despite there being no hard, conclusive, biological evidence that social and emotional challenges can be tested and cured with medicine, stigmatized people whose personal narrative make them appear different, non-normal, crazy, or even violent will never have a voice. In reality, the “crazy” voice in the room—often times the one that sounds the scariest—isn’t the one to fear. The voice that tries to appear “normal” is most likely the one doing the harm.

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PLE's There’s no Harm in Crazy by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

Nets, Bees, and Global Consciousness: There are No More Single Authors

Despite the sometimes jarring conclusions that many authors draw about how people use new media and social technology (see anything written by Henry Jenkins for some fun, enlightened reading), at the core of the digital ethics issue is a fundamental acknowledgement of global consciousness. How can people live in a world where they are globally aware yet restricted by geopolitical mechanisms of control? To filter the Internet is to treat the very idea of globalization like a controlled one substance. You can’t ration out amphetamines to the public, threaten to take away their drugs over night, and act like a moral savior the next day. Speed addicts don’t take kindly to that sort of thing. Yet, this is exactly what bills like SOPA and PIPA claimed they would do.

Once people become globally aware, they appropriate the idea of ubiquitous connectivity as a character trait of the time in which they live. The “truth” is that technology users in the 21st centaury come to realize that there is no “Truth”; this is a value embedded in the very technology itself, the message of the medium we choose to use in a network society, as Manuel Castellsand Marshall McLuhan might say. This doesn’t necessarily mean that contemporary technology users surrender to post-modern thinking and a loss of traditional values. It does mean that users must acknowledge that there are multiple “truths.” In light of a realized global consciousness, it’s no wonder that extremism occupies the public political discourse as much as it does. The world had seen tragedy before 9/11, but generations of the past didn’t have access to the vivid narratives that made tragedy “truly” real until the pictures of burning buildings, videos of crying spouses, and text messages of stranded office workers who plummeted to their death were at their command, on their laptop, in their bed.

The imagined community of contemporary society is no longer bound to nationalism exclusively, but expands the concept of ownership, inhabitance, and virtual space to the entire planet. The Internet deterratorializes regional boundaries to the degree that physical space is in constant competition with cyberspace. “Mediated publics,” as danah boyd likes to call them, are global by nature because of the Internet.

Site like Facebook, YouTube, and even this blog are not so much “virtual communities” in the sense that Howard Rheingoldimagined 20 years ago, but are more or less hybrid zones of interactivity hooked into a global Net where users write themselves into being – a form of constructing the self performatively in cyberspace via digital composition. These virtual performances conform to new standards of action, communication, and participation, similar to the ways that bees act when they are connected to a hive.Kevin Kelly’s second chapter of Out of Control illustrates the correlations between swarm mentality and human technology users, exposing the ways that “emergent properties” synergistically develop when social beings collect, connect, and act as peers in enormous intersubjective networks.

Despite the blocking and filtering that breaks up user traffic and hides content online, or the massive amount of spam, viruses, and other things that go bump on the web, in a world where the Internet exists, so must the idea of transnational agency; so must the idea of the “invisible hand” that regulates the terms of social living; so must the sense of unity that Buddhists have made reference to since before Christ. This sort of global mindfulness changes a person. Phillip Zimbardo claims that the Internet “digitally rewires” the brain. What is made possible by the Net is not just opportunity for social connection, but the opportunity for individual mindfulness. “Personal globality,” if we can call it that, means not having the choice to not make a choice; there is a heightened sense of responsibility that bears down on individual actions because the social ramifications of a single person’s choices are immediately apparent. So many professional athletes have learned this the hard way after a drunken night of Tweeting.

Realization of this sort occurs at the local level; “globality” becomes a personal endeavor of the oppressed, marginalized, and subaltern the moment a person learns how to post onto Facebook, comment on YouTube, or link together their social network site profiles. As a result, the very Net that brings this level of awareness about is politicized, charged, or “colored in” by those who, in their virtual performances, bring it into being. This leaves little room for the notion of Net Neutrality. Theories that conceive of the Internet as completely open, free, and democratic contribute to the continuation of a myth about institutional non-interference in social life. As John Palfrey and Jonathon Zittrain’s point out in Access Denied, Internet filtering has always occurred to some degree. Regardless, the world remains aware of itself as an interconnected world thanks to the Internet.

Awareness of a world wide web means introducing international citizens to the awareness of a potentially global society. Once the world becomes aware of itself as a social organism, there is no way it can reconcile living as disconnected nation states, parceled citizenry, or disenfranchised users. Kelly’s metaphor for the Internet as a hive or swarm is perhaps the starkest illustration of how collective mentality creates a new, emergent form of awareness that increases innovative practices and reveals the nature of the whole of humanity locked within the individual user. To Kelly, it is about seeing the whole in the part, a metonymic way of understanding life.

To drive the point home: Cyberspace spreads awareness and creates global consciousness; attempts to take control of that consciousness, to abridge it, and to intentionally force-fit it to cultural moors of yesterday (as Internet censorship policies attempt to do) is antithetical. It’s like telling a blind person who can suddenly see to never open there eyes again. Try and force their eyes shut, see what happens. My bet is that they would try to fight you.

I know I would.

If humanity ever lost the Internet, receding into the “dark ages” of technology, a global identity crisis would play out the likes of which has never been seen. This will most likely never happen because, ironically, threats to globalism made by contemptuous authoritarian regimes contribute to the furthered awareness of a global society by turning the private, technological act into a form of personal and global resistance. The reality of virtual living is that there is always room for one more voice. Authoritarian tactics of the old world are always forced to compete with other voices that antagonize their single-minded intentions. As Mikhail Bakhtin might say, the voice of the future—and the Internet, for that matter—is multivocal.

There are no more single authors.

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PLE's Nets, Bees, and Global Consciousness: There are No More Single Authors by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

Not like this…Not like this

Can the Internet really be blocked?

I was always under the impression that the Internet was a free, open, global network that had the potential to connect anyone to everyone. Knowledge flowed through it; people logged on to it and communicated across it. To me, Cyberspace was always this cultural Leviathan floating behind the visible field of reality—there but not there, like the force. Only, unlike the force, you could get inside it, it wasn’t inside you. Cyberspace seemed to be everywhere, all around us at all times, unable to be touched or smelled, but certainly able to be seen, heard and embodied. It was thestuff of non-space.

Then SOPA and PIPA turned my Facebook newsfeed upside down and I began to scratch my head with uncertainty. How can something that is by its very nature unlimited be limited by a government? How can access be denied to a territory that has no definite boundary, no actual place, border, or barrier? How can you lock a door made of light and sound? It appeared as if the US government quit taking its medication.

An hour later, I read John Palfrey and Jonathon Zittrain’s chapter in Access Denied. “Few would condemn all those who would seek to filter Internet content; in fact, nearly every society filters Internet content in one way or another…The perspective in support of state-mandated Internet filtering is straightforward….The Internet is not exceptional” (p. 43-44). Following a rich analysis of data gathered to elucidate the filtering trends of a myriad of non-Western countries, they expose the complex layers of Internet Filtering as a geopolitical and socio-economic issue. They voice concerns regarding the collaboration of state and private agencies that restrict citizen access to specific content and whole web domains deemed sensitive or inappropriate. Pornography, political propaganda, and personal blogs are just a few examples of content that falls outside of the purview of cultural values and spiritual/social traditions of regions controlled by authoritarian regime leaders, many of which believe they are protecting the interest of their people and insulating cultural values from Western imperialism.

I guess I was wrong. I guess my image of a free and open Internet was nothing more than a romantic fantasy.

Michael Heim discusses romantic thought about the Internet. In Virtual Realism, he describes a proverbial battle between “naive realists” who forget that virtual worlds creatively enhance human social living and “network idealists” who forget that the “as if” quality of virtual-anything often has real consequences in the corporeal world. As Heim traces the genesis of these positions to their philosophical roots, his text embodies the struggle over control of virtualizing technologies. This struggle has resurfaced in the present as Netizens find themselves in the center of the dangerous intersection between Wall Street and Pennsylvania Ave.

Palfrey and Zittrain’s exegesis on Internet blocking has come to the fore in the SOPA and PIPA debacle, and Heim’s Virtual Realist perspective, which navigates the middle of the road without careening users into privacy rights and crashing navigators into the contextual gates of ownership, authority, and personal freedom, would help both concerned citizens and politicians direct online traffic safely.

If politicians did their homework, learned a bit more about the nature and history of the virtual world, took a virtually real position about “rights” and “freedoms”, and considered the cultural context of Internet sharing, they may find a way to write laws that are both necessary and welcomed by the masses, as Palfrey and Zittrain claim they could be. We do need a digital ethics, but as Switch from The Matrix states before she’s unplugged from the virtual world and killed the real one, “Not like this…Not like this.”

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PLE's Not like this…Not like this by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

First post toast

Hey there…

Welcome to my blog! My name’s Nicholas and I have a few thoughts worth sharing. I thought you might find them interesting…

The title of my blog, “Cat in a Tree” comes from an editorial column I authored in high school that had vast readership (if a student population of a few hundred counts as vast to a 16 year old). I was frequently disciplined for writing things that the administration deemed “unfit” for the student readership. I often wrote about them, their policies, and what I perceived as unorthodox and unnecessary measures of discipline and control.

That column was eventually censored and I was fired from the school newspaper, much to the chagrin of my friends, family, and loyal readers. But in the age of cyberspace, nothing  deleted forever. I thought it only appropriate to name my blog in homage.

And don’t worry, my radical views have only been calcified by more years of schooling. Currently, I study Communication as a PhD student at the University of South Florida. If you would like to view some of my work and take a peek at my academic identity, my scholarship and research interests, surf over to Academia.edu and take a gander. My profile will be back up and running shortly.

My personal interests include the Internet, Reality, Identity, Communication, Spirituality, Love and Relationships, and Live Music. Most of my posts will focus on these major themes, but who knows – it could get exciting. I could stray just a bit and find my way into uncharted territory. I do hope you’ll come along, acting as a guide when you’re familiar with a new found area of interest and a fellow traveler when your interests compel you to follow me into my own familiar space.

Either way, stick around. We all might learn something.

Glad you’re here. That’s all for now

More to come.