My Thoughts on Horse Meat – Or, the Problem of Diagnoses, pt 1.

SO… I  ranted again today on social media.

The rant is reposted here in bold.  Again, I report sans another edit, save the unbolded type, which I am now writing  largely to elaborate on the point I made very loosely that I feel deserves some fleshing out.

If you eat meat, it is incongruous to be offended by the idea of eating horse meat. It is so incongruous that… well, that… that I can’t even wrap my brain around how people aren’t embarrassed to be reactive to this issue at all. I seriously cannot. And honestly, the more I think about it, the more I realize the way we think about animals and food is not very far removed from our pervasive cultural lack of attentiveness to our own institutional racism. On a metacognitive level. And no, I am not joking. Please just think about that for a minute.

So.

I wrote this thinking there must be clear connections. But once I sat down to articulate them, it became complicated. What I started thinking about was the problem of diagnoses–about how in many situations, we categorize or identify an issue because we have solutions/resources that correlate with our diagnoses or categories. This is true in medicine, mental health and social work, and education, among many other fields. Anyone who knows me is certainly tired of my going on and on about the problem of emotional and psychological diagnoses creating essentially self-fulfilling prophesies and–possibly more importantly–limiting providers from seeing other avenues that may prove more relevant. This stems, for me, from my virtual obsession with personal choice and my fear of limitations (you’ll hear more about this later in the original rant), but also has some basis in evidence-based theory.

More specifically, though, it connects for me to the history of tracking in education. And I can imagine it’s difficult to reach from which animals we eat to what we teach which students… But is it? Our social constructs are largely built out of categorizations. We categorize so that we know how we are supposed to react to things. Reactions, then, as we know, begin to create how things (or people) behave, and thus reinforce not only what defines each category but also how the things in each category behaves. It becomes cyclical. This is not unrelated to how diagnoses of mental illnesses can sometimes reinforce said illnesses, especially  in unskilled hands. This is the same general idea as interference theory in studies of memory–that a formation of memory can inhibit the ability to remember something differently.  There is a similar theory in education about the difficulty of transferring knowledge when contradictory knowledge has already been learned. This is, in part, why learning a foreign language can be difficult, and why IQ test scores generally decrease as a subject ages: Unlearning things to make room for learning other things is quite a challenge.

So… categories. How do we treat a cute animal? A powerful animal? A smart animal? What about ugly? Weak or lazy? Dumb?

Poor?

What about a child?

Too far a reach? Well, bear with me.

Here is a list of (interpreted) facts on the topic of “tracking.”

1. A basic problem of tracking in education is that historically it has proven very difficult to separate economic advantage and racial/ethnic identity from the tracking systems. This was a huge problem fairly immediately following segregation and for many years following. But it was also a large problem long before that, when the public school systems first began in the 19th century as largely Protestant entities and cities (such as New York) had large Catholic populations. In this case, for example, the victims of tracking were largely Irish immigrants. By the way–the Bible riots of 1844 stemmed not only out of resentment about the religious aspect of what children were being taught, but also the idea that Catholic youth (as well as other students living in poverty) were being trained for factory jobs rather than for higher thinking.

2. Special education (and in particular, the diagnosis of generic “learning disability”), particularly in urban areas, has a disproportionate representation of black and Latino males. Yes, this is indeed similar to the disproportionality of same who are incarcerated. (Interestingly, there is actually a distinct tie between incarcerations and restrictive special education programs, but we’ll get into discussing the potential causalities of that another time).

3. Children who receive any type of Special Education services (no matter what their level or type of disability) are legally required to be provided with a service aspect known as Transition Planning. Transition Planning in the current model is a formalization of the idea that if we can identify what a student (a) wants to do and (b) may be good at, we can help prepare him or her to reach their goals and become a functioning member of society. On the surface, this is an excellent idea, and really should be a part of all children’s education. But think a little deeper, and for me it becomes extremely complicated. For one thing, this was the idea behind tracking, too. And I am not saying that tracking is all bad. Even today–ESPECIALLY today–we “assess” and “differentiate,” using “data” (all very hot education buzzwords) to determine how to “differentiate instruction” for all learners. Some could call this tracking, of course, but it is also how we try to bring all learners to as high an academic standard as possible, ideally using different resources for different students’ “needs.” This has also pretty much always been accepted as the best way to ensure that all children are learning as much as possible. In theory. And I agree with it not only in theory, but also in my practice.

What gets tricky is how these things fit together. In simplest terms, we had a disproportionality of boys of color being tracked into labor jobs rather than college or professional work for much of the past century. Now we have a disproportionate amount of boys of color in special education, which, despite the current auto-focus on inclusion (more on that heady topic another time), has systems that are built specifically to provide resources towards an end… not to mention that we ALSO  have a disproportionality of students from economically and educationally challenged families in special education.

So I’m still not sure I have approached in any kind of a non-yawn-inducing way why I am so upset about people taking moral issue with eating one kind of animal but not another and how it relates to institutional racism. Tracking and special education are one example, but the main point is that we categorize. We categorize things all the time, for very real and practical reasons: Ice cream belongs in the freezer, not the cabinet; subway trains are more dangerous than tricycles, and so on. But categorizing people… well, we separate Us from Them, again for our own safety, usually emotional safety.  And because we pretend we don’t do it, we do not afford ourselves the opportunity to question the criteria of our categories, or to cop to the fact that we perceive something (someone) as different, as separate, largely due to our experiences, whether or not it makes a deeper type of sense.  So  if you’ll grant me one last indulgence for today, I will say, it relates in some ways to another thing I witnessed in social media, which I was quite happy to repost, early last November, just before our last election. It was a meme directed at white voters. It said,

VOTE. Vote as if your kids were black.

So let’s please just think about that for a minute.

No, really, a full minute.

Anyhow, I get how it is upsetting to feel like you are purchasing one thing and actually getting another. As United Statesians, in particular, we HATE that. I, in particular, very MUCH hate that, as I am obsessed with personal choice (note to therapist). But I also happen to know that horse meat is much better for you than cow meat and quite delicious, so it’s really not much of a dupe. If you bought a steak and they made it with a better cut of meat than advertised, would you be offended?

If you happen find horse meat offensive, as a friend mentioned recently, that may indicate a deeper discomfort with eating animals at all, and as such, you may want to consider not eating meat, period.

Side note: typing meat this many times has made me hungry.

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it begins.

In December, a tragedy occurred. In the United States at large, and in social media in particular, our world exploded about gun legislation  About mental health. Oh, and also about grief. I found the situation overwhelming… in particular because I felt overwhelmed before it even happened.

Five days before the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, the school at which I work in the Bronx had experienced what we call a lock-down–a preventive measure that has been incorporated into our routines in the form of drills–shelter in, hard lock-down, soft lock-down (not dissimilar to a fire drill or earthquake in many communities). Except in this case, it was not a drill. And we didn’t know why it was happening. We locked our classroom doors, we kept students out of sight. The next day, the students would inform me that there were an excessive amount of police officers downstairs when they went downstairs to lunch after the lock-down was over. Rumours flared. Some of them seemed to make sense. There were no explanations.

Later that day, a colleague confided in me that an adult (not a stranger–someone who was employed in the school building) had brought a gun into the school and threatened to shoot another employee and then turn the gun on himself. Luckily for him, luckily for the intended victim, and luckily for every other adult and child in the building and the neighborhood, no one was shot. That afternoon, we had continued to go about our business.

I was profoundly affected that day. The man who brought the gun into the school was someone I worked with and thought well of. He was a member of the community. I had called on his help many times. He was, I was told, heartbroken and angry with this other person. His reaction to those feelings was to threaten this other person’s life and his own.

The thing that kept bouncing around my brain was not the problem of my own safety, of schools, of security, of gun legislation. It was not the problem of profound mental illness. The thought I couldn’t get out of my head is that I work in a community in which the chronic and generally acceptable response to disappointment, fear, frustrations, and anger is violence. And all I could think about on that topic was the children–not that they might get shot, and not even in a concrete way that they might be destined to become shooters.

Now, obviously I know that responding to discomfort with violence is not only a problem of my current community.   But that I was worried about was in a deep, deep way, no matter what interventions, was that these particular children have very little chance of growing up with a healthy relationship to their own fear and disappointments. This man’s actions really drove this home for me. And because I love them, because I respect their right to live full lives, this overwhelmed and terrified me. It had finally started to seem that no matter what I do as an educator and community member, nothing would help them.

I could not stop crying.

A few days later,  the tragedy in Connecticut happened. Still there was no official communication in the school about what had occurred at our school, and there was no media coverage. I addressed the issue with the Principal directly, as the rumour mill was brewing and we had no good answers for the students’ questions, and I was basically told that her hands were tied until she got the go-ahead to share information. The relationship between these two events astounded me as all media worlds–including social media–exploded.

I am not implying that a near-tragedy at my school and the very real tragedy that occurred in Newtown that day are the same or even similar. What I do hope to express is that we have a sociological problem that has to do with experiencing the world emotionally. And as I had many thoughts roaming through my head, I did a very rare thing for me the week of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy:

I didn’t post about it on social media.

Not for many days. I tried to sit with my feelings and thoughts and take in what was happening around me. My social circle is diverse, and although I lean heavily towards developing relationships with people who are socially/artistically/politically/professionally engaged in social issues, where they stand on those issues is sometimes all over the map… especially given the existence of  that magically libertarian place where extreme left and extreme right meet up and share some middle ground. And in all honestly (real talk, we call it), there is a certain amount of gratitude I experienced (and do experience  daily) knowing  that–thus far–it’s really only white kids who shoot up children’s schools. We only have two white students at our school, and neither show any indication of being particularly dangerous. Although the thought carries a very complicated sort of sadness, I feel safe at my school in part because of its lack of affluence. And then I got angry.  I thought about the lack of attention daily violence receives. I thought about how weird we are in not teaching healthy ways to deal with feelings of aggression. And like so many others, MY fear, MY grief, turned to something akin to rage.

When I told them about the shooting in Connecticut, the only thing the students with whom I work  wanted to know was what town, what school. They wanted to be sure they hadn’t lost yet another friend or relative. Their concept of death is in no way abstract, in a way that, not unironically, protected them from this tragedy, even as the move from abstract to concrete for the people of Newtown did exactly the opposite.

I could go on and on about my emotional experiences of that week and the one that followed. Even today, it is difficult for me to discuss it with real coherency, which I have to simply hope is not evidenced in a way that is too distracting in this blog. But what happened was that eventually, the gun control v. mental health care debate that overtook everything made me feel, well… murderous. The idea even of the either-or structure of that thinking in combination with the idea that once people are driven crazy by a society that doesn’t teach skills at, well, not being driven crazy, we need to offer help–that THAT, THEN is the issue– struck me as… insane.

I was finally inspired to rant a bit on social media. So I wrote a post.

A good friend of mine, another educator and social justice activist and who is also a parent, read my posting and in response asked me directly why I haven’t created a blog. I thought she was being complimentary (which was great, as– like most–I love being complimented). She said quite clearly that she was not; she reminded me that we have a long history of dialogue and that she simply felt that, on this topic and others) other people need to hear what I have to say.

I am not certain I agree with her. I have always found blogs pretentious, and frankly, I am not sure I need the help on that front. I already ride a pretty arrogant line a lot of the time. I am, however, certain of one thing–I have a lot to say, and what I have to say, however aggressive at points, is rooted in love. I am deeply, deeply invested in what I call educational equity, which encompasses the problematics of so, so much more than school. So now, a few months later, I am taking her advice and I have created this blog. My hope is that it will encourage dialogue. We shall see how it goes.

Below is the original posting I wrote a week or two after what we simply seem to term now, “Sandy Hook,” when I just couldn’t take it any more. I fear, as I did then, that it rants. There are portions I would love to edit for clarity, typos I’d love to fix. But I won’t.

In hopes of dialogue that facilitates real change, here goes.

Thank you for reading.

ORIGINAL POST:

Mental health is NOT a distinct aspect of health from physical health. that means that cultivated teaching of life skills, preventative care, and an understanding about how humans fit into the webwork of the world are the key to a healthy life. It means we need to be able to acknowledge when we are more and less healthy and seek care at times… for EVERYONE, not for “crazy people.” why isn’t anyone talking about how the issue is that our culture teaches (both implicitly and explicitly) dysfunctional methods of dealing with emotion and feelings of aggression? In my opinion, the best thing we could do to limit violence is to reintroduce healthy expressions of aggression, especially for boys. Boxing, wrestling, martial arts, highly cardiovascular sports–including DANCE, running, etc.–can serve as natural, healthy, NECESSARY expressions of what we now limit as a society because we have an excessively strange relationship with masculinity and an even stranger, severely dissociated relationship with the natural world and aggression’s healthy place within it.

Hunting–BEFORE guns– was an extremely powerful way to channel this sort of energy when humankind was younger; I believe advanced weaponry limits a person’s ability to be healthfully aggressive and replaces it with an unnatural sensation of power and control. It makes sense that we need that, that it feels good and exciting and fun–in a world where we are trained not to be physical, we ARE powerless and controlled. It is also true that it helps those of us who are highly aware that in many communities, “protective” forces (such as the police) are DANGEROUS to us. When this is the case, who wouldn’t want to be armed?

I don’t care if you own a gun. I don’t care how many guns you own. But I care very deeply about the fact that I seem to be the only person I know who will concede that under the correct correct set of circumstances and frustrations, I could shoot up anything. As such, I care whether IIIIIIII own a gun. And I don’t. And I care whether the children I teach and love and support and laugh with and cry over every day know how to react to disappointment without either acting out inappropriately violently (verses positively aggressively) or trying to shut down their feelings without expressing them because they don’t know how to talk about them in a useful way.
They don’t. Not yet.

However, you won’t hear about my kids on the news when they shoot or get shot, because it will happen in their own neighborhoods, and they will kill one another. So no one cares. But this is the thing–more of them die EVERY DAY than the children we’ve been taking about on the news for a week.

Children. All people start as children.

Well, been holding that all week. This is the only post I am making on this topic, and then I am back to my french onion soup quest. Also, I am going running.