Recently I gave a talk on a concept I have that I refer to as "the bully and the brain freeze." Some people who are very smart otherwise, can, when traumatized or vulnerable in particular areas, sort of freeze if someone accentuates the wounds, and provokes doubt as well. This is true, I have found, with young women who are very smart, as perhaps can be seen in Barbara Bowman who recently had a poignant piece in the Washington Post about her having been allegedly raped by the famed actor and family values public figure, Bill Cosby.
It can be hard to describe how one person of intelligence can be manipulated to surrender to someone who is mistreating her, but it also requires an understanding of power dynamics. One party has to be more powerful, in actual reality or in perception, which can be just as important.
This dynamic, however, is -- as it turns out -- not limited to young women at all. It can affect all of us, to the point of our being unwilling to see and ultimately blinded to what can be controversial. It makes sense that once we see something important, we are obligated to look further, to examine, to question and sometimes to act to make things different where we can. It can be important to realize that much of our fear of information comes from this place, a fear of seeing the power dynamics in which we are stuck, the fears of revealing that those we worship need to be questioned, and that we need supports to become less willing to surrender. This would mean we can lean on each other, on professionals not out to hurt us, and on traditions that don't hold us hostage to believing in just one way of being.
As we become more afraid to question, more of the media can be co-opted into the notion that information can be damaging to the public. They can become imprisoned in their own brain freeze, put into doubt about causing death and destruction if, for example, they had done their due diligence in terms of the facts about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, before colluding in a government decision to put us there, and cause unthinkable damage to so many of our soldiers, to civilians, and to our reputation and image in such a volatile area. "When you see something say something" works in patches, in snippets, in fractions of life where there is the wish to know, where it isn't so very inconvenient.
As such, in the bully and the brain freeze for the rest of us, we are scared to see what is available to be seen, lest we have to give up the unconditional worship of our nation, as if worship without question in a democracy were a good thing. Democracy thrives on difference of opinions, where they can be discussed and compromises and understandings can be reached. But where there is one party line that cannot be questioned lest the questioner be fired, or abused or tormented or seen as committing treason -- or when we demonize one another -- we get to an impasse. And too often, people who wish to communicate what they see, stifle their voices and even come to doubt what they saw in the first place.
The New York Times reported Sunday that Tomas Young, a 34-year-old Iraq vet, died. According to his mother his body gave out. He had enlisted after 9/11 with hopes of going to Afghanistan where he might aid in capturing Osama Bin Laden and company. Instead he was shipped to Iraq where after five days he was wounded, paralyzed from the waist down, with a multitude of other agonizing injuries, including emotional ones. He became informed about our Iraq, about how we got there, about the manipulation by rumors of weapons of mass destruction by an administration determined to take down Saddam Hussein way before 9/11. He became the subject of a wrenching film by Phil Donahue and Ellen Shapiro, called "Body of War", which to the point here, never found distribution outside of the Internet (it streams on Netflix for one).
In my own work, I've been concentrating on the context in which we receive, seek or deny information. Yes, there is so much information available to us, as there are those apt to use the information on how we as human beings work as well, so as to play on our fears. Donald Rumsfeld, in the 2013 documentary "The Unknown Known" says that when there was a big move towards detent and peace with the former Soviet Union, there was in the public less readiness to spend on military might, something Rumsfeld, who has been a fierce proponent on the importance of that might, was perturbed about.
Lately we have witnessed intense, overtly positive attention to our veterans. They get first seating on planes, they get to be our "heroes," without question. And at the risk of being perceived as unpatriotic I feel this unconditional worship is not only troublesome but a harmful distraction. The military leadership in our country dove us into nightmares, during which some soldiers committed heinous crimes and many whose wounds were massive have been so ignored so as not to receive decent medical attention. Some have been pushed into mission after mission, turn after turn.
When we come up with cliches, we avoid looking at the larger and more complex issues. For me, Tomas Young was a hero, heartbreakingly so. He tried to help us mourn a terrible war, about which too many of us are sill silenced.
As we get ready for Thanksgiving, I hope we feel fortunate to even be able to get and give help so we can move closer to the deeper freedom and readiness to know, which requires as much courages as any other kind of fight.