Label: Just Add Serotonin

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything. There’s a good reason for that. I’ll get to it shortly. Before I do, however, I want to revisit the purpose for which I started blogging. What I say in the “about” section is accurate, but I think the picture I have in mind is larger even than what I say there. What I need, and I think we all need, are regular ways to engage with things of value. This is a function that religious practice used to play in social life, but the social and cultural landscape has shifted significantly since the 1940’s and 1950’s. The values-based communities with which we affiliate have become more abstract and decentralized than ever. They’ve also become extremely politicized over the past decade or so. Crafting philosophical pieces for a lay audience is a way to help satisfy a need for a more coherent, and (hopefully) consistent set of human-centered values and ideas that are available for anyone to grapple with or embrace.

Chief among my concerns is this: sharing the humanizing influence of philosophy. My stated purpose in the “about” section is to combat dehumanization. But this project is more than an effort to place constraints, it’s equally an effort to open up new spaces. I benefit as much from this as my readers do, if not more. The personal benefit of blogging leads to my reason for taking a hiatus, and also to an element of dehumanization that has been largely overlooked in the academic philosophical literature.

About six months ago my brain slowly started growing less and less responsive to the medication I have been on for PTSD. The process was slow at first, so it went largely unnoticed. I knew things were getting harder for me, but I found all sorts of plausible, normal explanations for the slow degradation of my mental states (mostly, motivational and affective states). In November, the level of serotonin in my brain had dropped dramatically and I fell into a terrific darkness. By the time I realized what was happening I was already in a tremendous state of suffering. Here is what it was like.

Imagine that you are lying in a coffin that has been sealed, but that has a constant fresh air supply. It’s dark. You can’t move into a comfortable position because coffins are made for bodies that stay supine indefinitely. So, you’re locked into place. Imagine, too, that you can make all kinds of noises, including speech, that people outside of your coffin can hear, but you can hear nothing, sense nothing, from the other side of the coffin walls. Your body aches from being trapped in the same position. You forget what it feels like to move. All that you do all day, every day, is breathe and take up space. Everyone knows you are there, they may think they are interacting with you, but you can’t hear them, you can’t see them, you can’t touch them. You are fully deprived of any and all human interaction. And you just persist like this day after day after day. Soon your thoughts turn to how much of a relief death would be from the terrific loneliness. You aren’t at the point where you could do the deed, but if someone did it for you, you’d be grateful. So grateful.

Now, here’s what other people see.

They see you walking and talking and moving things around in the world like you normally do. They engage you in conversation, they respond to your questions and comments. They engage with what looks like a human being on the surface. In fact, they are so convinced that you are a human being that they suspect nothing. If you told them you were experiencing something like the reverse of locked in syndrome, they would not be able to believe it. Of course, you can’t even tell them this because it would require a different set of cognitive competencies than the algorithm of normal, daily motions that you so cleverly programmed into yourself as a survival tactic for times like this.

What I experienced is something that is fixable with a boost of neurotransmitters. My doctor got on the problem as soon as it came to her attention and I’m on the mend. But that doesn’t erase the horror of the experience, nor does it lessen my need to philosophize about such terrible states. I am not the only one who experiences things like this. What I’ve described to you using metaphors will resonate with many people who suffer from a variety of types of anxiety and depression. Here’s where my philosophical brain has gone with this (also before this latest episode, but more so now, I think): if the ability to engage in human social institutions is an essential part of being human, then violence is dehumanizing in the sense that it leaves its victims incapable of such engagements. Without medical intervention, my condition would be terminal. And it would be terminal because I would, eventually, find a way to cease to exist. The suicide rate for people with PTSD is incredibly high. By the time you get to that point, you are so helplessly detached from engagement in human social institutions that you have no other choice.

I’ve really grappled with how much I ought to discuss my disability and the conditions under which it was acquired. On one hand, there is such a thing as oversharing on social media and I want to avoid that. On the other hand, the unique set of conditions that made me who (and what) I am today, when handled with philosophical care, can contribute in significant ways to our understanding of disability, the psychological and social toll of violence, the function (or disfunction) of social institutions and norms, moral concerns, value, etc. etc.

Mining my suffering for the good it has to offer is redemptive. I am the author of my story, and I’ve chosen a story that is, and will always be, a coordinated defense of the arts and humanities. Specifically, philosophy. A sure sign of a sick society is one that devalues the very things that teach us how to understand and enrich the human experience and to thrive. I can’t change this pattern of devaluation at the institutional level, but I can change it right here, in small, therapeutic doses (like a medication).

I am, however, also in the dissertation-writing phase of a PhD and my dissertation is in serious need of loving attention. What I am going to do for the next several months is structure my blog posts using materials from the course I am teaching this semester. It’s a way to be efficient in covering several bases simultaneously. I consider you, my readers, as valuable as the students to show up to my classes every day. I think I have something to offer everyone.

That said, the course I’m teaching is called Contemporary Social and Moral Problems in the U.S. The course is writing-intensive, so I’ll be spending the first part of the semester providing my students with resources that they’ll need to understand how to write philosophy. I do think, however, that some of that material will still be relevant to you, my readers. So, I plan to craft blog posts that follow the modules that I’ve developed for my course. Here is an overview of the kinds of questions I’ll be addressing.

KNOWLEDGE, BULLSHIT, AND RATIONAL DISCOURSE:

What is the democratic function of public discourse and what role do truth, evidence, knowledge, and bullshit play in helping or hindering this function? What is the structure of rational discourse, and how does well-structured discourse promote the democratic function of public debate?

SOCIAL AND MORAL INSTITUTIONS AND NORMS:

What are social institutions and norms? What are moral institutions and norms? Are they fundamentally different, and if so, what features distinguish purely social structure from purely moral structure? How do these social and moral forms arise and what justifies our continued engagement with them as a society? Alternatively, what justifies changing the norms to which we presently adhere?

POWER AND OPPRESSION:

What is power? What is privilege? What is oppression? Is oppression a necessary consequence of power? What are the social and moral institutions and norms that propagate racism, gender discrimination, ethnic/religious discrimination, and xenophobia? What are the psychological features of individuals and groups that enable oppression? Why is social change so difficult, and how do we know whether or not we are making social progress? How does philosophy provide us with unique and effective tools for working toward social justice?

Thank you, dear readers, for hanging in here with me. I hope you find that your patience was worthwhile in the end.

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