An interesting thing happened of note last week in the constant social roil that we know as the United States of America. Andrew Yang, former U.S. Presidential candidate and now candidate for mayor of New York City, issued a comment declaring the rights of Americans to socialize in public spaces, and then fingered the mentally ill as the reason that they couldn’t.
This isn’t the exact comment (which was more blunt) but you can see Yang is still making this point, while struggling to come up with solutions.
When asked “how we got here” by folks, I’m quick to finger what I consider the Big Three causes —
- The growing wage gap that started back in the early ’70s.
- The destruction of safe, and diverse public spaces, driven in part by the homeless/mental illness crisis truly precipitated (remember the definition of the word) by Ronald Reagan rolling back the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980.
- The metabolic syndrome/obesity crisis that continues to grow, and is actually affecting the way we think, through obvious means like depression, as well as dopamine shifting from sugar.
Now, take a deep breath, and a pause — let’s look at this from a meta-level/memetic perspective.
- How many of the things on that list are trauma triggers for you?
- How quickly did your brain process the thought “he’s on the backside of how I view this issue”?
- Did your brain say “Huh. I need to learn more about each of them.”
Odds are at least one of the things listed above was a trauma trigger — which means the space is very difficult to discuss!
There is no one root cause to any of those three things — but there are a cluster of these root causes that make it then very difficult to solve other root cause problems in our system. That’s the point. Racism, for example is not listed as a root cause above — instead I view it as a chronic problem that needs dramatic remediation, but we are prevented from doing so because we are just not evolved enough as a country. And the three causes I do list are the largest stumbling blocks for fixing our brains so we can solve these more persistent problems.
With that said, let me explain my view (with no apologies.)
All three of the syndromes above served to drive our current population apart based on both race and class. Money obviously separates groups — haves are going to occupy different spaces than the have-nots. If public spaces are unsafe, then a huge opportunity for trans-racial- and class- socialization can’t occur. When you destroy that, you also destroy opportunities for personal empathetic growth, as the default solution is to surround yourself with your in-group. Plus, when you don’t even recognize that some small percentage of mentally ill folks can be violent, then you a.) hand a powerful tool to the moralizers that say you should just accept everyone, but b.) the legitimacy of the concern means most people will just retreat from dealing with the problem. No one wants to be told (no matter how true!) that they are an immoral person — and so that process of delegitimization of debates will create fluxes of individuals away from a given problem. And then we get back to the state of Kayfabe, so eloquently described in this piece.
This overall devolution of empathy will also affect the advocates for particular pieces of the solution — they’re part of the population as well. We’ll start down a road of disaggregated, dichotomous thinking, which continues to create tremendous burdens on people to even engage — and now they don’t have anything resembling a public space to just BS through things. I’ve always maintained that coffee houses and bars are super-important parts of any society. But if you create a certain fear level of people toward other people, then you lengthen the time constant for people to develop appropriate trust and form those independent relationships. Which then, as this blog intimately details, make it harder to create the baseline neural complexity for people to be able to suggest the nuanced, and complicated solutions that will inherently be required. We’re really missing this last part — the idea that relationships work our brains toward complexity. But just because we’re missing it in the larger culture doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
Another point in understanding complexity that we’d do well to put a little more cognitive energy into understanding is the idea of a bifurcation point. A bifurcation point, in complex systems theory, is where we tweak a parameter for the larger system and see a whole new set of stable/meta-stable behaviors. So much of our discussion on creating social change has little to do with bifurcation points, mostly because the suggestion of one involves the folks with less appreciation for complexity (do note — I’m being kind with this description) screaming about the larger problem. But larger problems are fixed with bifurcation/tipping points are reached, where a given policy will reconfigure the problem space to a different set of societal attractors.
And so it is with addressing mental illness in conjunction with creating safe, public spaces. We ought to do both. The first — mental illness — is obviously not being addressed, and will need some level of a leveraged institutional solution. It’s not a “throw the baby out with the bath water” — some aspects of what we do work somewhat, and can be evolved. But we also need to realize that we’ve pretty much turned a blind eye toward the problem, and it affects our larger social mind. The second should be obvious — safe public spaces — and communities that have them immediately stick out as places on the move.
Let me end this with a story — this was supposed to be short, after all.
Anyone that knows me also knows that I’m that guy that lives his life with that fire engine siren permanently attached to the top of my head. I’ve saved numerous lives (the real thing) in my time here on the planet, and when I see a bad situation, I’m that guy. I run toward the situation — not away.
Recently my two sons have relocated to Reno, NV. Reno is a town on the move, for those that haven’t been there. It actually has those huge public spaces next to the Truckee River, and if you need some validation that such spaces matter, you should visit. With so many sunny days, you’ll see lots of folks of all stripes congregate next to the river. There are bars lining a section, and folks of all stripes — from Hispanic and black families, white folks, as well as what my son calls ’80s Music Dude’ — an old white guy with a small boombox — who hang out there for at least a couple of hours a day. It’s truly pleasant to go down to downtown Reno, and every time I’m in town, we drive down there and avail ourselves of the scene, even though only two blocks away, the downtown casino industry is obviously in collapse. This is no paradise.
Only perhaps 10 blocks away, though, is another scene. And that is Reno’s large, linear homeless encampment that lines the Union Pacific mainline railroad tracks. Reno, like many towns, started out as a transportation center. I-80 runs through the town, and the UP mainline ends up going over Donner Summit down into Sacramento and the Bay Area. It is not a small encampment — Reno is on the edge of that weather envelope that allows year-round outdoor occupancy, and as pressure mounts in the more desirable homeless locations in California, more people are showing up. I don’t have numbers, but the environmental factors point to nothing but growth.
My son recently bought a very nice, pretty expensive mountain bike to celebrate, at some level, his financial success in the blockchain business. I am indeed a bike nut myself, so after he bought it, I took it for a spin. I rode down the hill from their modest apartment complex, down to 4th Street that runs by the river, and adjacent to the homeless encampment. On the side of 4th St., close to old downtown, there was a young girl, probably about 14, weeping and screaming. I saw her, and slowed down.
But I did not stop. Instead, I thought “what would my son say if I got off his new bike, and while I was comforting this human, someone literally jumped out of the bushes and stole his new bike?” My older son is a transplant from San Francisco, and had spent the last year living in the Mission, and stepping over piles of human defecation across that city. Though he is pretty righteous about his mission to help in the world, he feels little of the need to share comfort to the homeless. I’d be out an expensive bike if bad stuff happened, and I’d also suffer his wrath.
Just so you know — I really wasn’t worried about my personal safety. That thought didn’t even occur to me (though I guess maybe it should have.) It was really about the bike. So I rode on by.
Those that know me also know that on the Fearless scale, I’m pretty off the charts. There are all sorts of reasons for this, some beautiful, some less so. But if you have a society where even someone like me won’t stop, what does that do to everyone else’s capacity to grow and develop empathy?