Every once in a while, I read news articles about the mental health benefits of owning pets. These articles always leave me feelings uncomfortable. They seem to ignore what appears to be obvious: these benefits are the side-effects of a positive, caring relationship with a member of another species, and getting a pet will not necessarily improve our mental health. One would hardly suggest that someone should make a friend, get married or have a child primarily, or even merely in order to improve their mental health.
Author: Zsuzsanna Chappell
This month we are publishing a series of posts on the topic of fatigue. Two years after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, constant fatigue characterises the lives of too many of us. Here we think about some of the political and social consequences of fatigue. In this first final post Zsuzsanna Chappell writes about the political consequences of physical fatigue.
Fatigue is semi-invisible; it fades into the background of a life we take for granted. Yet both its social and individual consequences are far-reaching, making it exactly the kind of topic that social and political philosophers can and should engage with. This is because persistent fatigue not only saps individual quality of life, but also helps to maintain existing patterns of marginalisation and exclusion.
The biggest obstacle to organising a series of blog posts on fatigue has been fatigue itself. Some of those who have offered to write posts have had to bow out, with one potential contributor signed off work with burnout. Others have told me ruefully that they think the topic is important, but that they are too tired or overwhelmed to write anything. I am finishing this post a week late, still exhausted by recovering from a covid infection. This is what makes fatigue such an invidious and little discussed problem. We simply do not have the energy to talk or write about it. The positive response to my suggestion for this blog series is not the only encouraging sign that fatigue might yet to be taken seriously as a political and philosophical problem. Just as I was finishing this essay, Jonathan White published his own essay on Aeon highlighting the injustice of sleep inequality.
In our society fatigue is fetishised and individualised. Certain form of fatigue, for example overwork in professional jobs, is held up as an ideal, a measure of hard work and success. For a while, using make-up to draw under-eye circles became fashionable, as if even those who were not yet sufficiently exhausted (or their skin did not show it) also appealed to classic signs of fatigue as a badge of honour. The source of fatigue appears to lie in individual choices not in social structures: the choice to take a job, the choice to have a baby, a choice to stay up late, and so on. Solutions to fatigue are also individualised: practice sleep hygiene, change your life, take vitamin supplements, eat a balanced diet. Just as in the case of loneliness or healthism (the idea that individuals are primarily responsible for their own health), this is a misleading picture of our world. We are of course able to make meaningful changes to our lives, and not binge watching tv series until late at night may be one. But this ignores the deeper patterns that lead to true fatigue as opposed to temporary tiredness.
Work patterns out of synch with our needs for sleep can lead to what Jonathan White calls circadian injustice. This is especially evident in the case of people who work night shifts or work at irregular, unpredictable times. Poor sleep is also linked to an increased likelihood of self-harm and suicidal thinking. Overwork and a lack of sleep have made meth a workers’ drug in parts of Europe, enabling people to get through grueling 18-hour shifts on building sites or as cleaners. This is a cycle documentary film-maker Barbora Benesova portrays movingly in her short film about Lenka, a Czech woman who relies on drugs to be able to both work and care for her elderly parents and their small farm. “[I]t was clear to me that she wasn’t just choosing to stay on meth because it was a comfort in a lonely and isolated life, but because it was central to it. She carried a lot of responsibility and relied on meth to get by on barely any sleep.”
Physical fatigue also characterises many chronic illnesses and disabilities. The phenomenology of this kind of persistent fatigue is hard to grasp for those who have not experienced it, making it all to easy to dismiss. This fatigue stems from a mixture of low energy, a need for meticulous planning to work around everyday obstacles, the constant uncertainties surrounding managing one’s condition (am I in enough pain or depressed enough to take another pill or see a doctor?) and more often than not, poor sleep. The spoon theory is frequently used to explain the daily struggle it takes to balance one’s energy. It illustrates visually how we all start our day with only a limited amount of energy (spoons) and every activity costs a set amount of energy (spoons). Some people have so many spoons they have some left over at the end of the day. Many others, living with disabilities or chronic illness, need to carefully calculate how they will use their available energy.
As useful as it is, the spoon theory remains largely individualistic. It is up to the individual to decide how they will use their spoons. But is this likely when outside demands crop up all the time without notice? (The “fork theory” works better for these.) Why is it so rarely acknowledged that managing all those spoons costs a spoon itself, thus leading to an even greater deficit of spoons compared to able-bodied people? And why is it that people always only use up their spoons, they are rarely given any by those who have more than enough themselves?Recommendations for managing energy often include things like moderate exercise or mindfulness meditation. Meanwhile, after over 150 years of persistent lack of benefit, NICE have finally abandoned graded exercise as one of their clinical recommendations for chronic fatigue syndrome. Just as not binge watching tv until the early hours of the morning, these individualistic solutions only offer marginal benefits. Thus, while the “spoons” framework acknowledges that some people cannot get as much done in a day as others, it ignores the fact that care and support from others could lead to greater empowerment and flourishing.
While the extra mental load and emotional labour experienced by women is now frequently acknowledged, that of other marginalised groups is still too often neglected. The need for managing every penny for people living in poverty. The need to consider whether a racist comment is worth fighting. The need for disabled people to endlessly plan ahead. (Will there be step-free access?) The research fatigue experienced by small populations of marginalised people who are called on over and over again to report on their experience in studies.
In a political culture that relies on individuals to exercise their political rights, fatigue will reinforce existing patterns of privilege. Because fatigued people will not have the energy for protest, activism or democratic deliberation. While this applies both to those who have to work long hours for low wages just to make ends meet and professionals for whom long hours have become the cultural norm, the impact on these two groups could not be more different. That is because most people who work in professional, high status jobs do not need to do the political work to make their views heard. Our social and political organisation is for the most part already weighted in their favour – in other words, they are already holders of social privilege. Politicians, bureaucrats and other influential people are likely to be more like them socially, thus representing them better in political life. Those on the other end of the spectrum, living a reality of poverty and low-paid, low-status jobs, do not benefit from the same social privileges. Political organisation in order to overcome marginalisation is beyond their reach due to a lack of time and a lack of energy.
The picture is just as bleak when it come to other marginalised groups. Political activism often presents an unaffordable cost. Yet, it does even more than that. It exacerbates the costs of information overload: those who are already tired will be less able to sort through the torrent of information available, making it easier to arrive at poorly reasoned conclusions. A lack of energy for meaningful political deliberation might lead people to either withdraw or engage in poor quality slanging matches on social media. After which it is even easier to dismiss the points of view of those (exhausted) people.
All this should illustrate the urgency of another, social energy policy. It is not enough to think about green energy and gas pipelines. We also need to make sure that everyone in our society has the energy both for personal flourishing and for social and political participation. This kind of energy policy asks us to see how we can care for and help others, not only as individuals, but more importantly through creating social structures that allow everyone to lead a sustainable life.
Photos by Nataliya Vaitkevich
This month we will be publishing a series of posts on the topic of fatigue. Two years after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, constant fatigue characterises the lives of too many of us. Here we think about some of the political and social consequences of fatigue. In this first post, Lisa Herzog writes about the dangers of fatigue for democracy.
How to kill a democracy in 10 easy steps
(spoiler alert: exhaust your citizens)
1) Make sure people work hard, so that there is time for little else in their lives. For the poor, that’s simple: low wages mean more hours. For the rich, make sure people desperate seek status. Let them think that to be respectable, they need to have an expensive house, an expensive car, that fancy holiday far away. By the way: don’t allow long holidays. It helps if people think that their God dislikes idleness. Time spent working is time not spent on politics!
2) Deny childcare. In fact, deny any form of support, for any form of care! It’s better for children to be with their mothers, isn’t it? Make childcare so expensive that people understand that. And for the elderly, it’s so much better if they are looked after by family members! Make sure any affordable homes for the elderly are just gross – put them in ugly concrete buildings with leaking roofs, somewhere near motorways. Time spent caring for children and the elderly is time not spent protesting.
3) Make all forms as complicated as possible. No matter whether it’s taxes or health insurance or an application for a driving license. You can rely on businesses to help you with this: let them include pages and pages to prevent liability. Keep people anxious about making mistakes in forms, so they will spend more time on them – that’s time they won’t spend calling their representatives!
4) Divide people into ideological camps early on. Make education competitive, so that people internalize that competitive gaze onto others that undermines solidarity. Keep them busy with competitive bickering in all areas of life, to the point of exhaustion. That will distract them from any questions of how the system should change!
5) Provide distraction. Endless, inexhaustible distraction, of the kind that makes people spend their free time in that strange zone where you can switch off from work, but not really relax. You wouldn’t want people to come to work truly rested and with fresh ideas, let alone an urge to ask deeper questions, would you? If you give them too much time to think, they just realize how shitty their working conditions are. You friends, the business owners, wouldn’t like that!
6) Abolish all institutions to which people could turn for help. Even better: convince them that it’s shameful to turn to them. Consumer associations, tenants’ associations, unions – those are socialist institutions, for losers not winners! Winners fight only for themselves! Don’t tell them that fighting only for themselves will just leave them more exhausted. For you, it means: divide and conquer!
7) You can do more to divide and conquer. Reduce social contact at work. Or better, abolish the workplace. Give people gig work, or home office (didn’t they want that “flexibility” all along?). They won’t trust colleagues whom they only know as little heads on screens. And they will be too tired to socialize with them anyway.
8) Destroy any habits of serious reading of news. Isn’t it much easier to just swipe through a “feed”? Reading a newspaper while having two coffees in the morning? Make sure the commute is too long to allow that, and that trains and subways are so crammed that nobody in their right mind would dare to unfold a real, paper newspaper. Also, if the news continues to be bad, that’s good for you. Your citizens get tired of reading the same old crap all the time. At some point they’ll just stop. Good for you!
9) Tell people protest is clicking on a link. Discourage any form of more sustained protest or engagement. Make sure that followers of social movements will be quickly exhausted, by following steps 1)-8) above. If followers are exhausted, so will be the leaders. It’s just too hard to keep going, isn’t it?
10) Always remember: exhausted citizens are submissive citizens. Or no citizens at all – at some point of sleep deprivation, they turn into subjects. That’s when you know you’ve won.
Essay by Lisa Herzog
This month we will be publishing a series of posts on the topic of fatigue. Two years after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, constant fatigue characterises the lives of too many of us. Here we think about some of the political and social consequences of fatigue. In this first post, Elisa Piras writes about the dangers of information overload.
I’m having trouble trying to sleep / I’m counting sheep but running out (…)
My eyes feel like they’re gonna bleed / Dried up and bulging out my skull / My mouth is dry, my face is numb (…)
My mind is set on overdrive / The clock is laughing in my face / A crooked spine, my senses dulled (…)
Green Day, Brain Stew (1995)
If there is a word for describing the continuous tension that we experience in our daily life because of our compulsive need of information, it is probably overload. In a large and hyperconnected world, we are at the same time information seekers, producers and transmitters: we are informative hubs, constantly sharing messages with other hubs, because of our work, education, leisure activities. Like Don Quixote, the average person spends way too many hours engrossed in intellectual activities, absorbing the most different notions, analysing a wide array of data, messaging with a number of interlocutors. Some of us do so while moving between different languages and crossing several networks. Unlike Don Quixote’s, the world we live in is not an imaginary or evanescent one; quite to the contrary, the information waves that we ride and that sometimes overwhelm us bring elements of reality to our attention and put a strain on our cognitive, communicative and social skills.
When reality becomes especially pressing – for instance, in particularly intense work periods, or when major media events, like a pandemics or an escalating war, unfold – we can experience a malaise that Wurman (1989) has described as information anxiety, the condition of stress caused by the perceived gap between data and knowledge, which we feel when we are not able to extract what we need or want from the available information. Analysing work-induced stress manifestations among managers, Lewis (1990) observed the existence of the so-called information fatigue syndrome, whose symptoms are psychophysical: unrest and irritability, anxiety and self-doubt, insomnia, confusion and frustration, forgetfulness, frequent stomach pains and headaches. Since our access to information is often physically mediated by screens or earphones/earbuds, these symptoms might be accompanied by those revealing technostress: brain fog, sore eyes, neck and spine pain.
Overwhelming waves of information cause the condition we know as information overload or infoxication, which “occurs when decision-makers face a level of information that is greater than their information processing capacity”; this situation causes a decisional paralysis (Roetzel 2019). Sure, the problem of obtaining and processing just the adequate amount of information which allows people to make good choices is not a new one. However, nowadays data smog and info-noise appear to be especially challenging, not only for managers, but for a wider group of people, including adolescents. Moreover, according to a recent report, 59.5% of the world population uses the Internet and the pandemic has boosted the number of social media users, which has reached 4.2 billion as of January 2021. Smart working, online teaching and learning, socialising in the metaverse – something that 30 years ago could be possible only in cyberpunk sci-fi novels – have become widespread activities during the last two years and the smartphone really is this age’s devotional object, as techno-apocalyptic philosopher Byung-Chul Han (2014) maintains.
As a rich literature shows, our capacity to make decisions is hampered by information overload. Even under normal conditions, our decisions tend to be less rational and intelligible than we believe them to be, because of the characteristics of the problems at stake such as undecidability and/or of the so-called opacity of consciousness, i.e. the difficulty with grasping the cognitive processes behind our choices. This is especially so when we consider collective decisions which have to be adopted under conditions of information disorder. Rumours, i.e. false or manipulated information, contribute to make our collective decisional processes – in the family, at work, in political arenas – more complicated and make dialogue more difficult, fostering opinion polarisation and undermining the chances of reaching an agreement and developing mutual trust.
When information overload is not a momentary blackout but becomes a daily condition, our normality changes and we feel protracted fatigue and exhaustion. Writing, reading, listening, discussing become exhausting tasks and we feel like we are falling into a Green-Day-dystopia. We risk becoming prey to neuronal illnesses like depression and burnout syndrome. Information is the key to our societies and it helps us to shed light on reality, but as Byung-Chul Han (2015) warns us, its overly intense glow can blind us and eventually plunge us into darkness, turning us into insomniac and depressed hyperconnected yet socially isolated ghosts. Knowing that we are exposed to such a risk is the necessary precondition to start searching for viable solutions, alternative to the “heresy” of radically disconnecting ourselves from the digital world and choosing a life sheltered from the blinding light of information.
essay by Elisa Piras
Not only do people with mental illness frequently encounter negative stereotypes in news, films, books and in everyday speech, others often give misguided advice or are dismissive towards their mental distress. Yet claims by people with mental illness to have experienced discrimination in the form of microaggression might also be too easily dismissed: could not mental distress lead to increased emotional sensitivity, leading them to overreact?
Microaggressions, the small slights regularly experienced by marginalised people, are near daily reminders that someone is an outsider or a second-class citizen. On their own they may be slight, but their cumulative impact is anything but. As part of a wider social pattern of oppression, they are deeply harmful. Microaggression can be behavioural such as when a store security guard is more likely to accuse a black customer of shoplifting; verbal, such as when a racialised person is regularly asked where they are “really” from; or environmental, such as when all buildings are named after white people and whiteness is assumed as the norm. (Examples of microaggressions related to race, gender, sexuality can be found here.)
People with mental illness regularly encounter negative stereotypes about themselves. Consistently depicting a group negatively, with limited access to positive role models, is an example of environmental microaggression. In both news and fiction, people living with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are often depicted as violent or as bad parents. In crime novels, the culprit is often mentally disturbed. In her autoethnographic essay documenting how repeated exposure to this material affects her, Jennifer Eisenhauer writes: “The ways in which mothers who have bipolar disorder are portrayed in popular media becomes part of my daily lived experience. This is not because I see these portrayals everyday, but because these images and narratives become part of how I see myself and how others view me.”
Beyond these common negative stereotypes, people experiencing mental illness often encounter comments and behaviour which are insensitive or unhelpful. The many lists and articles about “what not to say to someone with mental illness” can be seen as guides to avoiding microagression. The Australian mental health charity SANE recommends avoiding the following:
– “Get over it / snap out of it”
– “It’s all in your head”
– “Stop whinging”
– “You have the same illness as my…”
– “You don’t seem unwell”
– “They’re so OCD!”
– “Have you thought of trying this, that or the other?”
– “You don’t need medication”
– “You need to be honest”
– “Get a good night’s sleep, exercise and look for the positives”
– “Oh yeah, that’s quite common isn’t it?”
– “Time heals. It will get better”
While stating that a mental illness is quite common seems to indicate acceptance, it can be experienced as minimising one’s distress. “You have the same illness as my…” is not that different from telling a black person that you are ok with black people and are not a racist because you have black friends. Other apparently well-meaning comments are problematic because they place the responsibility for recovery on the sufferer. Telling people to “think positive”, “what do you have to be upset about when your life is so good” or assuming that taking up yoga and eating large quantities of blueberries will solve someone’s problems, make it sound as if people could simply “snap out of it” if only they could be bothered to try. Such examples of insensitivity and rudeness accumulate into a pattern of social assumptions that mental illness can be overcome with application and self-management. This, in turn, moralises mental illness – you would not be depressed if only you tried harder, you are not trying that hard, therefore you are doing something wrong. Such moralisation further undermines the confidence of those with mental illness.
Appeals to microaggression are often dismissed with the claim that people are simply oversensitive. The complainers are snowflakes, self-deluded by victim culture. This criticism appears even more forceful here, as people with mental illness are often prone to interpreting events in a negative light or ruminating on the comments of others. We need not go as far as assuming completely delusional thinking. Depressed people often feel disproportionate guilt, feel as if they have failed or feel unloved. Anxiety can lead us to blow the importance of things out of proportion, or to worry about events that are unlikely to occur. Even psychologists sometimes assume that those with mental illness primarily experience self-stigma and expect discrimination that outweighs the actual stigma and discrimination from others. They claim that the negative attitudes are mostly in people’s imagination. Given this background how can we be sure that experiences of microaggression are not simple misinterpretations of well-meaning acts?
This is where the work of philosopher Regina Rini comes in extremely useful (even though mental illness is not a case she discusses). In her book-length analysis of the concept of microaggression, she gives an “ambiguous experience account of microaggression: what makes an act or event count as microaggression is that it is perceived by a member of an oppressed group as possibly but not certainly instantiating oppression.” Her definition takes into account that microaggressions are both subtle and ambiguous. Part of the damage they do is to make already marginalised people suspicious of their own interpretation of events. While their own interpretations are not always correct, Rini argues that as long as on balance members of a marginalised social group are likely to correctly notice subtle discrimination, we should accept that microaggression does happen, even if we sometimes disagree about whether any individual case is an instance of it.
Are people with mental illness reliable in this way? They are usually knowledgeable about their symptoms, medications and medication side effects. Moreover, most people, even with chronic mental illnesses, are not always unwell and out of touch with reality. Even when unwell, mental illness does not affect all domains of thinking. Experiencing irrational guilt does not imply an inability to recognise condescending remarks. The extensive overlap among “what not to say” lists (not all of which are blatant copies of each other) also indicates a consensus over what constitutes microaggression for people with mental illness.
So, rather than worrying whether an individual instance counts as a microaggression, we should be concerned with identifying the most common forms of microaggression that affect people with mental illness. If people with mental illness identify a set of unhelpful and discriminatory remarks, behaviours or environmental factors, we can safely say that microaggression does affect people with mental illness, regardless of any tendency of some people with mental illness to find social slights particularly painful. Even in these cases, the painfulness of these experiences must not be discounted. Another strength of Rini’s account is that it puts the focus on the experiences of marginalised people. Even though they may at times be mistaken about their interpretation of events, we should still accept the word of those experiencing mental illness about how those events made them feel.
Research shows that microaggression does affect people with mental illness in systematic ways. For example, Yanos et al found that there were “three main categories of experiences in this regard: assumptions of inferiority (for example, statements indicating that it was assumed that the person is not capable of doing what most people can do), patronizing microaggressions (for example, dismissive statements suggesting assumptions that people with mental illness are child-like), and subtle behaviors indicating fear of mental illness (for example, moving away from a person who is known to have a mental illness).”
Thus, we have every reason to accept general claims of microaggression in the case of mental illness. What can we do about this? Rini recommends avoiding, or at least questioning, material with harmful stereotypes in order to avoid internalising these ourselves. For their own part, writers, whether of fiction, non-fiction or journalism, can reduce lazy stereotyping in their work. (There is plenty of advice available. As an example, philosopher Sofia Jeppsson has written a blog post on the common problems with the way mental illness is depicted in science-fiction.) We can follow the advice of “what not to say to people with mental illness” lists. We can assume that someone who lives with an illness has already tried all the obvious remedies. Most importantly, we should listen and if someone says something is unhelpful, accept this instead of trying to convince them that they are mistaken about their own experiences.
In this post Zsuzsanna Chappell discusses some problematic aspects of mental illness slurs.
“Sweet but Psycho”, an upbeat pop song by Ava Max, topped the charts in 22 countries in 2019. Both the lyrics and the music video reinforce popular stereotypes of the madwoman as manipulative, sexually attractive, dangerous and ultimately violent. At the same time, “crazy golf” (a colloquial UK term for minigolf) is working hard to re-brand itself as “adventure golf”.
Both “psycho” and “crazy” can be used to describe people with mental illness, but the two words have very different connotations in everyday speech. “Psycho” is a negative term used to describe someone dangerous, – it could be applied as an insult to someone driving recklessly, for example, – whereas “crazy” is used much more broadly and often benignly. “Crazy golf” is meant to be fun, not violent.