Saturday, November 20, 2010

A Little Phone Humor

A Long Way From Home: Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Some of you might find this post disturbing. If you are feeling a little vulnerable when you come across this or would rather not think about darker parts of our world, move on to another post. You might check out Maggie's blog to check out the latest in her adventures.

After months of waiting, I finally got to sit down this past Friday and take a training for forensic psychological evaluations for victims of torture. The training was held at Community Legal Services and Counseling Center where I volunteer supervising pre-licensed psychologists-in-training. Now that I've completed this training I'll be picking up a new role as a forensic evaluator for persons seeking asylum in the United States who may have been victims of torture.

A large part of my work as a psychologist involves going to places most people don't know about. On a daily basis I hear about people's deepest fears, darkest fantasies, and most damaging traumas. This training brought me into a few more of those places. What surprises me every time I enter into another experiences is how unsettling it is to realize what has been happening around me all the time without even being aware.

Here is some of what I learned in the training. According to the UNHRC, at the end of 2008 there were 12,599,900 refugees and asylum seekers.  There were 8,177,800 individuals who were warehoused in refugee camps waiting for ten or more years to be resettled into a new home.

In 2008 the United States resettled nearly 60,200 refugees. In the same year, the US granted asylum to 20,500. In 2007 there were more than 93,400 asylum seekers who had claims pending at the end of the year in the United States.
Who is a refugee? A refugee is a person who enters into the United States with legal status. They have already been processed by a UN agency and come to this country with legal status. A refugee doesn't get to pick where they are resettled: that is decided for them. What is an asylum seeker? Asylum seekers are people who somehow entered the United States and seek protection based on a well-founded fear of persecution if they were to return to their country of origin.

What's a refugee camp like? They aren't comfortable and they aren't safe. Here are a few images to give you an idea of what a refugee camp is like. As bleak as these places are, they are in many ways, an improvement from the areas refugees and asylum seekers fled.

Why flee their home countries? Some flee because of war, genocide, human rights abuses, famine, or various environmental catastrophes. The official definition is that a refugee is someone with a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, who is outside of his or her country of nationality and unable or unwilling to return.

Prior to arrival in their resettled countries, children and adults faced physical injury, assault, illness, and malnutrition; were subjected to chaos, instability, and unpredictability; witnessed death, dead bodies, and injury to others; separated from parents and other family members; were are of parents' fears, anxiety, and inability to protect and provide for them; forced prematurely into adult roles; deprived of school, health care, and social services; faced adults silence on what's happening and why; and faced multiple losses.

Many people who are refugees or are seeking asylum are victims of torture. Despite the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights more than sixty years ago, torture is still a frequent or even standard practice in many nations. In 2003, for example, torture was reported in over 150 countries. In over 70 countries it was widespread or persistent.

Torture is designed to destroy the victim psychologically, create an atmosphere of fear and horror, disempower the individual and community; take away control form the individual and community; and damage relationships of victims and communities. Torture might be physical (beating, falanga, hanging, sexual torture, electrocution, being forced into uncomfortable positions for long period of times; burns with acid, burns, or forced ingestion of feces or urine) or psychological (mock execution/threatened execution; threats to self and family members; forced to witness family members or others tortured or killed; being forced to participate in torture of others; food, water, sleep and bathroom facilities deprivation; solitary confinement; and constant interrogation).

So why go here? Why enter into these dark places with people seeking asylum? On reason is that I'm awfully curious. I like learning about people and their experiences: this is one way to learn about some powerful experiences that people have had that is about as far away from my own experience as possible. The other reason is something that I touched upon awhile back in a blog post about the bookmark that was given to me in my welcome packet in my doctoral program at Antioch. The quote was:

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity--Horace Mann

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Weir Hill: Autumn's Last Stand

The weather was unusually warm for November. With temperatures in the 60s, it was an ideal time to head out and enjoy some of the last sunbeams of Autumn. These views are from Weir Hill Reservation in North Andover Massachusetts. Check out Maggie's Facebook page if you want to see what she was up to during the trip.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Pale Blue Dot

During a brief interlude between patients this afternoon, I took Maggie on a walk along the river in Cambridge. I stumbled across a podcast that made mention of Carl Sagan's book "A Pale Blue Dot." Memories that had long since been crowded deep into the storage spaces of my mind came rushing back.

When I was just a little dot I fashioned myself as a future astronomer. I remember how excited I was to watch PBS and catch each and every hour of the 13 part series Cosmos. My tiny little world got so much bigger with Dr. Sagan's deep voice delivering information about the vastness and wonder of the universe around us. I was hooked. Sadly I was not a child that was particularly gifted in math. Addition and subtraction was a stretch for me--the math I would need to be able to do this sort of work seemed out of reach. I moved on to study other things. Still, my imagination was captured by that initial curiosity about "countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time." 

Fast forward a decade. I had graduated from college when I was 19. Knowing everything there was to know any about anything, I promptly picked a sensible course of action: I moved to New York City for graduate school. After a year of study I learned two things: I wasn't ready for graduate school and I was definitely not interested in studying Industrial/Organizational psychology. My grad school and I had an amicable separation. I moved upstate to Ithaca New York. 

I spent a year living in a basement apartment figuring myself out. Spring finally arrived after a long and brutal winter that involved two snow storms that were so intensely cold I froze in my own apartment. I was walking around the campus of Cornell and nearly fainted when I heard Dr. Sagan's very distinctive voice. I searched him out and introduced myself. He was kind enough to interrupt the conversation he was having to exchange a few words with me. I told him he helped to inspire my curiosity as a young child and taught me a few things about honoring the very unique and rare life we each share. He said something kind to me. I wish I could remember but those memories are now lost. You have to remember I was practically swooning with excitement. Dr. Sagan was my own personal rock star. If every I had to pick someone who is my hero, it would be Dr. Sagan.

Though we had only met in person for a few short moments, through his work and presence in this world, he helped to inspire what I consider to be my best quality: curiosity about the world around me. From an early age, he showed me that while in the larger scheme of things I am a relatively unimportant little speck in a vast universe, the choices I make are important and the rarity of uniqueness of human life requires me to be kind and thoughtful with those choices. 

So what's with this pale blue dot? That's us. When the Voyager spacecraft turned it's camera back toward the Earth right past Saturn for one last image of Earth.

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." -- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The View From Here: Eastern Standard Time Edition

I was busy (thinking about) cleaning the kitchen this afternoon when I noticed the evening light practically burning through the windows. Today marks the return to Eastern Standard Time. It was well worth a trip outside with Maggie to capture a few views of Autumn'swarm light ebbing toward the Winter's grey.

Quote of the Day

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way. -- Victor Frankl

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Quote of the Day

The young, free to act on their initiative, can lead their elders in the direction of the unknown... The children, the young, must ask the questions that we would never think to ask, but enough trust must be re-established so that the elders will be permitted to work with them on the answers. — Margaret Mead

Love, Belonging, and Connection

This is a somewhat long clip, but worth watching.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Scientific Claptrap

Every now and then my attention gets captured by disaster porn. Admit it--you also get sucked in by the occasional disaster porn too. The general narrative is that the world is going to end and people expose their true humanity (or true inhumanity). Awhile back my attention was grabbed by some tweets talking about a "methane bubble" that was going to destroy the world. 

Trying to live up to my doctoral degree, I made some attempts to be a good consumer of science. I did some research to see if there was any actual scientific evidence suggesting that the world indeed was going to blow up. I came across this lovely article by Deborah Blum about the need for their to be Warriors Against Claptrap. I loved the article then and I love it now. It's a nice antidote to the growing anti-scientific mood in our political discourse. 

Deborah writes that the term scientific claptrap
...derives from the work of a U.K. charitable trust, Sense About Science,which has the mission of promoting "good science and evidence for the public." Scientists affiliated with this program have publicly entered controversial discussions about everything from vaccines to climate change. The claptrap session was organized by the trust's wonderfully activist program Voice of Young Science, which bands together smart, articulate and dedicated researchers early in their careers - often a time when scientists tend to be extremely cautious - who wish to make a difference in public perception of science.
This brings me to my annoyance d'jour: Should Apes Have Rights?

I first read the article, my mouth fell open, I was annoyed, I tweeted about it, I moved on. The problem is that I kept on coming back to this article and I kept on getting annoyed by it. I sent off a comment to the article. I figured that would help me move on to whatever is going to annoy me next. No such luck. I'm still annoyed, my mouth is still hanging open, and clearly I'm going to have to do something more here. We wouldn't want me to catch any flies with  my mouth open (did your mother's used to say that to you, too?).

So what is it that has gotten under my skin about Helene Guldberg's article? Helene presents an argument that is radically different than my own. I believe that animals have complex methods of communication. I believe that animals develop their own version of society. I believe that every animal has a place in our shared global community and every species lost is a loss to all the rest.

As a little sidebar, have you ever thought of what would happen if the common honeybee went extinct? First off, none of us would need to worry about getting stung by one. That's nice for me, especially since I swell up when I am stung. Einstein is quoted as saying that if honey bees become extinct humankind would only likely live for another four years. That's problematic. I've heard a few programs about the plight of the honeybee. It's kind of scary. They have become fragile and their populations are declining. Without them, there are going to be be some serious problems.

See, we all live within an interdependent ecosystem. That's science. There is evidence based information out there that can show how we are interconnected and dependent on each other.

Back to apes.  Plain and simple, Guldberg's article is scientific claptrap. There isn't any evidence cited. She does not draw upon the rich scientific literature in comparative psychology, animal behavior, primatology, or any other similar field. Guldberg instead relies about an age old trick used to persuade people: she presents her opinion that is hidden under the guise of science. That's shameful--that's wrong--and that's scientific claptrap.

I learned as a dissertation student (thanks, Susan Hawes!) to peer deeply in the background of the texts I was reading. I clicked around a little and learned a good deal about Guldberg. She writes an awful lot about apes. I'm not sure what that means but I'm left with the interpretation that she has some sort of personal investment in this argument that apes aren't human. I wish that she might share what that personal investment is: it would make it easier to understand where she is coming from and what context she is building her opinion out of. 

Beyond the claptrap, there is another more important point here. I might even get to that point.

It's obvious, of course, that humans are not apes. We are different creatures. That's not rocket science and neither Guldberg or myself needs to write a lot to demonstrate that. Under the guise of science, Goldberg is making a moral argument that humans are more important than animals. Her opinion, while not one I share, is not wrong. It's her opinion. What is wrong is that she obfuscates that opinion under the guise of science. She uses the imagery of science to lead her readers to believe that her opinion is somehow more important, valid, or worth than the opinion of another.

Did I mention that's wrong?

I wish Guldberg would have written about why she has this opinion. How has she come to the belief that humans are more important? Why is that important to her? What kind of reasoning does she use? It would be a rich dialogue to engage in with her. 

What's my opinion? Guldberg presents a human centered morality where humans presumably put themselves first. She talks about humans as a whole but I really see it as a hyper-individual approach. I see this as a failed system of morality. An individual self-centered approach (using our world for our own personal benefit) has unleashed destruction about our species, our environment, and all those plants and creatures that inhabit this planet. 

In many ways, I've been grappling with this question for a long time. During the oral defense of my dissertation my chair had asked me whether all morals are contextual or if there were something things that were just absolutely right or absolutely wrong. This was the most difficult question my chair had ever asked me. She essentially was asking me if I believed in moral relativism or not--and if not, how do I make decisions about what is moral and what is not. I still have nightmares about that question (thanks, Susan). I'm still trying to formulate my answer.

All of this is to say, please don't bother asking me what my opinion is. I'm stalling. I'm stalling because I don't know.  I know that what Guldberg presents doesn't work for me. It doesn't seem to work for anyone. We cannot have a system in which we put ourselves first and use up everyone around us without regard.

Do I don't know. I might never know. However, I do know that you should check back in to see if I ever do have an opinion. I know that these are the sorts of things that have captured my attention for years and will continue to do so for a long time to come. The answer however isn't all that important--it's the process that I'm going through thinking about it that really matters.

What about you? Do you have answers? Do you need them? Care to join me in the process of discovery? How do you decide what is moral and what is not? Why?