Thursday, October 07, 2010

Shut In

I’ve been doing less blogging and more winterizing these days. I’m extremely conscious of my oil bill, and would like to have my payments go down, not up. It has been damp and cold here—the house temperature is only 60 degrees Fahrenheit. But I just close the storm windows and put on an extra sweater—I refuse to turn the heat on this early in the month.

All of this closing up and shutting down naturally makes me think of what that symbolizes on less conscious levels. Recently, Risha Mullins posted an experience she had with a particular school district with regard to censorship. (I’m not posting the link, as she took the article down when people started calling and writing to her former district with angry comments). The post was very moving (Fark gave it a “sick” tag, being hugged by the crying “sad” tag), and has a lot to do with the idea of closing up and shutting down.

The gist of her post was this: She’s a schoolteacher with a Masters in Reading, that started a book club for her students. They read a variety of award-winning YA books. The membership in the book club eventually went up to 130 students, and the students’ reading comprehension scores went up as well. Then—a parent decide to complain that one of the books was “pornography” (what YA librarian hasn’t heard this before?), and suddenly she was removed as chair of the literacy committee, the principal threatening to disband the book club, and she generally became the center of controversy. Things were temporarily ironed out when a committee agreed to review and approve the books, but the controversy took on a life of its own, and parents jumped on the bandwagon to criticize her, eventually leading to an in-school suspension and other difficulties for Risha. Eventually she just gave up and resigned from her job. The controversy that followed her prevented her from getting a new job near her husband’s new job. And the reading comprehension test scores of the kids in her former school plummeted once again.

What’s sad about this? Many things, and they’re all interconnected. But the root of the issue is fear; namely, the fear of parents who don’t want their children exposed to literature that talks about real-life feelings and situations. They want to protect them from stories about drugs, rape, gay relationships, sex in general, realistic narratives of the Holocaust—anything that might disturb their child’s peaceful, sheltered existence and the worldview they want them to have. I don’t know if there’s a study weighing requests for censorship against religious background and beliefs, but I would bet money that the biggest complainers are the ones that claim to be strictly religious, usually in the Biblical Christian literalist sense. (The same group, by the way, that failed miserably on a survey of basic questions about religion and religious beliefs in America).

What I find interesting and disturbing is the attempt to keep children “shut in” by not exposing them to any alternative viewpoints or real-life situations. Shutting in is a means of protection, a withdrawal. Sometimes it is a good thing—in dangerous situations, or overwhelming ones, withdrawing your energies may be the only sensible option. But withdrawing from the world and wearing a cloak of deliberate ignorance I would say is not so good. It’s a kind of “whistling in the graveyard”, or if you could imagine the person with their hands over their ears saying “la-la-la, I can’t hear you.”

Deliberate ignorance is an avoidance of responsibility. Either you are participating in society or you aren’t. To deliberately ignore the realities of life, and then get vocally and disruptively angry when they don’t match your fantasy view of the world is childish and irresponsible. It’s also a crime against children, who are given no tools for negotiating real world situations—something that is society’s responsibility. Pretending that such things don’t happen and not letting your teenagers see them is almost a guarantee that they will do the wrong thing if confronted with such a situation. But it goes beyond an individual and their child; all of our actions affect others, whether we like to accept it or not. And when individuals act in xenophobic ways, anyone perceived as “different” or offering differing viewpoints is needlessly harmed.

However, not all “shutting down” is about ignorance and avoidance. Besides withdrawing in the face of danger, there are times in life when we are legitimately at a stalemate. We make efforts, but have to wait for results. And we can’t go further until we get those results. Sometimes we have days that are what I call “comically awful”. A comically awful day is one that has so many bad things happen in succession that you can’t do anything but laugh, because it seems like a huge, cosmic prank. But we all have times where we feel tired, defeated, and/or depressed. At such times, withdrawing and re-evaluating our position, taking stock of our life and why we feel the way we do is the best thing. It’s been suggested that depression has the biological function of shutting us down so that we can recuperate. But such a shutting down is only a temporary break, and doesn’t mean an avoidance of responsibility. It is facing one’s responsibility and possibly correcting one’s actions if warranted. Too often we try to avoid these periods of shutting down, feeling that there is something wrong with us if we do that. But, “when fishermen can’t go to sea, they repair nets.” Sometimes withdrawing our energies and not acting is the only correct action.

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