From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Levelers and Sharpeners
by Annie DeWitt
“Are you a leveler or a sharpener?” Sebastiano liked to ask. An animated psychologist and Harvard professor who ran the Institute for Child and Adolescent Development out of his home, he conducted much of his therapy outside in a garden. “Get anyone walking,” he once told me, “and they’ll tell you their whole story.”
I met Seb during my first job out of college. I’d spent the previous summer in Spain, where I worked as a translator for Aldeas Infantiles, an NGO collaborating on a study he was running on the effect of trauma on children. Most of Seb’s practice is based on gestalt psychology, the idea that narrative is housed in the body: ask a child to draw a picture of a parent, then see what body parts are missing or overemphasized. His new project involved a set of flashcards about trauma. As the cards changed, objects of violence appeared and disappeared in the scene; the key was to note which changes the child registered. Levelers, he argued, notice almost no change across the cards. Sharpeners, on the other hand, imagine wild changes at every corner. Neither response is wrong. It all has to do with how the child processes trauma—submerging it or living in a constant state of heightened anxiety.
What does “zero tolerance” mean in light of these facts? I returned to Seb’s question recently after nearly five thousand children were forcibly separated from their parents by ICE, a result of Trump’s temper tantrum over not being able to build his wall. I listened to the ProPublica recording of the children crying. I leered at the quip from the border patrol agent who said, “Well, we have an orchestra here. What’s missing is a conductor.” I sought out the barrage of news articles about officials giving psychotropic drugs to migrant children, beating them while they were handcuffed, locking them up naked and cold in solitary confinement. I read about the pressure ICE continues to put on parents to “voluntarily” return home, or face jail time. I googled cyclone fencing that resembles dog kennels. I thought about the Orwellian nature of the lyric phrase “tender age homes.” I looked at images of buildings that recall the Japanese internment camps that popped up on American soil during World War II—though even the 120,000 Japanese-Americans interned were not, as a rule, separated from their families.
The way Trump’s administration uses images of serious trauma—shootings, hate crimes, child internment camps—as visual propaganda is the first clue to the depth of its disregard for human suffering. The leaps in logic are astounding: here’s Trump signing his name to photos of people supposedly killed by undocumented immigrants. “I’ve avenged their deaths,” he seems to be saying. “I am enacting broad-spectrum punishment on an entire group of people, some as young as nine months old, for the acts of one.”
In the age of Trump, it’s hard to know which injustice to focus on. The fact that Trump and his cronies have tried to sell off 3.3 million acres of national land to the highest bidder. The cavalier dismissal of the very real dangers of climate change, the U.S. becoming the only nation on Earth not to sign the Paris Agreement while California burns down as we watch. The assault on language, as the CDC is no longer able to use words like fetus, diversity, transgender, vulnerable, or evidence-based in its budget reports. The embarrassment of a first lady who boards a plane in a jacket that reads I REALLY DON’T CARE, DO U? while 4,500 children sit in cages screaming for their parents.
This is all part of the strategy. To create a centrifuge of emergency propelled by a daily miasma of enraged Twitter belches. The barrage so unceasing, so intense, that it’s hard to see through the scrim, to know which outrage is most pressing. Which cause do we rally behind? Do we march to save the elephants from the rollback on trophy-hunting laws, or the starving polar bears clinging to bits of sea ice, or the whales washing up on shores with baleen full of plastic? Does doing so mean we forget about the migrant children?
“Nobody knows what to do,” Elizabeth Frankel, associate director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights, told the New York Times recently. “We’ve seen young kids having panic attacks, they can’t sleep, they’re wetting the bed. They regress developmentally, where they may have been verbal but now they can no longer talk.”
“Trump didn’t make this immigration policy,” Republicans inevitably argue. “The same thing was going on during Obama’s presidency.”
“Then why did we hear less about it?” Democrats inevitably respond. “Oh right, he wasn’t separating children from their families.”
And suddenly we’re back on the playground, battling it out over who hit whom first. It’s a losing strategy, conjured up by a political moment that has no qualms with enabling feeble defense mechanisms.
In ten, twenty, thirty years, when these children—the ones in detention centers, the ones who have no defense mechanisms and no playgrounds—are asked whether they’re levelers or sharpeners, I shudder to think what they will say.
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Annie DeWitt is a novelist, essayist, and short story writer. Her first novel, White Nights in Split Town City, was published in 2016.