As a purely descriptive matter, it’s surely true: We are all going numb. As Donald Trump makes war with Canada and peace with dictators and human rights abusers, the narrative is that everyone’s lost all feeling. Polls show the public believes that Trump paid off a porn star, and they don’t care. They believe that he lies habitually, and they also don’t care. A Pew poll released last week showed that nearly 7 in 10 Americans “feel worn out by the amount of news there is these days,” which is how we end up with real journalists like Chuck Todd pushing a humorous pharmaceutical solution to the problem of constant breaking news destroying our minds.
On Monday alone, we learned that the Trump administration is planning to denaturalize U.S. citizens who—it claims—fraudulently obtained citizenship. Also on Monday, America witnessed a change in immigration policy that will deny asylum to women fleeing domestic abuse, on the grounds that it’s a “private” harm. We witnessed a ramping up and coordinated defense of a Trump administration policy of separating families seeking asylum. That policy is resulting in children being warehoused in cages and ripped away from their parents, as their mothers are told they are bathing. Their. Mothers. Are. Told. They. Are. Bathing. A Honduran father seeking asylum hanged himself in a Texas jail after his wife and 3-year-old were separated from him at the border.
Jeff Sessions tells a horrified Hugh Hewitt that this forced separation policy is purely instrumental because we must “send a message” to future asylum-seekers that “if people don’t want to be separated from their children, they should not bring them with them. We’ve got to get this message out.” As Jessica Winter observes, this is the “I only beat her because she made me do it” logic that domestic abusers use to blame their victims.
No one should be surprised that a White House that downplayed and even defended Rob Porter’s abuse of women would trivialize the abuse of women victimized abroad. Women are not real to this administration. They are instead being returned to the stereotypes of supplicants and enablers. Female lawyers are being erased from the federal judiciary and U.S. attorneys’ offices. An awful lot of women in America have felt erased since we heard Trump brag about sexual assault and then saw him elected president anyhow. None of us should have expected brutality toward women to be treated as a serious matter by the Trump White House.
Most of the women I know are as heartsick about the obscene actions taking place at the borders as I am. I think a year ago we would have been out on the streets, were the government stealing the children of asylum-seekers and refugees and sending them halfway across the country or stacking them up like lumber in detention facilities. But today, I worry, we are horrified but numb. We want to be told what to do.
I think about this numbness constantly, because I worry about normalization all day, every day. Numbness is something thrust upon us, a physical or emotional reaction to external shocks, a natural bodily response. It is also maybe a buffer we put up against the devastation of being part of a group that is constantly told it is worthless and undeserving of meaningful attention.
That we are finding ourselves unable to process or act or organize because the large-scale daily horrors are escalating and the news is overpowering is perfectly understandable. But we need to understand that and acknowledge it and then refuse it any purchase. Because to be overwhelmed and to do nothing are a choice.
It’s a choice, and it’s also a luxury, because the asylum-seekers at the borders cannot afford to go numb. Female victims of domestic abuse who are coming to the United States to save their own lives cannot afford to go numb. Teen girls denied access to reproductive care do not have the luxury of going numb.
I recently had a chance to interview William Barber, one of the organizers of the new Poor People’s Campaign and an architect of North Carolina’s Moral Mondays (you can listen the full interview on Amicus). I asked him what the cure is for mass exhaustion and numbness and the overwhelming feeling we get from consuming too much undercooked news. He told me this:
Before you want to quit, go talk to the sister I met in Washington state who lived in a homeless camp who came to a mass meeting who said, “I am the white trash that America threw out but forgot to burn.” Or go with me to meet the two coal miners in Harlan, Kentucky, one black and one white, who told me the real story of how the union was undermined and why they’re joining the Poor People’s Campaign. … Or meet Callie Greer from Alabama whose daughter died in her arms because the governor and legislature refused to expand Medicaid, and she’s on the front lines fighting back. … Or meet the mother in El Paso who hasn’t seen her husband and children for 16 years and fought with border control to ask, “Where is it that I can go and at least touch my husband without it being illegal?”
These are the folks who aren’t on the news. They aren’t exhausting to us because they’re not who we see. They also don’t have the luxury of being numb from the news because in some instances what’s on the news is quite literally killing them. It’s on the rest of us to filter out anything that allows us to become paralyzed and to see what is real, all around us—to take real action to affect the real lives all around us. It’s unfair in the extreme, weary friends, but the fact of the matter is that every time we say we are tired, or giving up, or tuning it all out in the name of self-care, somewhere a Steve Bannon gets a new pair of wings. Or as Barber put it to me, “We lose only when we get quiet.”
There isn’t a lot we can control in the present time, but as any good counselor will tell you, we can absolutely control how we react to what’s going on around us. And this is the scene in the movie where even though you want to fall asleep in the snowdrift, you need to get up and walk around. If you decide to stop swimming and just drift for a while, you’re apt to wake up in a land you don’t recognize. Because “going numb” is the gateway drug to acceptance.
As David Frum wrote in January, reflecting back on the first year of Trump, “the unacceptable does not become more acceptable if it is accepted by increments.” It’s only easier to swallow and more apt to wear down our defenses. Don’t let other people tell you what to focus on. Choose for yourself. Sure, tune out that which makes you feel hopeless. But hold on to what motivates you to act. Find all the humans you can find who agree with you and make calls and register voters. Because if things continue on this way for people without funds, or with brown skin, or for women and children and the sick, there will come a time when we all have fewer choices. This is not yet that time. Get out of the snow bank, find the St. Bernard with the tiny flask of hope, and stomp around like democracy depends on it.