Not All Activism is Good Activism

I’ll be honest with you: whenever I see a social media campaign going viral, I get suspicious.

It’s not because I think people are evil or stupid, or because I dislike popular things (although that is often the case). It’s because for anything to become popular, it must be simple, easy-to-understand, without nuance.

The violence in Uganda is none of these things.

I have not posted the Kony 2012 video to my Facebook like so many of my friends have. That is because I don’t know–I can’t know, really–if the video does justice to the reality in Uganda. If you haven’t seen it yet, you can watch the video here.

My views on this subject are much more complex than the act of posting a video. That’s why I’ve chosen to add my two cents not by reposting it, but by writing this.

First of all, look at some other types of activism that have gone viral lately. There were the SlutWalks, started when a Toronto cop told a bunch of students that women should avoid “dressing like sluts” in order to not be raped. SlutWalk consists of some very simple concepts: Don’t blame women for their own rapes. It’s not about what they’re wearing. And, by the way, what’s so bad about being a “slut?”

Then there was Occupy Wall Street, and all the other Occupy protests it spawned. The message of OWS was simple, too: there is too much damn inequality. The gap between the One Percent and the 99 Percent is too wide. Wall Street’s gains have become excessive.

There’s obviously plenty to criticize about SlutWalk and OWS. The former has been accused of marginalizing the voices of non-white, non-hetero, non-middle class women and pandering to the very sexist forces it seeks to combat by having women march around in their underwear.

The latter, meanwhile, has been criticized for being too ambiguous, not having specific demands for the government or for the financial sector, being anarchist/socialist/Communist, being unrealistic, consisting of too many people who supposedly majored in something stupid in college and don’t deserve jobs anyway.

But for all of their failures, SlutWalk and OWS have ensured that the issues of victim-blaming and economic inequality have entered our public dialogue–and stayed in it.

Kony 2012 seeks to do a similar thing. By “making Kony famous,” its creators insist, we can place Joseph Kony on the public agenda and “do something” about his terrible crimes.

But this is where things start to get dicey.

First of all, let me just say that I think awareness is extremely important. I think that American citizens, as a whole, aren’t nearly aware enough of what’s going on in their own backyards, let alone on another continent. More awareness, in my opinion, is almost always better than less awareness.

So on that front, I commend Invisible Children and the Kony 2012 campaign. The video they have created is well-made in a way that ensures that nobody who watches it can remain ambivalent about what’s going on in Uganda.

However, the purpose of the video isn’t just to spread awareness. It’s to raise money.

For what, exactly?

Invisible Children supports military intervention–yes, you read that correctly–to stop Kony. Specifically, the money it raises goes towards supporting Uganda’s government and its army, which Kony’s LRA is fighting against.

But here’s the sad, sad irony of the situation: Uganda’s army is likely just as bad as Kony’s. It has also been reported to use child soldiers and has been accused of raping civilians and looting their property.

Guys, I don’t know how else to say this: do not give money to these people.

Besides this glaring issue, Invisible Children has also been criticized for their own actions as a charity organization. Last year, they spent about 8.7 million dollars, but only 32% of that money went to direct services. The rest covered the organization’s internal costs.

I know what you’re thinking: yeah, yeah, that’s any charity. Sure, all charities have to cover certain costs before they can contribute money to the actual causes that they support. However, not all charities are as bad about this as Invisible Children, which was rated 2/4 stars by Charity Navigator.

Here’s another thing not all charities do, but Invisible Children does. That’s right, they’re actually posing with guns and soldiers from the Ugandan army. This is unprofessional at best and narcissistic and self-congratulatory at worst. (Here’s the source.)

According to Foreign Affairs magazine, Invisible Children has also exaggerated its “facts” about the LRA in order to gain support. Now, some people don’t see much of a problem with this. Whatever keeps the checks coming, right?

Needless to say, I disagree. If you need to manipulate information in order to raise money, you’re not behaving ethically, and that’s the case whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or a non-profit. That’s just what I believe.

Fortunately, there are plenty of more reputable charities that provide aid to Uganda. Here are some: War Child, Children of Uganda, Kiva (you can make microloans to people all over the world, including, obviously, Uganda). Some great organizations that aren’t specific to Uganda are Doctors Without Borders, Help International, Women for Women.

So giving money to Invisible Children might not be the best idea, especially if you don’t want your money going to an army that rapes people. But what about the other half of Kony 2012′s mission, raising awareness?

I’m not sure how making Kony a “household name” is going to help things, to be honest. Unlike campaigns like SlutWalk and OWS, which targeted ordinary American citizens to make themselves aware of issues they can actually do something about, Invisible Children wants to stop a powerful Ugandan warlord. But contrary to their claims that Kony needs to be “made famous,” he’s already quite well-known among the people who matter. The International Criminal Court indicted him for war crimes back in 2005, and the American government has already had Kony on their radar for some time. In fact, as the Foreign Affairs article I linked to above discusses, they’ve been sending troops there for a while. So far, though, they haven’t succeeded in actually capturing him.

But even that raises difficult questions. Does Invisible Children want the United States to intervene militarily in order to stop Kony? If so, how is this any different from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which, ironically, were strongly opposed by the very same progressive-minded people who are now feverishly posting the Kony video on Facebook)? And if not, what exactly are ordinary Americans supposed to do upon learning about Kony?

These are all questions that aren’t really being asked in the rush to spread an admittedly powerful and emotional video. But they need to be asked. You’ve Facebooked it, you’ve Tweeted it, you’ve favorited the video on YouTube. Now what?

Unfortunately, just the act of asking these questions, and of suggesting that Invisible Children may not be winning any awards for the world’s most ethical charity, is frowned upon. Every article and Facebook post I’ve come across that criticizes this campaign has been deluged with comments about how “they’re just trying to do a good thing” and “why do you have to criticize everything.”

Ah, the age-old question–why, indeed, must we criticize everything?

Here’s the thing. The stakes are quite a bit higher here than for other viral campaigns. If SlutWalk fails, nothing happens. If Occupy Wall Street fails, nothing happens. If Kony 2012 fails, nothing may happen–or, Uganda’s army will obtain more power that it can use to rape more people and enslave more child soldiers. Kony may be captured and someone else may take over who is even crueler. The United States may become involved in yet another costly foreign entanglement.

Another fact worth noting is that many, many African writers (including Ugandan ones) have been criticizing this campaign very strongly. Now, I’m not one of those people who claim that Americans have no place doing charity work in Africa because White Man’s Burden, but I do think that when the very people you’re trying to help are criticizing the help you’re providing, you need to sit down and listen. I’ve included some links to these criticisms at the end of this post.

I keep hearing the remark that criticizing Kony 2012 only “brings down morale” and keeps people from donating money. However, as long as the criticism is factual–that is, as long as Invisible Children really does support the Ugandan army and really is only spending a third of its money on actual aid to Uganda–then those are facts that potential donors ought to know before they make their decision.

If you’re relying on misinformation or lack of information to get people to donate to your cause, what you’re spreading isn’t awareness. It’s propaganda.

As I said before, awareness is important. But a free society thrives on dialogue. Posting a video and then condemning everyone who dares to criticize it is not dialogue.

These are, quite literally, matters of life or death. This is not the time to be upbeat and positive about everything you hear just because you don’t want to rain on the parade.

For more perspectives on Kony and Invisible Children’s campaign, here are some good sources:

When Tough Love Becomes Abusive

Okay, so, I realize I’m showing up rather late to the laptop-shooting party, but I didn’t want to let this bit of news pass by without writing about my reaction to it–not only to the incident itself, but to the various responses I’ve seen to it from the public.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, watch this:

In short–for those who don’t want to waste their time–girl rants about her parents on Facebook. Daddy decides that the correct course of action is not to, say, sit down and have a chat with his daughter, revoke her computer privileges, have her deactivate/delete her Facebook, or otherwise utilize actual parenting skills. No. Instead, Daddy posts a video rant about his daughter on the Internet (sound like anyone else in the family?) in which he shoots her laptop with a gun.

Okay. A few things:

  1. This father’s actions are abusive. I’m sorry if you don’t like that. I’m sorry if that doesn’t fit with your view of “traditional” parent-child relationships. According to modern definitions of domestic violence, destroying someone’s property in order to hurt or manipulate them constitutes abuse. (It’s in there, look it up.)
  2. And that’s only regarding the actual shooting of the laptop. As regards posting the video online, well, I hope it’s pretty obvious why I have a huge problem with parents exploiting their children for their fifteen seconds of fame. Especially when this involves violence.
  3. This girl does seem quite bratty and entitled. However, there is nothing a person can do–especially not if that person is a child–that justifies abusing them.
  4. That said, I’m not entirely sure that the girl’s Facebook rant was entirely unjustified. Immature and ill-advised, sure. But based on her father’s reaction, I wouldn’t say that her parents treat her fairly.

According to the ABC article I linked to, the police and Child Protective Services promptly paid the man a visit, but apparently they didn’t find anything wrong with the scenario. In fact, they told him, “Kudos, sir.”

There are plenty of tragic things about this incident. One is the fact that a girl is being abused. Another is the fact that her abuse is now captured for posterity on the internet. Another is that things are only going to get worse from here, both in terms of her relationship with her parents and in terms of her emotional health. Another is that her father seems to genuinely believe that he did the right thing by “teaching her a lesson.” And another is that the only “lesson” this girl has been taught is that guns are an appropriate way to express your anger at people.

One more issue, however, stands out as particularly sad, and that is the public reaction to the father’s video.

I am ashamed to say that I saw this video posted by my friends in my Facebook newsfeed with comments like “hilarious” and “what a hero.” I’m not proud to have friends who apparently condone domestic abuse as long as it’s amusing to them. If you watched this video and you laughed, I really urge you to reconsider your personal definition of humor, and I hope that you’ll take abuse out of that definition.

A hero is a parent who raises a difficult child with compassion. A hero is a parent with the strength to not take children’s bad behavior as a personal insult, but rather as a sign that more growth is needed.

This father is not a hero. He’s an abuser. Let’s call a spade a spade.

Don't Blame it on the Tech

[Snark Warning]

A modified version of this piece also appeared as my column in the Daily Northwestern.

Technology gets a bad rap.

You wouldn’t think so–obviously, we all love it–but in a way it does.

You can’t really go a day anymore without encountering a book, article, or person spewing some variation of the following: “Oh, these days, everyone’s just so plugged in to their laptops/iPods/iPads/iPhones/Kindles/Blackberrys/etc,” always with a tone that combines whininess with nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s in the context of promoting physical activity, face-to-face interaction, getting out into nature, ink-and-paper books, live music, or any other number of virtuous things. Sometimes–paradoxically, since this usually appears online–it’s in an article about some brave soul who has eschewed Facebook, email, or–gasp!–the Internet altogether. Sometimes it’s embedded in smug pieces with titles like “Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone” or “Why I Don’t Text My Boyfriend.”

For a while, I really couldn’t figure out what it is about these remarks that drives me so far up the wall. I thought perhaps it was the repetition and sheer clicheness of such comments, or just my contrarian nature.

However, I think I’ve finally figured it out. These lamentations annoy me because I read them, accurately or otherwise, as attempts to shift responsibility for running our own lives off of ourselves and onto the technology that we willingly invent, purchase, and use.

In other words, it’s not that I can’t be bothered to spend time with my family. It’s that the evil Apple device prevents me.

Of course, I exaggerate. Most people don’t really feel like they can’t control their technological activities (although there are exceptions). But I do get the sense that gadgets get an unfair amount of blame.

I also think that people often choose to cut themselves off from technology, at least temporarily or partially, rather than learning how to achieve some sort of balance in their use thereof. What else explains the preponderance of browser extensions and desktop software that blocks “time-wasting” websites or programs? If the only thing preventing you from typing www.facebook.com in the address bar is a special browser add-on, you’re not actually learning how to control your urges in the moment they arise.

I also know of people who literally deactivate their Facebook accounts or have a friend change the password during critical academic periods. Of course, part of me just wants o say, more power to them. But another part wonders why people can’t just restrain themselves from going to the website.

In other words, Facebook doesn’t waste your time. You waste your time.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot in connection with what I wrote about in my last post. When I observed Shabbat this past weekend, that meant I had to spend 24 hours without using any technological device.

Aside from the fact that my nephew was born that day and I really wanted to check in with my family, I can’t say that the obligatory technology fast affected me much. I didn’t die of boredom without the Internet, but neither did I revel in the feeling of being “free” from all that pesky technology.

Ironically, I think this trend started off as a contrarian one. At some point within the last decade or two, some skeptic probably wrote an article to the tune of, “You know all that technology we think is so awesome? Yeah well it’s not.” (In fact, that person is probably Nicholas Carr.)

But now I’d say that this has become a mainstream opinion–one that I don’t necessarily disagree with, but one that seems completely oversimplified to me. I don’t believe that there’s anything special about today’s technology that causes it to sap all of our attention. As with most social trends and problems, I believe that what’s going on here is actually much more complex.

For instance, everyone loves to bemoan the fact that people now communicate mostly through technology. There’s the old cliche about texting or IMing someone who’s just in the next room–or in the same room, and the preponderance of college students who use Facebook to run their entire social lives.

But what’s really happening here? Could it be that the expectation for young people to go away to college, move frequently, and put off making permanent bonds with others until later is driving the increased emphasis on digital communication? Could it be that most people never learn effective communication skills and thus feel more comfortable talking to others from behind a screen? Or, perhaps, that technology takes away the fear of rejection that people face when they try to, say, invite someone to hang out in person or come up and engage them in conversation?

I’m really just throwing out suggestions here, because I don’t know. But I do have a very strong sense that technology is really just the medium through which already-existing problems in our culture and our psychology are being revealed.

For instance, everyone hates the nasty trolls that seem to inhabit every website with open commenting. However, the Internet and the anonymity it provides do not cause trolling; they simply allow it. What probably does cause it are boredom, frustration, and a general inability to empathize and care for people you cannot see or even imagine. And those are problems that reside within ourselves, and not within the technology we’ve constructed.

Technology makes an easy target. It’s new, it’s hard to understand, and it’s changing our culture faster than we can churn out books and articles that analyze it.

But it bothers me that choosing to disconnect from technology has acquired a moral value, and that we bitch and moan about technology instead of some of the larger, deeper problems with our culture.

Those problems are much harder to tease out and analyze. It’s easier to just write a piece blaming everything on iPhones.

But gadgets come and go. Culture usually does not.

Obscenity and College Admissions: Don't Judge People by Their F-Bombs

I read an article on GOOD that provided statistics about how much college admissions officers stalk check applicants’ Facebooks. Apparently 24% of officers do it, and that number is on the rise.

Now, this is really nothing new. However, what did strike me about the article was this:

Twelve percent of admissions counselors told Kaplan that what they found on social networks hurt an applicant’s admissions prospects—particularly when it involved vulgarity, evidence of alcohol consumption or essay plagiarism, or proof of illegal activity.

 

See anything troubling there?

I do. Several of the things on that list involve activities that are illegal and/or violate most schools’ codes of conduct–underage drinking, plagiarism, and “illegal activity” in general. One, however, does not, and that is vulgarity.

It makes me a little queasy whenever some sort of higher authority attempts to determine what is “moral” and what isn’t. With regards to vulgarity, common courtesy generally prevails–don’t use inappropriate language with employers, interviewers, teachers and professors, other respected elders, and children. If you’re unhappy with someone in a public setting, don’t scream obscenities at them. Etcetera.

But is a person who uses vulgar language with his/her friends a bad person? Should they be denied college admission? Would they be a poor addition to their campus community?

I can see why a college admissions officer would not want to admit an applicant who clearly parties a lot, engages in plagiarism, or otherwise breaks the law. But can you really just assume that someone who uses obscenities is a bad person?

I don’t have any research on this, so I can only really use myself as a case study. I curse. A lot. I always have. I tell dirty jokes, I call politicians dicks, and I say “fuck” a lot.

I have also contributed to my university more than many, if not most, of its other students. I’ve led two student groups, started and led an initiative to bring a peer listening service to campus, served as an RA for a year, participated in a sexual health peer education group, assisted two research projects, written for campus publications, volunteered with campus groups, donated to fundraisers, and generally helped make this campus a better place. I have never received any sort of disciplinary action while I have been at Northwestern, nor have I broken any university policies, aside from keeping an electric kettle in my dorm room so I can drink tea. I have never bullied, harassed, or assaulted another student, and that’s more than I can say for some of my peers. I think that if they had to do it over, Northwestern’s admissions officers would absolutely accept me again.

But what if they’d seen the f-bombs on my Facebook profile?

Really, I think stalking applicants’ Facebooks and other profiles is a practice of dubious ethicality, anyway. Of course, everyone’s all like, “But you made it public! But it’s right there! If you didn’t want every single person in the world to know you shouldn’t have uploaded it!”

Perhaps. But there are certain boundaries that I think we should respect when it comes to others. Just because something is public doesn’t mean it’s intended for public viewing. For instance, if I’m walking on campus and I overhear a couple having a vicious argument, obviously, they could’ve been more discreet. But does that make it right for me to stand there and eavesdrop?

If I walk past a house with the lights on and the blinds up and see, say, a couple having sex, should they have been more careful? Probably. But does that mean I should stand there and stare at them doing it? No. That’s creepy as hell.

So suffice it to say that I oppose creeping on people’s lives electronically, too. And I should point out that aside from the vulgarity issue, which I’ve only recently found out about anyway, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t drink or party, so there are no Facebook photos of me drinking and partying. I don’t do anything illegal. I don’t brag about my sexual conquests. There’s nothing on my profile that I’d be ashamed of anyone else seeing.

But I do at times use obscenities when I feel the desire to express myself that way. And it doesn’t make me any less of a suitable candidate for a spot at a university, a job, or anything else.

Now, I’m also not stupid, so knowing what I now know, I’m definitely going to put my Facebook on super-duper private or just temporarily change the name on it when I’m applying for stuff. I’ve checked how my profile looks to someone who’s not friends with me and it doesn’t show any of my foul language.

But on the other hand, I also don’t want to work for an employer who’s moronic enough to overlook my strong resume and assume that I won’t know how to behave in the office–especially after interviewing me. My decorum and sense of morality are quite intact, thank you very much. But they’re not something you can judge by glancing over an online profile.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Breast Cancer Awareness

If you have ever seen a bunch of women posting Facebook statuses with a random color, or a location where they “like it,” and felt a mix of confusion and frustration, you are not alone.

These memes are part of an effort for breast cancer “awareness,” a word that I use cynically here and only in quotation marks. The color meme referred to women’s bra color, and the location one referred to where they like to put their purses. Of course, they made it sound sexual to attract more attention: “X likes it by the bed”, “Y likes it in the closet,” etc.

Now, an acquiantance of mine (who also happens to be the Director of Health Promotion and Wellness at Northwestern University, and therefore isn’t entirely ignorant about these things) has reported that this stupid trend still has not died.

Perhaps even less sensically, the latest iteration of this meme is people posting stuff like “is going to New York for five months” or “is going to Las Vegas for twelve months,” and this, too, is supposed to elicit friends’ queries and be met with the response that it’s for breast cancer “awareness.”

As anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking skills can tell you, such a status, when finally deciphered, tells you exactly one thing: “There is a thing called breast cancer and you should know about it.”

Yes, yes there is. But could we finally get beyond that?

For instance, here are some actual facts about breast cancer:

If you’d like to do some actual good, why not spread this information around?

Besides that, here are some other ways you can help:

  • Volunteer to provide support for people battling breast cancer. (This is even easier if you know of such a person. You can help by driving them to doctor’s appointments, making them meals if they’re too tired, babysitting their kids, or just being there to listen.)
  • Donate to charities that provide such support, or to organizations that fund research on breast cancer. Here are some to get your started: Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and the National Breast Cancer Coalition. With a quick Google search, you could find local charities, charities that cater towards a particular demographic that you belong to, and so on.
  • If you want to go beyond simply giving money, participate in charities’ fundraising events, such as Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure. That way you get to raise money while meeting other people who care and physically showing your support for survivors and people battling breast cancer.
  • If you’re politically liberal, be an activist for government initiatives that fund cancer research, education initiatives, support for cancer patients, expanded insurance coverage, etc. One good place to start: ask your representative to support H.R. 3067, the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act of 2011, which proposes an initiative to end breast cancer by 2020.
  • If you’re studying medicine or biomedical engineering, consider making cancer research your focus. Or work as a research assistant in a lab that studies cancer.
  • Buy products from companies that donate to breast cancer research (but beware of pinkwashing).
  • Similarly, if you happen to own a business or want to start one (and I know many of you Northwestern students do), consider donating a percentage of your profits to breast cancer research.
  • If you’re going into journalism and you’re interested in health, consider writing about breast cancer. Not everyone has enough knowledge to decipher academic articles; you can be the one who makes that information accessible to those who need it.

As you can see, some of these require your time and money. Others do not. The few seconds that it takes you to type your stupid status could be better spent posting a link to an important recent article about breast cancer.

And now, I get it. Cancer is a terrifying thing. The amount of information available about it could fill books upon books, and some of it is constantly going obsolete or being revised. Even I felt a bit overwhelmed just looking at the few websites I looked at to research this article.
I also get that when your friends are posting oh-so-funny things on Facebook, you want to join in the fun. Trust me, I was in middle school once, I know.

But I have some unfortunate news for some of you: neither I, nor breast cancer survivors, nor families of breast cancer victims give a flying fuck what color your bra is or where you like to put your purse, cutesy sexual innuendo notwithstanding.

If you’re old enough to make sexual innuendo, you’re old enough to educate yourself and others about breast cancer (and, for that matter, anything else you think people should be educated about). Let’s stop selling ourselves short here.

*edit* Another reason I just thought of to hate these memes–they are generally restricted to women only, and women aren’t “supposed” to tell men what they mean, thus constructing breast cancer as a “girl thing.” Not only do men witness their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, etc. fighting breast cancer, but some men actually get breast cancer, so it’s not only a women’s problem.

Anyway, there is enough of a stigma placed on men who get breast cancer without its promotion through this meme.

Update (2/2/2012): In case anyone’s going through my archives and reading old posts, let it be known that I officially withdraw my support for the Susan G. Komen Foundation in light of its defunding of Planned Parenthood.

Facebooking in Class–Symptom, not Disease

FINALLY I get to use this meme in a serious context.

I think I’m going to have a series of posts criticizing GOOD’s pathetic education section, which is currently failing even harder than my insomniac classmates are at their finals.

This is an older article, but I decided to dig it up and poke fun at it anyway.

This article suggests that having a “15-minute tech break” for each half-hour of class would help students focus because they’d do all their Facebooking in those 15 minutes and then put their phones away.

The people who propose these initiatives seemingly have a complete lack of understanding of how young people actually use technology, and for what purpose. For instance:

Rosen says his tech break concept “works amazingly.” For every half-hour of focused work, he recommends allowing a 15-minute tech break. Once a students sees that nothing is happening on Facebook or send a friend that critical text message—they’re able to refocus, he says.

That’s not the way Facebook and texting work, though. You don’t just check it and then forget about it. You like to be on it. What’s to stop people from having their phones out under their desks outside of the “tech break?”

Furthermore, I don’t see how this is even doable. This would increase class time by a whopping 50%—ludicrous when everyone, both students and teachers, are already severely overbooked. (In fact, that may be why students use their phones in class to begin with.)

In addition, like it or not, multitasking is here to stay. If students are forced to learn how to integrate technology with learning rather than strictly separating the two, they’ll be better equipped to handle modern work environments, where you’re usually required to answer phones/emails/messages while working, and so on.

Finally, I still don’t understand why people see Facebooking/texting in class as some sort of crisis of epic proportions that requires a complete restructuring of the school day. Are students actually becoming dumber? Are their grades dropping? And even if they are, might it be because of much-needed and still-lacking education reforms, and not because of Evil Technology?

I obviously haven’t done research on this (though, by the looks of it, this guy hasn’t either), but I’d guess that Facebooking and texting in class aren’t a cause of distraction–they’re a symptom. Back in the day, kids would doodle or pass notes or just stare into space. These days they text and go on Facebook. What’s the difference? Oh, right, there’s a convenient piece of Evil Technology to blame.

That, ultimately, is the argument that I believe overrules everything else I’ve just said. If the problem is–shocker–not Those Darn Kids but the fact that school is worthlessly boring, then it’s time to have a completely different dialogue. This dialogue will have to be about how to make school both educational and fun and not about how to get Those Darn Kids to do what we want them to do.

On People Who Think They're so Damn Funny

[Snark Warning]

Like many depressives, I have a love-hate relationship with humor. A well-crafted joke, anecdote, or cartoon can cheer me up during the worst times, but because of the various cognitive deficits associated with depression, I have a lot of trouble processing humor when it’s directed at me or my life.

Enter another thing I have a love-hate relationship with: Facebook. As one of those rare people who’s “out” about having a mental illness (to shamelessly borrow terminology from the LGBT community), I occasionally post something related to my current troubles on my Facebook. Most of the people who bother reading it are fairly good friends of mine who know what’s going on and often stop by and leave a nice comment or a simple “<3″ on those posts.

But then there are people who insist on trying to force a joke about the situation. These well-intentioned but insufferably clueless people are the bane of any depressive’s life. They’re our friends, sometimes even pretty good ones, and as much as we know that they mean well, it can be very painful to have a really difficult aspect of your life reduced to a dumb joke like that. And it’s nearly impossible to find a way to respond–any suggestion that the joke was out of place is inevitably met with “but I was just trying to lighten the mood” or “I just wanted to cheer you up.”

Here’s the thing, though–you can’t fix a depressed person anyway. (Sometimes, you can’t even fix a depressed person if you’re a psychiatrist or psychologist.) The most you can do is offer a message of support and refrain from trying to turn a depressed person’s misery into a big huge joke.

Honestly, I doubt that even healthy people are actually “cheered up” by jokes made at their expense. I can’t imagine that’s pleasant for anyone who’s already in kind of a bad mood. But it’s especially unpleasant for a depressed person and can trigger all sorts of nasty stuff.

I think people have a huge fear of others’ unhappiness. The moment you see a sad person, you immediately want to drag them, kicking and screaming, out of their sadness, whether they asked you to or not. This is understandable, but it should be avoided, not only because there’s so little you can really do, but because you should try to understand people before you try to help them.

If anyone ever bothered to ask me what they could do to help me feel better, you can guarantee I wouldn’t say “crack a dumb joke at my expense.” And, don’t worry, I wouldn’t say “sit here for hours and listen to me cry,” either. I would probably ask you to have a conversation about something interesting, like politics or culture, with me. Or I’d ask you to come over and bring a good movie. Or I’d ask you to bake some cookies with me. Or, I’d say, “Nothing, but thanks for asking.”

What people don’t understand about depression is that it’s different from normal sadness not only in quantity, but in quality. To put it more simply, it’s just a different kind of sadness. When someone has a depressive episode, they go to a really dark place that healthy people don’t go to ever. Not even when their significant other breaks up with them or something like that. It’s a darkness that can’t be lit up by a stupid joke. Really, it can’t be fully lit up by anything. But human connection, love, and support can sometimes help.

Obviously, not everybody is willing to provide that for everybody else. That’s fine, and that’s how it should be. But if you can’t give me what I need to feel better, don’t give me something that makes me feel worse, either.

Like many problems that I come across in my life, this turns out to be something that’s actually a much larger issue. I believe that the reason people are so desperate to immediately try to “lighten the mood” the instant they see something unpleasant is because our culture has an extreme fear of negative emotion. We avoid it like the plague, and it comes as no surprise to me that most of our culture’s solutions for achieving happiness seem to focus on eliminating things like fear, sadness, and anger entirely, rather than incorporating them into one’s life in a normal, healthy way. Clearly, what I have isn’t healthy, but it’s only the extreme end of spectrum. I see this sort of blind and terrified avoidance of anything that’s sad, whether it’s severe like depression or totally normal, everywhere I look.

If you’ve just read this and realized that what I’m describing sounds exactly like you, I hope you’re not offended. If you are, my apologies. But I hope you trust that behind all this snark is a lot of pain.

And, if you’re still reading, I have a challenge for you. Next time you come across a post from a friend that’s unhappy in some way, don’t rush to make a joke about it. Don’t try to drag your friend away from what they’re feeling. If you absolutely need to comment on it somehow, say “I’m sorry, that really sucks,” or “I hope you feel better.” I guarantee that unless you happen to be Jon Stewart, that’ll work better than any joke.

I’ll leave you with a quote by Dutch priest and writer Henri Nouwen:

“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion… that is a friend who cares.”