Who’s Loving You

We have a social contract in which our measuring stick for harm is familiarity and this contract puts us all at risk.

Communities divest from perceived offenders (part of the premise of prisons) until and unless we perceive the offenders, not as offenders but as homies and relatives; dates or partners; familiars. Though they may have harmed or admitted to harming or being party to harm, to call them out is disruptive or shameful to the community unit, so we don’t name them offenders and absorb the harm, effectively normalizing it.

There are people who say they love you and/or care about you and will do the very things that would cause you harm or death. Let me repeat: there are people who claim to love you, care about you, even say they want what’s best for you but participate in activities, behaviors, and patterns that would put you were you not you-you but maybe someone with features like yours in harm’s way. And you will let them. How does that work? People who commit harm are made outsiders or outliers for their actions; ex-communicated from community consideration and support. Clearly, these people do not emerge from dust—people we love, care about, and for whom we wish the best, commit these harms but by virtue of familiarity, we do not allow them to be so named or treated and absorb them into the community to potentially commit the same harm. We have a social contract in which our measuring stick for harm is familiarity and this contract puts us all at risk.

Communities divest from perceived offenders (part of the premise of prisons) until and unless we perceive the offenders, not as offenders but as homies and relatives; dates or partners; familiars. Though they may have harmed or admitted to harming or being party to harm, to call them out is disruptive or shameful to the community unit, so we don’t name them offenders and absorb the harm, effectively normalizing it.

This happens a lot with gender-based harm where we absorb the harm into sanitized language. A handsy relative “ain’t right” and is to be avoided; a gang rape is a “train” and rite of passage. Unsolicited attention like catcalling and grabbing, flashing, or sharing body parts or imagery of body parts are perceived as compliments or poor, lazy attempts at wooing instead of as assaults.

I have loved and been loved by offenders—in some cases offended by them too—but when my response is not alienation, chastisement, or correction I am complicit in subjecting others to their harmful behavior; at the very least, with putting others at risk. Inadequate responses by people like me, especially when it’s collective, is dangerous. And as if community justice isn’t lacking we can’t count on legislation to help either. For example, maybe to avoid community disruptions and maintain communal accord, statutes of limitations on when victims of gender-based harm can seek recourse are determined, in part, by the relationship between the victim and offender.

Communities are all too often incubators of harm when offenders are allowed to reabsorb into the community and victims and offenders are misidentified in coded language. I think of girls named “fast” or “grown” usually by their home communities. Rarely are the obvious implications called out—the community predators and institutions that adultify them, over-police and over-discipline these girls. The girls are absorbed into the communities where codes of conduct almost demand their silence in lieu of disruption and are codified by the inconsistencies in legal definitions of gender-based assault and provisions for victims. Their silence is replaced with misnaming. So both the community and external legislation are complicit in the contract, effectively endangering the community. After all, who do these girls and offenders become if they are not protected and redirected? Partners, parents, community members who reinforce the codes of conduct that endanger us all. These codes of conduct are embedded in anti-harm messaging that highlight the two pillars of this social contract: community relationships and the disruption to the community relationships caused by harm: it could be your [insert intimate relationship here] who has been harmed. In my community, growing up, it was not uncommon to be asked who are your people? or especially in instances of bad behavior and usually delivered with a sneer and screw face: Who raised you? You were representative of your people: those who loved you and who you loved. Consequently, an indictment of an offender is an indictment of their community.

Lately, we can see this in death announcements framed as news stories—a genre that has emerged, I think, due to the highly stigmatized Covid-19 virus. Tragically, the stigma around the virus presents too many as offenders; their offense is disrupting or threatening to disrupt the social order. To de-stigmatize the “offenders,” writers typically identify the decedent by their community and family relationships. So much so that the New York Times ran Those We Lost until May 2021 to “put names and faces” to the deceased. “Mom of twins” or “popular local artist” humanizes the decedent by demonstrating that the person is loved by and loves people.

Since Covid is stigmatized as preventable—especially since the availability of vaccines and that brief reduction in cases we experienced—the offense is causing disruption by being contagious, careless or both and presented as being unvaccinated thus causing or threatening the same. So transforming an offender into a familiar includes the announcement’s structure: it consistently includes the community relationship and the decedent’s last-breath appeal to vaccinate lest we, members of their community, suffer the same fate. That way, the appeal does the two things required of our social contract—it establishes familiarity (and even broadens the scope of familiars). It calls us, as a “community,” to care. It also interrupts what would otherwise be a disruption of social order. It tells us to vaccinate so that we can enjoy a “normal” social order and by extension, a normal, or “natural” death that is part of that order.

Legislation performs its role in reinforcing the social contract during the pandemic. Jurisdictions have instituted mandates and private and public institutions have mandated the vaccine. These measures are predicated on the same anti-harm messaging it could be your [insert intimate relationship here]; this time, we’re reminded to wear masks, socially distance, and vaccinate to “protect vulnerable” members of our communities and families—and restore social order disrupted by the nationwide quarantine that shuttered businesses, schools, and social institutions throughout 2020. 

People who love you and are loved by you—maybe you, yourself—have taken the opportunity presented by the availability of a vaccine and less restrictive mandates to enjoy robust social calendars, maybe masking when mandated, possibly eschewing the vaccine despite the real time threat to the same vulnerable populations in the messaging. Why? The 10 million United States citizens who are considered and/or have been accounted as immunocompromised represent only 3% of the U.S. population. Such a small population can be sacrificed without disrupting the social order; besides the social order suggests that their very existence already does.

They cost more, require structural and practical ADA accommodations for example, and are accused of “burdening” healthcare and social services systems. Sure, they are people we love and who love us, but as a society we have always been able to sacrifice some to maintain “order” for many. Included among those we are willing to sacrifice to preserve the “order” are also between 30 and 35% of people who comprise the lower working class and are vulnerable to the virus because their jobs are likely to be public-facing. We missed shopping, eating in restaurants, so we require these workers, a real time equivalent of Aldous Huxley’s Delta caste in A Brave New World—expendable and replaceable. Among our vulnerable populations are also the students between ages 6 and 12, approximately a quarter million U.S. citizens—those who only recently and controversially, are approved for vaccination. After all, compulsory education is not only part of the social order but it also preserves the institutions at which their parents must work to preserve that social order.

It is true that we love and are loved by people within these populations, but never forget that underpinning our social contract of care is the Darwinian theory of Darwin’s of the fittest that informs the American exceptionalism model. Darwin’s theory portends that others—what we’re lately calling “vulnerable” including the elderly, the destitute, the infirmed, the poor—are not fit to survive and are therefore outliers in the community undeserving of care and consideration.

This is why so much American wellness messaging points to prevention of unwellness (which is conflated with disability and in turn vulnerability) and has a disgraceful habit of implicating the symptom rather than the systems that create them. Both practically and structurally, communities are hostile to wellness outliers—the infirmed, disabled, and elderly—after all, they disrupt the order and they’re people not like us. Like offenders are not like us—you know, if we call them offenders. So instead, we do not name the vulnerable, vulnerable until it can’t be avoided. And it’s at that point that they are no longer afforded community care and consideration under the social contract.

The HBCU homecoming holiday season of 2021 proved itself a glaring example of the social contract. For those cultured in Black college tradition, the month of October is a sacred holiday season of celebrations that include the coronation of homecoming “kings and queens;” parades, concerts and parties; a football game complete with extensive tailgating, half-time shows full of pomp and showmanship; and the return to campus of alumni for all of the festivities and to reunite with classmates, sorors, and fraternity brothers.

On October 18th 2021 NBC News published an article about HBCUs reinstating in-person homecomings in 2021. While this year some institutions required vaccination records for entry to campus events, it’s important to note that an HBCU homecoming is a community event that is not only for current students, staff, and alumni. Events take place on and off campus that are not sanctioned or monitored by the university.

In Jackson, Mississippi city tourism officials reported that the Jackson State University homecoming, which took place the same weekend as the NBC News article, brought to the city five billion dollars in revenue. A reported 53,000 people attended the football game. At the same time, the CDC reported that Black people represented 11% of people who had received at least one dose of the vaccine.  Yet, an official from another HBCU considered the in-person homecomings an “opportunity to get together after the high period of Covid.” A high period that is all but over, and not likely to be over considering the CDC vaccination statistic. In Hinds County, home to JSU, Covid numbers increased incrementally between the week ending October 2nd at 31504 reported cases and the week ending October 16th when they were at 31,678 cases. So, perhaps, a high period plateau? Probably not. A month later on November 20th, the Wall Street Journal announced that U.S. Covid deaths in 2021 are two times the number of 2020 deaths. Moreover, national data collected as of October 26th shows that for Black/non-Hispanic people death from Covid is two times higher than that of White/non-Hispanic people.

Those statistics notwithstanding, the decision to host in-person events of such magnitude is an unsurprising though overt exclusion of vulnerable populations—community outliers and therefore not to be considered or cared about. This is the social contract. The university official interviewed in the NBC article goes on to complete the description of the contract by describing an enthusiasm to “get back to as close to normal as possible;” that is, to end the disruption of the social order.

The dissonance we’ve learned to create between ourselves and others is troubling on a broad scale. On October 13th 2021, a woman was raped on a SEPTA train. In a widely believed lie disseminated shortly after the attack, Philadelphia police claimed that passengers failed to intervene as a man raped the woman on public transit. Part of the lie said that passengers pointed cell phones in the direction of the assault as if to record it. We believed that the incident unfolded in the way it was initially described to us because we understand the social contract.

In it, as the examples throughout this conversation attempt to illustrate, we fail to humanize people with whom we do not have a relationship. They are outliers, even if only by virtue of being strangers, and so we are not obligated to care or have concern for them. And further, if they enact outlier-identified behavior, we are less inclined to consideration because their behavior disrupts our social order.

What we now know is that SEPTA passengers were getting on and off the train throughout the approximately forty-minute attack—following their prescribed order of operations. Perhaps, if they even noticed the interaction, they believed it to be an aggressive pda and not an assault; a disruption to our social codes of conduct and even less reason to offer consideration. As soon as the story broke, the lie gave us an opportunity to speculate and to condemn self-gratifying social media culture reflected in the alleged recordings and to criticize SEPTA’s poor security. Turns out the attack—the lie and the truth of it—is also an opportunity to examine the social contract in which we withhold care and concern to those we do not consider our familiars in service to a social order that is not serving any of us and is, in fact, a very real threat to us all.

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