Posted by: JDM..... | October 29, 2014

Fear & ignorance.….

the loving parents of injustice….

I have certainly been guilty of breaking my own resolve, but I generally avoid internet “comment” opportunities and the like. Despite frequent claims to the contrary, such environs are not reservoirs of intellectual stimulation and discussion. Those who never launched a stream of mother-cuts and other character disembowelments as a kid have no business entering such places. That would be like Mr. Peepers barging into a biker bar.

Owing to my partially misspent youth, I am credentialed to frequent such seedier loci, and have done so, at least until I realized that the experience always felt like “déjà vu”, the reason being that the regulars either were fourteen years old, or middle aged with severely arrested emotional development, a bona fide diagnosis, or both.

Anyway, I suppose I needed a refresher course or something because this morning I found myself inexplicably staring at the invitation to comment at the foot of an online news item about the Maine nurse held in quarantine in New Jersey and then hunkered down in her home, under siege, because she had been in West Africa treating ebola patients, even though she was not symptomatic.

I succumbed to temptation and scrolled down through the vitriol.

It was like a one note concert. Virtually all who commented viciously accused the nurse as being uncaring, selfish, self centered, stupid, an idiot, unfit to practice her profession and on and on. Most said she should lose her license, many said they hoped she comes down with ebola, and a few opined that she should be shot. Standard internet fare.

While there were one or two commenters who identified themselves as nurses and condemned Kaci Hickox for bucking mandatory quarantine anyway, almost all demonstrated little or no understanding of the disease and the history of the current situation.

My thoughts on the matter:

First of all, I am opinionated and have rarely passed up an opportunity to exercise that characteristic. I claim no expertise on the matters of medicine, law, or ebola. However, I do claim a modicum of skill when it comes to extracting a message from a sea of misapplied verbiage, reading between the lines, and knowing when and where to look for information about a subject rather than try to pretend I actually know anything about it by hiding behind a paper shield of bellicosity. My somewhat eclectic work history included being an editor and working in the mental health field as a counselor. I specialized in probationers and people most folks would not wish to be alone in a elevator with.

Selfishness-self centeredness-self interest

That said, I would first like to address the rampant use of the word “selfish”, almost universally applied as a pejorative rather than as the description of a thought process or personality characteristic. I understand that it sounds more authoritative and legitimate than “shit head“, but it doesn’t communicate anything of substance about the speaker or the target.

People confuse the term selfish with self-centered and self interest.

Selfishness, as used by those commenting about nurse Kaci Hickox, is intended to imply a general lack of concern for, or interest in the needs or desires of others. It is the act of consciously placing one’s own interests before all others. Considering the fact that Kaci Hickox is a Registered Nurse, and voluntarily travelled halfway around the world to battle a deadly disease in spite of the potential risk to herself, selfish just doesn’t seem to fit. Now, those brandishing their pitchforks and squealing for her essential incarceration, without due cause and without due process, because of their own fears and poverty of knowledge, might qualify for such a moniker….I don’t know. When a person is transported to a hospital because knowledgeable people have assessed that he appears to be a danger to himself or others, a considerable amount of time, paperwork, and an appearance before a Judge precedes that person’s involuntary restraint and treatment.

Self centeredness can appear similar to selfishness, but it has a different etiology, perhaps stemming from a developmental glitch or personality disorder. It may involve some awareness, but not necessarily intent.

Self interest is something else entirely, and seems to be mistaken here for one or both of the preceding issues. Self interest is a process of decision making and action based on an understanding and recognition of one’s own self worth and value. One practicing self interest tries to live in ways that honor and respect their sense of self worth. Often, that means standing up to those who would violate that principle by demeaning one’s worth and right of self determination. This may spark resentment and ire in others who are not comfortable in the company of self assuredness and assertiveness, or who have been unexpectedly disagreed with. Self interest does not exclude respecting those same qualities and rights in others, however. In fact, it demands it.

Think of selfishness as a behavior, self centeredness as a mindset, and self interest as a conscious process of decision and action.

As a related sidebar, I would include altruism for consideration.

Altruism is considered to be the antithesis of selfishness, and thus may be incorrectly believed to be antithetical to self interest. It is not, although altruism implies selflessness while self interest is the practice of valuing oneself. Altruism is actually a philosophical ideal rather than a definable quality. One may be said to act “altruistically” as demonstrated by a dedication to some service or cause, but that does not preclude self interest. Altruism in the common understanding does disallow self interest, and may in fact require observable sacrifice or humility in practice.

It is difficult to assign boundaries between all of these concepts, largely because they are not fixed or finite. I am presenting my understanding of them with full appreciation for the possibility that my interpretations may not work for another. Along those lines, I’d like to move on to discuss a thinking structure that I believe is at the core of much of our most egregious interpersonal conflict.

Black and white thinking

So called “black and white” thinking (BWT) goes by many names, but they all describe the same process. Some of the other terms are “polarized” thinking and “all or nothing” thinking. To understand the significance of BWT it may be helpful to consider some of the basics of communication.

Communication is not just “talking” any more than “dining” is just walking by a restaurant. Communication describes the process of transferring information and ideas, and as with a radio signal there must be a transmitter and a receiver. A man wandering about the desert talking to himself is not communicating. If nobody reads what I have written, have I communicated? No, I will simply have written something, as in a journal or diary.

Communication occurs by many means. In face to face, verbal communication, information and ideas are exchanged through the use of words, but that is a very small part of the whole. In fact, most of whatever message is transmitted and received does not involve words. Some say words comprise 15% or less of the average verbal communication. Most of the message is conveyed by the way in which those words are expressed and the body language involved. It is understandable then why written communication, and the internet “chat” format are significantly handicapped and can be volatile. Some 85% of the cues necessary to the efficient exchange of information and ideas is missing!

The art of saying “have a nice day” in a way that communicates “eat $#@! and die” is learned by most of us before reaching high school.

Black & white thinking interferes with clear communication because it involves distorted messages. The English language is rife with idiomatic references and words borrowed from many different languages. When one verbalizes an exaggerated expression, our culture intuitively knows where to draw the line between the data and the bling. “That was the best day ever” actually means “I had a good time and enjoyed myself very much.” The literal interpretation is unlikely to be accurate. We communicate in such a manner on a daily basis.

However, when the exaggerations are unspoken thoughts and provide the foundation for assessments, attitudes, and actions, the outcomes can be problematic or even disastrous in some cases. There are some legitimate explanations for why we gravitate to black and white thinking sometimes and not at others, and regarding the historic basis of such a thinking process, but that is for another time. Here we need only understand the existence of black and white thinking and how it may impact communication.

Black and white thinking is not an abnormality; it is a normal aspect of defense that happens to occur excessively. It is neither conscious nor intentional. What teenager doesn’t classify entire populations such as a rival school or some group as all good or all bad? When one carries such shortcuts into adulthood, however, it can cause great injustice and harm. It is quite normal for people to observe, assess, and make decisions about things and people they encounter in their environments, but when all are assessed on the basis of observations of one, and decisions are made accordingly, trouble ensues. Two major sources of ignorance are lack of knowledge and the application of black and white thinking to otherwise perfectly good knowledge.

I sensed a prevalence of this rigid decision making tree in the comments about the nurse in question. Draco would be proud. Such commentary would easily excuse one from jury duty!

Regarding the underlying issue itself, the question of whether the governors of some states are justified in declaring mandatory quarantine measures, or whether the nurse is justified in challenging that action, I look to what we know and what we don’t know.

What we know:

The most appropriate interventions are the result of a learning process. Those having to respond to potential threats of contamination know more about the nature of ebola today than they did when the Liberian gentleman Thomas Duncan arrived in Texas at the end of September.

The CDC has established guidelines for assessing the risks posed by those returning from West Africa. The four levels of risk run from no risk to one suggesting the advisability of quarantine. Kaci Hickox was not level 4.

Medical scientists know that non-symptomatic subjects are not contagious. Front line people are now practicing extreme methods for putting on and removing protective suits, including using teams to observe each other.

Considering what was known about the nurse, Kaci Hickox, her exposure to ebola patients in Africa, and measures taken to ensure her safety, medical professionals agree that quarantine was not warranted.

There are legitimate questions regarding the legality of holding a person against their will without due cause and due process.

What we don’t know:

We don’t know that public safety is enhanced if those deemed by the public and by politicians to be at risk are sequestered away from the general population regardless of medical assessment and reasoning to the contrary.

I agree that the passionate and overreaching demands for a modern version of the Leper Colony approach without medical justification are excessive, fear based, and hold more potential danger than the disease in question.

Government does indeed bear responsibility for protecting the safety, as well as the liberty, of all citizens. However, it can best fulfill those duties by enlisting, and listening to, those most knowledgeable in the field of concern. I understand they also feel compelled to allay the fears of a reactive public. They can best do that by leading, not by following.


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  1. I pretty much enjoy everything you write, but I have to say this is one of your more impressive soapbox moments. I have quite the urge to stand up and applaud . . . Even though I am currently in an empty room. Brilliant!

  2. Reblogged this on goddessofglitter.

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