Writing About Taboo Topics

I wrote an article about suicide, mental illness, the San Francisco Bay Bridge and my mother’s death. It’s very personal. I could tell you it took me a long time to send out, that I fretted about it and that I was nervous about strangers reading it. That’s all true, but it’s a moot point. It’s published and you are welcome to read it. 

What I didn’t fully anticipate about writing an article that addresses several taboo topics are the responses I’ve gotten. I’ve had very supportive responses (thanks guys!) and I’ve also gotten a number of notes telling me stories about personally being affected by suicide, death, and mental illness. 

People are willing to be open when you write about taboo things. 

The thing is, it’s not about me. Yes, I wrote a personal story but I’m not the only one who has a story like this or who turns to writing to make sense of it all. When we think that we’re the only one, we do a disservice to the challenges we face as a society and the collective problem of suicide, mental illness and grief. 

People opened up to me because we as a society are crappy at talking openly about taboo topics. We silence discussions about grief, suicide and mental illness by telling Lifetime movie stories that only show the triumphant return from death or the overcoming of illness or the emergence from grief. The problem is, that’s not the way the world works. Our lives include death, mental illness and people who jump off bridges. We mourn the loss of those people. It sucks. It isn’t tied up in a bow at the end. Grief doesn’t end. Mental illness doesn’t always have a happy conclusion. Suicide makes a mess that can’t be cleaned up. 

Pretending these things don’t exist means we cheat ourselves of seeing the way the world actually is. 

One of the reasons we don’t want to talk about taboo topics and we greet them with embarrassment, silence and walking away is that we have no useful social scripts to tell us what to do. We say automatic Hallmark card things like “I’m sorry for your loss”, or “Don’t be sad” or “She’s up in heaven now” or “Let me know if I can do anything for you” not because we think saying them will actually do anything but because we don’t know what else to do.**

When you are the one experiencing pain, these automatic words start to sound more and more hollow. In the middle of grief, hearing the automatic words can make you want to scream that it feels like your heart has been chiseled out with a spoon. Or that you’re secretly relieved that this person is at peace and it felt like it was loss long ago but not anymore. Or that you’re just numb and words feel clunky and useless. 

Friends who have experienced depression say that comments like “Cheer up!” can feel meaningless and even cruel. It’s like telling someone who has an amputated leg that if they try harder they’ll be able to walk.  

Suicide is particularly insidious and there is a deep and pervasive shame about it. Whole families hide the cause of a loved one’s death pretending it’s an accident and fearing the social stigma of suicide. If we love someone who died from suicide, we may ask ourselves over and over – “If only I had…” would it have helped? It’s impossibly hard to know that someone who was battling internal demons lost that battle. 

But it is the reality. 

The reality is not about an individual. Yes, you may have loved someone who committed suicide, or attempted suicide. Yes, you may know someone who is mentally ill and it sucks and there may be no easy answer. Maybe you are that person. Yes, grief is painful and it has no end. Let’s not trivialize how shitty this all is. But at the root of this pain is the idea that we are singularly alone in dealing with it.

You aren’t alone. I’m not alone either. 

We miss something when we look at these problems only from an individual perspective. Our society is losing beautiful minds, hearts and bodies when we don’t care for our veterans in pain. When the mentally ill can’t get care or medication and roam the streets we have an unsightly “problem” instead of a loss of human capacity. We help no one by arguing needlessly (and endlessly) about protecting bridges from suicidal jumpers. We know that when we try to prevent all suicides, it can make a difference but we have to be willing to fund those initiatives. We may support suicide hotlines (which I am ALL for), but  fail to pay attention to the mentally ill in our own cities, the neighbor that needs a Xanax to get through the day or a friend who just lost a parent. 

Let’s actually talk to one another about how crappy these things are. Online, in person – it doesn’t matter. Let’s just be there with someone who is in pain instead of trying to fix it. Let’s let go of the Hallmark sentiments and scripts that don’t help. Let’s start acting like these issues matter. Let’s say collectively that we care about suicide and mental illness, that we are sad when we lose someone, and that it’s all of our responsibility to be there for one another.

Photo: “Bay Bridge Embarcadero Sunrise” Richard Fay

What An Organization Says it Does and What it…

It will surprise no one to hear that universities believe that they exist to teach students, advance research and foster learning.

I know. Captain Obvious here.

While it is true that there are things organizations do because they intend to do them. I want to suggest that it’s  interesting to ask about the things that the organization does that it isn’t telling itself that it does. For the sociology nerds out there, this is what Merton calls latent functions, the former being manifest functions.

For instance, many people find their mate during their college years, but rarely does a university advertise this as a reason to go to college. Can you imagine the university putting this in promotional materials? Instead of online dating, come to City University and take a few classes, maybe you too will find romance while studying for your first exam on structural functionalism. Universities might celebrate those stories after they happen with Valentine’s Day photos of couples that have been married 50 years, but it’s a byproduct, not an intended outcome (even if it happens all the time).

Another example: colleges and universities, particularly those with a large percentage of students in fraternities and sororities, create environments where rape, sexual assault, hazing, binge drinking, racism and eating disorders are common. No university would say that they support such activities and they often talk at length about their frustration and irritation with being unable to prevent these things. Yet time after time, we hear how commonplace it is and how little can be done about it.

If we let go of the value judgement briefly, we can ask what it is about the organization that makes the latent function possible. That’s when you can actually get somewhere.

  • What is it about the university that creates an environment where students find a romantic partner that they want to marry?
  • What is it about the university that creates an environment conducive for sexual assault? rape? hazing? eating disorders?

Rather than saying “it’s just the way it is”, calling it a latent function turns the responsibility back on the organization to examine what conditions create this result. Just like creating conditions where students find mates, the university may not explicitly intend to create a place where there women are routinely sexually assaulted and raped, racism is tolerated, students are hazed, and eating disorders are commonplace, but it doesn’t change that it is happening.

It turns out that researchers can answer questions like this. We can compare environments and determine the differences. A great example is research which tells us that there are certain types of fraternity parties that are more conducive to sexual assault than others.

Types of Beautiful Questions

In chatting with folks about beautiful questions, I’ve found that it helps to have examples.  So, I put together types of generative questions to illustrate the diversity of questions that can be found beautiful.

But, first let’s recap: What is a beautiful question? (original post)

A beautiful question does one or more of the following:

  • Asks the listener think about a topic in a unique, different or bigger way.
  • Calls to question basic assumptions.
  • Points out something that was previously unseen or unacknowledged.
  • Links multiple topics together.

A beautiful question will always lead to more questions.  It captures the imagination in part because it has usually not been fully answered.

Types of Beautiful Questions

  1. Big Hairy Audacious Questions – These are huge questions that require a lot of collective attention to address.
    • How does the social world work?
    • How do we get to the moon?
    • Can we map the genome?
    • What does it mean to be human?
    • How do we respond to climate change 
  2. Why Questions – Also known as the “little kid” question.  Cuts to the heart of the problem if asked enough times. Can also be historical inquiry.
    • Why did the Roman Empire fall?
    • Why does a hummingbird beat its wings so fast?
    • Why are some sites designated as “natural wonders” and not others?
  3. Bridging Questions – These questions span multiple fields or areas and bring two (or more) different domains into relationship.
    • What is the relationship between the social and the natural world and how do they influence one another?
    • Can the collaborative practices of computer programmers be used in other arenas such as scientific or artistic collaboration?
    • What theater stagecraft creates certain moods and emotions in political rallies?
  4. New Lens Questions – These are questions that focus attention in a different way, usually using a new way of thinking about the world. Social theory is an example of a new lens.
    • What is a Marxist understanding of why political parties fail?
    • How does a feminist understand the Biblical story of Job?
    • How would someone from a developing country view the European Debt Crisis?
  5. Commensuration Questions – These questions wrestle with defining a concept, can often be found in circles where words and their meaning are debated.
    • What does love mean in the 20th Century?
    • What is sustainability?
    • What is queerness?
    • Is Pluto a planet?
  6. Personal Action Questions – questions that either investigate individual choices, or that encourage or challenge people to act differently.
    • What do I need to do to do well as a student ?
    • How can I be a more engaged citizen?
    • What containers and signs will encourage people to recycle?
  7. Global Challenge Questions – These are questions that are linked policy or to solving or changing global challenges.
    •  What can we do to ensure that all people have access to clean drinking water?
    • Why does war exist?
    • Can the use of renewable energy change the conflicts we see in energy and water insecure nations?
    • What leads to a society that has freedom of the press?
  8. Instructive or Pedagogical Questions – Questions are asked in order to encourage discussion and further learning.
    • The Socratic method.
    • Point/counterpoint debates.
    • Thought experiments
    • Playing the devil’s advocate.

Of course this is not an exhaustive list of types of beautiful questions. Plus questions could easily fall into more than one category, but it’s a start. Thoughts?

Photo: Kheel Center

Workplaces Are Built For Men

Several news outlets ran stories explaining that the temperatures of office buildings, even in the summer, are designed for a man wearing a wool suit. The news articles are based on a study that investigated the differences between the thermal comfort of men and women. We get to read about women in too cold offices  bringing in space heaters, wearing blankets, leggings and snuggies and cowering with cups of tea and coffee to keep warm during the summer months. The articles focus on the biological differences between men and women and hints at the idea that perhaps we could save some energy if we didn’t cool buildings quite so much.

While I’m glad to see the issue addressed, this is not news.

We can know that the formula for thermal comfort is based on a man’s body because any person in building science will tell you that this has been the standard for decades.

We can know that women and men’s bodies are thermally different not just because we have done studies but because people have been shivering in their offices, clinging to space heaters and trying to bake in the sun on their lunch break to warm up in the summer.

The reality is that we have not listened to women in the workplace when they say they’re uncomfortable. Instead, we watch them freeze and decide we need studies to prove that they’re uncomfortable. Then, while the jury is still out, we continue to design  building upon building entirely around the comfort of a man in a suit (if you assume that men wearing a wool suit in the middle of the summer is comfortable – seems dubious to me).

This is a great example of a hidden gender inequality that preferences male bodies. But even more than that, it is a case where we have baked into the very standards about buildings certain expectations about who office buildings are for. Building designers  design buildings given the specifications they are given. Really. That’s their job and they’re good at it. But we ask for air conditioned buildings to be cold, and they are designed to be cold.  We have not asked for buildings to be based on a standard that includes women’s comfort, so buildings are not designed that way.

What’s the alternative? In my years of touring green buildings and talking to occupants, it was amazing how many people explained that they loved their green building because they could control the temperature in their workspace, or open a window if they wanted to get some fresh air. It seems so basic to want to control one’s own environment, and yet we create  so many office spaces  that fall back on the snuggie as a form of thermal control.

To be fair, doing this requires a rethinking of the way we heat and cool buildings. Windows create less central control which means some people might be a little bit too hot during the hottest part of the day or a little bit too cold. It’s less predictable, but most of the time, people like it more.

But what about buildings where individual control isn’t possible? What can be done? We could take a page from Japanese businessmen who have been encouraged to wear short sleeves shirts and no tie during the summer months. Who knows, it could be more comfortable for men in the workplace too. 

Why we Like People Like Us

Ask yourself: Who do I talk with about important matters?

Got a list? How many people are on that list? What are those people like? How old are they? Where did they grow up? What do they like to do? What gender? What race/ethnicity?

These seem like simple questions but research using these questions explains a concept called homophily best described by the aphorism: “Birds of a feather flock together”. It turns out that when you ask who someone talks with about important matters, they tell you about people who have very similar characteristics to them. It is quite likely that you talk about things that matter to you with people who are your same gender, race/ethnicity, around your age and who have a similar socioeconomic background to you.

So men who like beer drinking and knitting are more likely to hang out with other men who want to debate IPAs and sock knitting on circulars vs. Double pointed needles. Women who like wine and football are much more likely to hang out with other Green Bay Packers fans who are in love with that new pinot grigio from the winery in Napa. You’re probably saying to yourself  – well of course this is the way things work! What else is a wine-loving Green Bay Packers fan supposed to do during game day? I mean, of course men who knit want to be around others who are like them, that’s just intuitive. Who cares?

In a way, I’d agree because at it’s essence, homophily is value neutral.  It’s neither good nor bad to be in a homophilous network (group of people who are like each other). In fact, we can think of a lot of reasons why it would be good for people who are like one another might want to hang out together. It allows them to form stronger connections, they build up more trust and can create a shorthand for important matters. There is a great deal to be said for the kind of social cohesion that homophilous networks can create.   

However, what I would suggest is that if new ideas and innovation are needed for the many many complex social, environmental and economic problems we are trying to solve, we need to get out of talking to just our homophilous networks.

We have to start talking to people who are not like us.

Why? Because one of the down sides of homophilous networks is that they can be echo chambers that further very particular ideals and norms of those groups. The denser and more interconnected the network, the less they are able to tolerate and understand new ideas, the more we find ourselves stuck in hearing the same things over and over again.

If you want creativity and innovation, if you want to be able to expand your thinking, you need a network that includes more than just the things you have heard before. You’ve got to find ways to talk to people who don’t echo your thinking patterns, who are willing to question the star status of the Green Bay Packer’s quarterback or who will more deeply investigate why wool is supposedly the superior knitting yarn for socks.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to become the bridging tie between two networks, but I’ll get to that in another post.


Ask Beautiful Questions

A friend asked me to repost this from a previous iteration of my blog.  

I teach at a university where professors are encouraged to teach students to “think critically”. This is a worthy goal, and one I support. But after a few years of teaching, I’m beginning to believe that as hard as I try, and as many times as I put it down as a goal on my syllabus, assign things that make it a priority or push the students to think critically, it’s just doesn’t reach them. Why?

Students don’t know what thinking critically means.

It’s not really the student’s fault, we are using words students don’t use. For most students in this generation, they have been told exactly what to learn, what topics would be on the test, and they’ve been evaluated on the test that they were taught to pass. We have done an extraordinary job of teaching most students to figure out what the right answer is. The problem is, a lot of the questions that we want our next generation to answer don’t yet have an answer. And we’re teaching them to look to us to find the answers.

Houston, we have a problem.

We need a future generation that is willing to see more than just the problem. We need more people who think in innovative ways about how to reframe, solve and work through the large social problems we have. We need to mobilize creatively and passionately. And we really need more critical thinking to get there.

How do we solve the issue of students who don’t know what critical thinking is? I’ve got an idea. Rather than using difficult to define (and uber pedagogical) terms like “thinking critically”, let’s reframe what we’re saying.

Let’s start asking beautiful questions.

Beauty? Uh oh. That sounds subjective. What do you mean by a beautiful question?

Thing is, I find knowledge beautiful. When a really good question emerges out of an article or a book or a conversation, I get knocked over the head with it. To me those questions are just like an amazing red rose flowering in the middle of a garden or a gauzy pink and orange sunset. I want to enjoy the kind of beauty that comes with deep inquiry. A beautiful question is one that inspires more knowledge, encourages deeper thinking and makes me take the time to really engage. These questions burn with a kind of clarity make you want to take a look.

It’s why most academics became academics. Why teachers get excited about what they teach. It’s what makes us go “Cool!” when there’s a really interesting book, idea, concept, article or conversation.

A beautiful question is a question that does one or more of the following:
– Asks the listener think about a topic in a unique, different or interesting way.
– Calls to question the basic assumptions, premises or understanding that the topic takes for granted.
– Points out something that was previously unseen or unacknowledged.
– Links multiple topics together.

Here’s the crux: A beautiful question will always lead to more questions. That is the beauty of such a question, it doesn’t stop. A beautiful question asks everyone who comes into contact with it to respond. Not everyone will respond of course, that’s free will. Beautiful questions don’t rest, but rather are generative. These are the questions that create more than they stay still. Beautiful questions inspire discussion, debate, engagement, inquiry and reflection.

Beautiful questions are also really HARD.

They can be hard to ask, they can be hard to formulate. They aren’t always easy to ask someone else, and people don’t always like hearing them. Beautiful questions can be challenging to those who are in authority. They can rock the boat, upset the status quo and make people mad.

That’s ok. It’s part of their charm.

Beautiful questions are also different for different people. There are some things that we can agree on as beautiful, but there is always someone who finds a sunset boring or a red rose allergy inducing. Beauty IS subjective. And so questions that are beautiful are going to resonate with some people and not with others.  That’s also ok, it’s why we each get to approach these things from different perspectives. It’s why we need some people to find data on ice flows beautiful while other people find grassland ecology or behavioral energy consumption patterns fascinating.

My point is this: we need to teach the joy of a good question, and to encourage more people to start playing with questions, talking about them, and trying to figure out pieces of them. We need more people who believe that it’s OK not to have the answer, that in fact, they’re doing it right if they are concerned and confused, if they’re not sure what’s coming next. I don’t think we can adequately prepare for a world of uncertainty and challenging social issues until we decide that it’s ok to ask deep questions and not know the answer.