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311. Pushing upward (VII)

The expression, “Give it to me straight, doc,” exists, mostly as a joke, precisely because doctors almost never do this; and possibly no human, apart from those on the autistic spectrum, has ever communicated information “straight”; except, perhaps, in a numerical form as a result from a scientific experiment, and even these—especially the sacred “models”—are subject to manipulation in various ways, it is at least as easy to lie with statistics as it is to lie with words; and the same tweaks and spins found in ordinary metacommunication can even found here, since it is possible to signal status through the colours and arrangement of a pie chart.

Today it is popular to speak of “cope” online; this is a shortened form of “coping mechanism”, a currently popular piece of psychological jargon that is accompanied by the notion of “issues” (“He has serious issues.”) and the clipped passive-aggressive phrase, “Seek help” (adapted psycho-speak for, “Go fuck yourself.”); perhaps our society is so adverse to offence and confrontation that we can only express ourselves through nominally nurturing psycho-jargon—even when we tell someone to fuck off. Online, “cope” is applied as a clipped and quick way to deflate the often elaborate narratives people spin when reality intrudes. A coping mechanism in psychology is not necessarily pathological, but it can easily be so—it can turn into a crutch that cripples rather than supports (alcohol being a classic case).

Someone online might, for example, be disappointed at the general decline of their country and so construct a twenty-tweet thread that elaborates why, based on a comparison to ancient Persia, the current situation is excellent and will shortly turn around with relatively little difficulty. Another user pops up and writes, “Cope,” above the thread—in this one act all the pretension is deflated. Other users, less reality-adjusted or more agreeable, will have made various noises to signal that, well, maybe, it will all turn out okay in the end; and, of course, this is all really about the human need to generate reciprocal social links, even online, and cultivate—socially groom, with “likes” and verbal nods—another human. To be cast out from the tribe meant death for most of our history; so to contradict social groomers is almost suicidal or maladaptive behaviour.

I do not really like the word “cope”, not because the concept is wrong—I just dislike how it sounds. Yet it is obvious that the ultimate event against which all “cope” springs is death itself; and if you take the Ernest Becker route, it is all the denial of death: our narrative structures are partly designed to keep death out of mind. So to be frank about imminent death is the ultimate version of writing “cope” above someone’s Twitter thread.

The psychiatrist R.D. Laing had a daughter with terminal cancer. Nobody wanted to tell her she was going to die, but he insisted on the direct approach and did so. The people this outraged were the girl’s mother and other relatives; they excoriated Laing—they feared their own mortality. People are pretty hardline about this issue. I once mentioned to an older female colleague I knew well that I had been diagnosed with cancer, but before I could add “by mistake” she snapped, “Don’t say such a thing.” Other people will not allow you to have your own experiences, especially if these infringe on their “cope”.

When my grandmother was dying she was too mentally incoherent for me to explain what had happened to her, but one time a friend of hers from church dropped by and asked me what the prognosis was. I said, “The doctors say she’ll die in a month.” I must admit my voice caught at that; as for him, he flinched slightly when I said it—a bit shocked I was so frank—but when he left the interaction felt “clean” in a way lots of interactions do not. With humans, it often gets sticky and quite dirty.


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