“Out of Joint”: On Ideology and Anxiety

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

Hamlet, Act I, Scene 5, ll. 190-191

My high school English students in Upstate South Carolina throughout the 1980s and 1990s were mostly unmotivated by huge portions of the early American literature canon—notably Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

The problem was reading those works, but many of the conversations that the assigned reading spawned were some of the best moments of my teaching career.

After plodding through Emerson and Thoreau, tackling the ideologies of American Romanticism and Transcendentalism, the darker vision of humanity offered by Hawthorne allowed me to pose a powerful and often unexamined question to students about the essential nature of humans: Are people basically good or evil?

These were 10th and 11th graders, most of whom attended fundamentalist Southern Baptist churches (specifically the large church that sat directly in the middle of the four schools that served the town, all within a few blocks of each other).

Students throughout the years enthusiastically responded that people were basically good, to which I would remind them of Emerson and Thoreau followed by asking them about their understanding of Original Sin and the Garden of Eden story.

For many of my students, this was one of the foundational moments when they had to confront that their ideology was “out of joint.” Their professed religious beliefs did not align with what they had determined about the universe on their own, or to put it another way, what they were coming to recognize about themselves.

This sort of personal disequilibrium is different than what I witness almost daily—and notably among my former students with whom I am social media friends—on Facebook: When a person’s ideology is “out of joint” with reality and facts.

These former students, I know, experienced repeatedly in my classroom the opportunity to investigate what they believed and understood while keeping that grounded in the evidence around them.

As a teacher for almost forty years now, I am regularly discouraged by how powerful unfounded beliefs are against evidence, and I am greatly disappointed when I watch that play out among my own former students.

From provably false memes about Hitler, the Holocaust, and gun control to hijacking other people’s posts with diatribes about the lazy poor (often thinly veiled racism) and rehashing lazy Libertarian lies, these moments on social media represent the larger problem with cultural myths—and the toll those myths take on both those who embrace them and those who suffer inequity and injustice because of them.

Just as my students had never interrogated that their religious beliefs (and religious training) often did not match their personal ideologies, white Americans and affluent Americas—who benefit from the lion’s share of privilege in the U.S.—rarely question the myths they both embrace and perpetuate—specifically the narratives that the poor are responsible for poverty and that black are responsible for racism.

I won’t spend time elaborating, but evidence quite overwhelmingly disputes these narratives:

But these ideologies that frame people in poverty and racial minorities as lazy, deserving of their inequity, are also logical fallacies since only those with power can maintain or dismantle systemic forces.

Whites are responsible for racism, and the wealthy are responsible for poverty; in fact, whites depend on racism, and the wealthy depend on poverty.

No one can assume a neutral pose on either classism or racism in the U.S. since both are enduring realities and since everyone either benefits from or suffers under classism and racism.

When ideology, cultural narratives and myths, are “out of joint” with reality, the consequences are devastating to everyone, creating an environment of anxiety.

In “The Neurotic Academic,” Vik Loveday examines this dynamic of academia, which is a subculture (as reflection and perpetuation) of the larger American Myths of meritocracy and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

“The experience of anxiety is also a fundamentally isolating one,” Loveday explains, adding, “whilst viscerally felt at the individual level, to admit to feeling anxious and stressed-out is also to risk being perceived as failing to cope with the demands of academic life.”

In the U.S. culture that renders poor, black, and brown people as lazy and deserving their inequity and injustice, they are also rendered marginalized, isolated as Loveday argues. Poor, black, and brown Americans, then, because of classism and racism are trapped not only in systemic inequity but also in personal anxiety—the prison of recognizing that “who I am” and “how I am portrayed” are “out of joint” but “I was born to set it right,” as Hamlet laments (himself the anxious scholar).

Loveday discovers “anxiety is quite clearly an effect of the conditions under which it is produced” because those who suffer this anxiety

felt as though they had very little control over their working lives apart from the possibility of “working on the self” – taking personal responsibility for productivity, success, and “excellence” through the pursuit of student satisfaction, publications, or external funding, which was often achieved through chronic over-work fuelled by anxiety, but with no financial security or guarantee of permanent work at the end of contracts.

Like Hamlet, then, the isolated (by class and race) are simultaneously aware of being “out of joint” and compelled to feel responsible for correcting those forces beyond their control.

As I have pondered on social media and about social media, I am not sure if Facebook and Twitter have created or merely exposes the zeal that many feel to post ideological memes and rants that are easily discredited; I am also deeply troubled that those who enjoy race and class privilege are the ones most eager to perpetuate ideological lies through social media.

Ultimately, however, everyone loses when either personal ideologies or cultural myths are “out of joint” with reality, with what we can show is true.

And this brings us back to one of the lazy Libertarian lies, the one that demands a false dichotomy, a manufactured war between the individual and the collective (society, government)—something that can be traced back to our Transcendental roots where Emerson and Thoreau themselves railed against Society as the enemy of the Individual.

O, Emerson: “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”

O, Thoreau: “Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

Yet, despite their Transcendental idealism about the Individual, there is no individual without community, and there is no community without the individual.

And as such, each of us has a moral obligation to investigate our personal and cultural ideologies as a first step to slaying the real dragon threatening us—the anxiety spawned when those ideologies are “out of joint.”

Peace, both individual and social, is an equilibrium, when what we believe is in balance with reality.

That peace relieves anxiety by eradicating the threats that false narratives and baseless myths create.

Again, more narrowly, “[w]hat I have termed as the ‘neurotic academic,'” Loveday concludes, “is an entrepreneurial figure who is governed through responses to the anxiety generated by employment uncertainty within an increasingly competitive sector, but who is simultaneously encouraged to then take responsibility for the self-management of those anxieties.”

When our personal and cultural ideologies are “out of joint,” we are in a restless state of competition, with ourselves and each other, that is the root cause of anxiety—a state of powerlessness combined with the compulsion to be the sole change agent for that which is beyond our control.

This is why racism is a poison to the racist (indirectly) and the oppressed (directly).

This is why classism is a poison to those who demonize the poor (indirectly) and to the poor (directly).

Like my students who were asked to confront what they truly believed about basic human nature, we all owe ourselves and everyone else the time spent interrogating our ideologies, personal and cultural.

And then, we must carry that into our real and virtual lives, resisting the baseless meme and promising not to hijack other people’s social media spaces in the name of calloused ideological football.

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