My favorite word to say in 2017 was "trash."
I say it in a way so that the word carries weight. How was the movie? Traaash. How was the book? Traaaash. The longer I enunciate the vowel, the more emphatic I am.
I picked up the word from a high school friend of mine. We didn’t speak in high school, since he was a grade younger than me. But we discovered each other on my first visit home from college when I discovered the legions of formerly closeted gay students.
We’ve hung out a few times since then. I feel like he’s cooler than me. He’s since graduated from an Ivy League school, grown from relatively scrawny to full bodied and attractive, and he carries an air of contemporary Blackness. The kind that seems acquainted with blogs like Very Smart Brothas, and talks often of which black celebrity is invited to the “cookout” or figuring out which of us is in fact “bougie.” We would commiserate affectionately with our bouts of dealing with white supremacist institutions, and his voice, quaking with a slight rasp would sing, “traaaaash.”
A coworker of mine later added another valence to the word. She was quick witted and silly. She added the punchline, “throw the whole thing away. “ The clause was reserved for everything from bad hairstyles to some of my most troublesome students.
I like the word because it allows me to liberate myself from the impossibly uncomfortable. It is the impossibility that makes it funny. We cannot throw away white supremacy, homophobia, stressful jobs, or people who hurt us. Often we do not have the language or the energy. It is liberating to just jokingly say that something should be thrown away completely. I now use the phrase so frequently that my roommate and I can feel the ether shift when I tell him about my day and "trash" is about to drop. We say it in unison before laughing.
I am even quick to send him one of my favorite iPhone emojis, which includes a white outline of a man throwing a paper ball into a garbage can.
The iPhone “trash” emoji symbolizes a growing anxiety of mine. Namely, how I use technology to navigate my relationships. In my own life, and that of my friends, I notice us using technology to distance ourselves from others. This distancing sometimes feels healthy, and other times it feels like a crutch--an excuse to retreat into ourselves rather than tackling our most difficult relationships with the purpose, tact, and love they deserve.
Technology itself seems to be one of the best mediums for reducing people to “trash.” You can physically delete messages from people. You can reject people on datings apps. You can “ghost” message threads. Put notifications on do not disturb. You can literally block people on social media.
And while I know that it is necessary to block or reduce our access to people on social media for mental health reasons, our personal boundaries, or even safety, I wonder if we are starting to forget that in fact, we cannot, and should not, throw people away.
In the spirit of New Year's Resolutions. My timeline has been flooded with people delineating the parameters for who they’re “not bringing with them into 2018” and who they’re “blocking.”
I empathize. I imagine that most of us are trying to avoid the triggers that social media induces.
I scroll along and notice those who use social media platforms like Facebook to verbalize their depression, anxiety, or loneliness. I often debate whether or not these folks are courageous or unwell. These are the ones who post everything from cryptic messages to suicide ideation. Now while I would dare not be prescriptive around how people manage their wellness, I worry about the extent to which our mental health has now become a spectacle mediated by social media.
And to a lesser extent, there are just the assholes. The people who simply annoy us. The racists, sexists, and homophobes, the ones who relentlessly post an abundance of innocuous daily detail that no one cares for, the hoteps, the activists who somehow think that “calling people out,” is actually making the world better. The list goes on.
These emotions on display can feel unhealthy and damaging when we do not have the power to help solve them, and as a result we feel compelled to just shut these voices off our timelines.
While I believe we know this to be true intuitively, there is sufficient evidence that social media is eviscerating our mental health. Facebook itself even cited research that reports that scrolling social media without directly interacting with people makes us feel worse, and that users who frequent the site more than average report worse mental health issues. Sites like Instagram open themselves up to us comparing our lives to others, and feeling that we are in a sense, “missing out.”
The last fact resonates with me deeply. As a writer, I am constantly comparing myself to other writers. I see their successes. I celebrate their successes. There is however, a nagging voice in my head that tells me--look they’re doing it, why not you? You’re not working hard enough.
I understand then, the tendency and the necessity to block people, to shut out the noise. But sometimes, the cries of “blocking” people feel less about thoughtful self-care, and more about glorifying what society often tries to train us to believe--that the answer to dealing with our conflicts with each other is to silence or dispose of each other.
Perhaps I shouldn’t, but I feel guilty when I choose to block people--social media or otherwise. Accordingly, I question the intention of others who choose to vehemently limit their access to other people. Of course not the people who do so with love and tenderness, but I am skeptical when people sing loudly of shutting people out.
When we glorify disposing of each other, we are aligning ourselves with some of the greatest social atrocities in our country. Mass incarceration is predicated on the idea that we throw people away. Black bodies are being decimated because we are not valued as human beings, but “things.” Slavery follows this logic. Sexual assault occurs when we dehumanize someone to just an object of desire, lust, and domination. I cannot imagine an act of violence that does not first require us to dehumanize. Blocking people, when done without care, attention, and self-awareness--merely becomes another form of dehumanization.
People are not things. If we could collectively master this ideology, this would eradicate a large part of our social derision for one another. I cringe when I hear people make jokes about blocking people relentlessly. It reveals a sort of weird compulsion to make people disappear. An act that is easy to do when we have reduced human beings to screens and boxes. It is easy to throw a thing away. You have to deal with human beings.
We cannot afford to dehumanize each other, in any form, when forces of dehumanization are barreling down on us everyday. We cannot afford to dehumanize each other when the amount of people who report having someone they can rely on has dropped from 87 percent to 50 percent between 1985 and 2004. Is this what mental health means? Shutting everyone out? Is the only way to “protect our energy” to hide in our homes, watching Netflix, and saying "no" to anyone and everything? Surely this is not what we mean?
There is a difference between boundaries and disposability. The former comes from self-knowledge and love--the latter comes from the lies of our oppressors. In 2018, I am committing myself to my people. This is not antithetical to saying no. Nor is it antithetical to having clear expectations between myself and the people I love. Nor am I saying that I myself won’t be taking breaks from social media or people on social media.
But I want to make sure that any energy I’m using to shut anyone out is the same energy I’m using to love on the people I care about. To make sure that folks know that when I can be, I am there for them. I want us all to spend time doing the work of figuring out what compels us to shut each other out, get to the source of that energy, and find ways to either heal it or channel it into protecting each other. We are all in this together. We need each other. This is fact.
Block as you need to, especially if it helps you be well, but let’s not forget that the real challenge is to commit ourselves to finding ways for all of us to be well.
Aaron is a Chicago-based writer, activist, and educator. His work has been featured in Colorlines, Mused Magazine Online, the Feminist Wire, TruthOut.com, the Advocate, the Education Post, and Chicago South Side Weekly. He is currently working on a speculative fiction novel for young adults. Follow him on twitter and Instagram: @Talley_Marked