The body keeps the score

A short time ago (a million years ago? Covid time is weird and stretchy and shapeless but combine it with attempted coup time and I don’t even know) I wrote a bit about the Boston Tea Party—a founding myth of America, but also a riot that destroyed private property. What many people also don’t know is that the perpetrators dressed up in costume—garb imitating the nearby Mohawk tribe, to be exact—before overtaking three ships and dumping their cargoes of tea overboard.

I’ve read some news reports from that time period (and if anyone’s really interested, the information I used in my book for the Boston Tea Party section came from The Spirit of ’Seventy-Six: The Story of the American Revolution as Told by Participants, an enormous but invaluable volume of first-hand accounts from that era of America-to-be), and after reading mainstream media’s hot takes from yesterday’s attempted coup, I’m thinking about looking back to see how derisively the British Parliament and British press spoke and wrote about the men in costume revolting against their country, or at least their country’s taxes.

Just because people are attempting insurrection in costume and look and sound ridiculous doesn’t mean they aren’t deadly serious.

Like the perpetrators of the Boston Tea Party, those who “stormed” (their word) the U.S. Capitol fervently believed, and continue to believe, in their cause. This is one of the reasons I wrote recently in my post about the CSKT water compact that its opponents are people I have completely given up on reasoning with, if I haven’t given up on them as human beings and neighbors. (And just for the record, this is one of the reasons I value living in a complicated, mixed community that is anything but a bubble and why this “getting along with people whose opinions I detest” can’t just be rhetoric: one of those elected state lawmakers, whom I’m sure supports yesterday’s attempted coup, is married to a teacher who has been one of the few people to make my kid’s middle school years slightly less hellish. They live a ten minutes’ walk from our house.)

I keep going back to this video posted by Molly McKew, an expert on information warfare whose Twitter feed I used to follow, of a young-ish man (need I say white?) who had witnessed the shooting of a radicalized QAnon-believing Air Force veteran as she and others rushed through the doors of the building.

In videos like this what gets my attention is the body language—shakiness, tension in the voice, and the rise in pitch toward the end as the man’s passion comes through. About a minute into the two-minute video is when his real self comes out, his purpose (or what he thinks is his purpose) for being there: “This—this cannot stand,” he says, pointing toward the building. “They don’t represent anyone. . . . They think we’re a joke. . . . We have to do something.” As McKew points out, he can’t really explain who the enemy is or what his goal is. But he is angry and shaken and firm in the beliefs that led him there.

I’d ask where his passion was during Standing Rock or pretty much any week last summer during Black Lives Matter protests, but I imagine we all know the answer to that.

As I tried to drag myself away from Twitter yesterday while doing math with my kids, I thought a lot about bodies and emotion. My publisher, Hachette, did a little interview with me before A Walking Life came out, and in it I said some things I’d maybe revise or update, but some things that seem even more relevant today, like how social media—in fact, all media—seeks to manipulate our emotions, and what that does to us:

“I’m also really interested in the messages our bodies are sending us and how that can be manipulated. When you feel angry because of a news headline or depressed because you’ve been reading your Twitter feed, what do you really know about that emotion and what’s causing it? Are you, in other words, responding according to what you actually know is true in the real world and about real people, or according to outrage constantly triggered by the media you consume? I’ve come to think that getting to know your body—unfiltered through social media—is essential for understanding emotions like anger. Maybe it’s time more of us started asking how our perceptions of people on ‘the other side’ are being manipulated and whom that manipulation serves. Because it’s definitely not serving us.”

The entire scene yesterday is a part-answer to that problem, and as so many have pointed out, from Sarah Kendzior to Joy Ann Reid and many others, it was entirely predictable. I’m a writer at core but essentially I’m a housewife and mom of two living in a small town in Montana—I’m nobody, basically—and last summer even I was saying to friends that I didn’t see any of this going anywhere except armed clashes between police, citizens, and factions of enlisted military and the National Guard if nothing was done. That wasn’t just informed by Trump, but by having grown up in a place with a strong Aryan Nation contingent, and having watched it and its offshoots blossom after the FBI and other enforcement mechanisms lost the stomach for going after violent white extremists post-Ruby Ridge and Waco.

So here we are. The people breaking windows in the Capitol were responding to what they thought was true about the world, and their bodies were pumped with outrage and anger kept fed by a media machine that has zero interest in facts, only in attention.

The title of this post is taken from the book The Body Keeps the Score by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, in which he lays out his ideas involving how trauma lodges in the body, and details his work with Vietnam veterans and victims of child abuse. His work has been extended through studies on epigenetics by people like Rachel Yehuda (who studied descendants of Holocaust and 9/11 survivors) and Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart, who has studied trauma passed on through generations of Native American populations—Lakota descendants of those who’d survived the horrors of Wounded Knee in particular, but also those who suffered conditioning and abuse when forced into residential boarding schools.

The man in the video posted by Molly McKew is deeply misinformed at best, and looking for further radicalization at worst. I hope not. But no matter where he goes from here, the reality is that he and so many others who participated in a revolt yesterday are carrying bodies full of toxins that have been pumped into them for years by right-wing radio show hosts, by the Fox network, by online conspiracy theorists, and of course by the president and his supporters and enablers.

All of those words and feelings don’t just pass through the brain or stay on the internet. They stir emotions, start rushing energy and stress hormones around, and clamor for action. This is part of our evolution. Our flight-or-fight reaction is a stress response evolved to save our lives in the fact of immediate danger. Media uses it all the time, in some cases unknowingly but they certainly know what they’re hoping to achieve: to keep people engaged by keeping them outraged and angry, by keeping those bodies pumped full of stress hormones.

At some point all that radicalization and anger was going to have to go somewhere. People have been acting on those emotions for years by yelling online, by going further into conspiracies and disinformation, and by stocking up on weaponry. In some cases they’ve attended training camps for armed revolutionaries.

Nothing ever stays “just online.” It doesn’t matter whether I agree with any of those people or not, or whether you do or not. All of society suffers the consequences because at some point their emotions will need their bodies to take action.

And it’s not like I’m immune. One of the reasons I quit Twitter was because it was clear to me how easily hooked I get in toggling from one political feed to the next, and going further into the “how bad is it?” rabbit hole. Once I left, I was more aware every time I let myself look at Twitter of its physical effects on me. It’s like a craving for sugar or trashy cliffhanger TV shows (24 comes to mind) but worse. I can go from feed to feed to feed and at the same time be completely conscious that my body’s tension is growing—not just from anger, but from a physical need to fix it all. It’s no different, likely, than what a conspiracy theorist goes through engaging in a near-manic desire to connect all the threads together and finally grasp the entire picture. If I just check Molly McKew’s feed one more time, or Sarah Kendzior’s, or Malcolm Vance’s, or JJ MacNab’s*, or someone who seems to have an ear in the White House, then surely I’ll “get” it all.

And then what? I think we know what. Those aren’t the feeds yesterday’s insurrectionists were following, but the mind-body process might have been similar. The end is a strong desire to do something. And when you have a president who’s prompting you to go invade the houses of Congress to save his presidency and the democracy you believe you’re losing, what does anybody expect? Throw in a feeling of connection and fellow-feeling with a whole lot of other radicalized, disinformed insurrectionists, and you’re going to take that body full of excitement and stress hormones and march up the steps. And put your feet up on Nancy Pelosi’s desk I guess?

The longer a toxic media ecosystem is allowed to pump poisons into society, the more their bodies—or all our bodies—will keep the score. But it’s the body politic that pays the price.

*These are really good people to follow if you’re interested in these things, though!