Opinion Editorial Archive February, 2021: Girls, Interrupted

opinion editorial
Any opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the policies of The Peoples of the World Foundation. Unless otherwise noted, the author and photographer is Dr. Ray Waddington.

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A girl's life was, tragically, interrupted last month. Temporarily quarantined in an Australian hotel, she had to wash her own hair. (Vanessa Sierra later claimed that her complaint about her plight on social media was merely a joke.)

Girl, Interrupted is the title of a popular, late-Twentieth Century memoir about a girl whose life was truly interrupted by institutionalization at a psychiatric hospital. The main character (and the book's author), Susanna Kaysen, suffers from difficulty processing patterns. Another "girl" had that same difficulty last month. Lee Luda does not wash her own hair because she is an artificially intelligent chatbot. Her social media presence was interrupted after less than three weeks online. Like Microsoft's Tay before her, users did not take long to train her to turn out hate speech and her creators pulled the plug.

The timing of Luda's demise is significant. It came in the same month that social media companies began to see the harm that comes from allowing content such as disinformation and hate speech on their platforms. While Girl, Interrupted explores the notion of the social construction of mental illness within the psychiatric profession, the age of the social media construction of mental illness within the advertising profession has arrived. Luda's demise also demonstrated how easy it is to train a supposedly intelligent agent to become harmful to society by exposing that agent repeatedly to a certain set of input patterns.

Last month's insurrection in the United States has sparked a debate there about de-radicalization. How can we re-train a human intelligence, which has previously been trained using distorted, fantastical input patterns, to process, instead, patterns that reflect reality? There is a field of study and practice that has been asking the same question for decades: cognitive behavioral therapy. Like most approaches to treating mental illness, cognitive behavioral therapy uses a variety of techniques. One of them is called guided discovery. Here, the therapist learns of the client's symptoms (for example, "I know that climate change is a hoax") and the input patterns that led to those symptoms (for example, "I've seen presenters on my favorite news channel repeatedly say that it's a hoax"). The therapist then guides the client through a gentle process of discovery that is intended to replace the symptoms by presenting input patterns based on reality.

The Map Task is an inventive technique used in the experimental study of linguistics. It is useful because it allows the experimenter to manipulate the gap between reality and distortion in a controlled way. Two subjects each have a map but neither can see the other's map. The maps differ to some extent that is controlled in advance by the experimenter. For example, one map may have a sheep farm and the other a goat farm in its place (or a sheep farm in a different location, or no farm at all). The first subject has a route drawn on their map between a starting and an ending point. Using only verbal communication, the subject with the route attempts to communicate that route to the other subject. There is a rich literature from Map Task experiments. Researchers have found that analysis of the dialog sheds a great deal of light on how we use language in an ambiguous world to establish common reference points of reality.

The Map Task can be viewed as a form of guided discovery. The subject with the route (therapist) has access to reality; the subject without the route (client) has access only to distorted reality but must come to understand reality to be successful. Given the dire need for mental health professionals in the United States at the moment, I propose that cognitive behavioral therapists there begin adopting the Map Task. I envision therapeutic sessions based on maps of indigenous peoples' reality. One session, for example, based on Cherokee reality, might begin something like the following.

[Therapist] "Set off from the shaman's house and walk the short distance to the house of the anonymous man."

[Client] "I see the shaman's house, but the anonymous man's house is very far away from it."

[Therapist] "How do you know which house belongs to the anonymous man?"

[Client] "It has his name written on the front door: Q."

[Therapist] "You must be looking at the house of the different man. There is no letter Q in our script because there is no such sound in our language. What looks like the letter Q to you is pronounced 'Nu' in our language. Nu-da-le-hna-v means different. He has been banished and must live far away. We call him 'the different man' because he believes things that the rest of us don't."

[Client] "Like what?"

[Therapist] "Like there's no such thing as a virus."

[Client] "There isn't any such thing as a virus!"

[Therapist] "Do you have two cemeteries on your map?"

[Client] "Yes I do. But why are there two cemeteries in such a small place?"

[Therapist] "One is the cemetery of v-yu-gi. That is where we bury only those who died from things like smallpox or covid."

[Client] "Whatever... how do I identify the house of the anonymous man?"

[Therapist] "He prefers to be known not by any name but for his many great achievements. He has a son so we call him 'man with son who has pride.'"

[Client] "I don't see any Proud Boys on my map."

Today, the Map Task is only an academic exercise. Yet in prehistoric times, as indigenous groups first migrated around the planet they consistently reached land with new topography, vegetation and wildlife. The ability to communicate accurately how to reach essential resources was a matter of survival. Indeed, language itself evolved, in part, due to the need for such communication.

These indigenous Tai Dam girls were interrupted only for a few seconds when I took this month's photo. They wash their own hair, but not in a luxury hotel. Indigenous girls like these all over the world have had their lives interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. According to a report issued by the Economist Intelligence Unit last month, the world's poorest countries will not achieve mass coronavirus vaccination until 2024. It is in those countries that most indigenous girls live.

I believe that forecast is realistic. The vaccine wars taking shape in Europe now, along with the hoarding of vaccine doses by wealthy countries, are reminiscent of a colonial mindset. Further evidence of that colonial mindset came from Canada last month. There, Rod and Ekaterina Baker were accused of using their privileged wealth status to travel from Vancouver to the tiny, indigenous community of Beaver Creek in Yukon Territory, where they posed as local motel employees, to jump the queue for coronavirus vaccination. If convicted their lives may be interrupted by time in prison. Hopefully, they will be institutionalized long enough to be exposed to the Map Task.

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