Two Social Sciences: Middle School Trauma and Mediocre White Guys

My reading lately has been heavily gearing towards pop science and medical and social science topics. These two deal with very specific breeds of evil: mediocre white men who think they deserve the world at the expense of people of color and women, and the middle school experience. Both are atrocious in their own special ways. Let’s investigate!

And Then They Stopped Talking to Me: Making Sense of Middle School, by Judith Warner

You remember that fear: “The fear that, from one day to the next and for reasons unknown, someone could turn on me, stop talking to me, and start hating me was simply part of who I was.” If I just sit and think about this specific fear, I can conjure myself into a state of sick anxiety so real and palpable it’s like I’m right there again.

And apparently, in that I’m not alone. “For many adults, the middle school years contained the equivalent of a “primal scene” — only rather than being something that they had seen and couldn’t forever after un-see, the primal element was a feeling that, once experienced, couldn’t be un-felt.” Judith Warner shares a phrase from one interviewee who describes being “mindful of how big a dose of memory she could comfortably bear,” and anyone with traumatic or merely troubling associations with this time period would do well to keep that in mind when approaching this one.

The author set out to establish a better understanding of why middle school — even just the words themselves — evoke such an immediate, visceral response in so many adults and are more often than not dubbed the worst years. Although it’s ostensibly middle school (6th to 8th grade in the US), the age range is 11-14, which fits with what I consider to be those particularly bad years, so extending through the first and part of the second year of high school. The fucking worst!

There’s also a look at how the US-centric middle school experience is alike or dissimilar to that of other countries and cultures. China has an extremely competitive one, for example, but Vietnam was named as less so. This was really fascinating and I wish more time had been spent on it instead of a pretty long section of the book looking at American society’s deeply weird treatment of middle school-age kids in recent decades (she ties the Lolita era into a trend of sexualizing them, which, Jesus).

It didn’t quite get at what I was looking for, which was a deeper study of what’s happening psychologically and biologically. It is absolutely excellent where it does cover those topics, but it skips around so much and a big section about educational history for this age group and how we’ve traditionally viewed them socially was too long for such a short book.

It had some very helpful takeaways about brain development and body chemistry and how all that fits into evolutionary development and leads to the way kids this age treat and ostracize each other, and that’s what I appreciated most. As well as a stomach-churning look at the economic inequalities and competitive aspects that are just pummeling kids and regressing parents of a certain age back to their own middle school times and spinning up horrible behavior from both.

But it’s just too thin overall, and I’m not sure who it’s geared to, as I didn’t feel like there was enough general psychology and sociology here to be particularly helpful for the lay reader — it’s only maybe one chapter — and it doesn’t seem like a parenting advice book either.

The clearest message is that parents are entirely overinvolved in their kids’ lives and relationships, and it’s happening at the same time these parents are facing midlife crises of their own, and the result is disastrous: pressure on both adults and children, heightened drama everywhere, and the scarring legacy of treatment by one’s peers that, as Warner deftly demonstrates, lingers in the form of adulthood’s insecurities, sensitivity to rejection, and emotional challenges. A useful read for pitfalls to avoid as a parent or a gentle intro to why we feel certain pains that can be traced to this time. published May 5, 2020 by Crown

Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America, by Ijeoma Oluo

When I talk about mediocrity, I am talking about how aggression equals leadership and arrogance equals strength — even if those white male traits harm the men themselves and the kingdom they hope to rule.

When I talk about mediocrity, I am talking about the ways in which we can’t imagine an America where women aren’t sexually harassed at work, where our young people of color aren’t funneled into underresourced schools — all because it would challenge the idea of the white male as the center of our country. This is not a benign mediocrity; it is brutal. It is a mediocrity that maintains a violent, sexist, racist status quo that robs our most promising of true greatness.

Nigerian-American writer Ijeoma Oluo begins this blunt, impeccably researched, and effectively argued look at white masculinity’s fragility in the Wild West, specifically Buffalo Bill Cody and his Wild West Show. She shows Cody as exemplary of mediocre white men being able to fail upwards despite lying, cheating, and having no particular skills, smarts, or talents except for a willingness and ability to climb higher themselves on the backs of Native people through egregious exploitation.

Then she moves through the role of men in social justice movements and what their motivations are, a look at the elitist environment of the Ivy League, the dependency on people of color in America even as they’re denigrated, reviled and dubbed “too many”, women in the workplace, the female members of Congress (“the Squad”) currently challenging the political status quo (and getting hate from it all on sides), and Black men in football with all of the loaded social issues connected to this, especially recently.

Reading this in the context of the events of the last year, so much of it seemed even more pertinent, like her mention of certain types of men with the mindset of “cooperation as a weakness and others are the enemy,” an exact descriptor for how a large swathe of the population has behaved in response to government guidelines around the coronavirus pandemic.

Or that we can point at any given moment to the latest explosion of violence from a white man who felt not enough, or threatened by groups he feels inherently, intrinsically above, or was just having a “bad day.” I feel sick even writing that, but it’s why books like this, and this one specifically, are so important. This stuff keeps happening, has been happening since America’s founding; we built our country on enabling white men to subjugate everyone else and then whine about it when they’re not allowed to coast on mediocrity. Oluo highlights all of this so brilliantly, especially in historical context. It’s as illuminating as it is infuriating. You know how Canada has Canada Reads, where they select one book for the whole country to read together? If only America would do that and that it were this one. I want to hand this book out like a prescription.

It had its difficult-to-sit-with moments, like Oluo’s hard look at how Bernie Sanders was adored by the “Bernie bros,” who had an especially active and vitriolic online presence, because he prioritized issues that affected them over ones affecting women and people of color. Her analysis of our fraught recent political environment in general is outstanding; this especially struck me:

Nobody voted against Obama because he focused too much on Black people. It was because after hundreds of years of white presidents primarily looking after the interests of white people, white Americans couldn’t imagine that a Black president was capable of looking out for the interests of everyone.

As was her look at women in powerful positions at major companies, where “We find more dudes named John at the heads of top companies than women.” When women are given the top job, like Jill Abramson at the New York Times or Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, it’s usually because they’re being tasked with helming an already sinking ship. So then the inevitable failure gets conveniently pinned on them. The lesson is that when white men can’t succeed, no one else should be able to either.

Referencing the numerous threats of suicide she’s received online, Oluo writes,

They wanted me to know that the only option available to address white male patriarchy was either to maintain the status quo that was making us all miserable, or death. They wanted me to know that they were not capable of growth or change and that any attempts to bring about that growth or change would end them.

Nobody is more pessimistic about white men than white men.

Hard-hitting and necessary. published December 1, 2020 by Seal Press

15 thoughts on “Two Social Sciences: Middle School Trauma and Mediocre White Guys

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    1. Such a good phrase, isn’t it? I can’t take credit although I can’t remember where I first heard it. But it just describes so much. I don’t think you’re being bitter and twisted at all – Boris seems a perfect example of it at the very least, doesn’t he??

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  1. Your review of the first book made my heart rate go up just thinking about middle school! Kids are absolutely awful at that age – I’m nervous about my son approaching that age in the next couple of years. So maybe I should skim this one at least.

    I definitely want to read the Oluo – I thought So You Want to Talk About Race was so good.

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  2. I’ve worked with petty, insecure men of mediocre talent who failed upwards and made life hell for everyone.

    Speaking of hell, man junior high had it’s moments. I was literally jumpy up through my 20s because of being hit so many times in junior high – for years, if someone moved too quickly, I flinched into a defensive posture. I had zero control over it.

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    1. Ugh, I’m so, so sorry you had that kind of lingering traumatic experience. I feel like the abuses are so much more physical for boys than it they are for girls around that time. Girls psychologically torture and emotionally manipulate each other and boys hit each other. Just so fucked up.

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  3. 10-14 really are the nightmare years. I will never understand people who say that those are the best years of their lives! I always assume – perhaps unfairly – that anyone who speaks fondly of that time must have been a bully, because I can’t imagine anyone else having even remotely fond memories of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, same! I always assume they were the ones doing the bullying, how else could you enjoy that time in the slightest. This author also spoke to a few people who identified it as a positive time for them, but they always had a major dip shortly after, like in high school, which is when many of the people who had issues in middle school stabilized at least somewhat – less of the silent treatment from friends, etc.

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  4. I need to read that book about mediocre white men, surely the major threat to human survival. The middle school one sounds like a necessary topic too but not the best treatment. I think the point about parents going through their own midlife crises at the same time is quite important (and was definitely true for me, both as child and parent, alas.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Threat to human survival is a really good way to put it, absolutely awful as that is. I think you’d appreciate And Then They Stopped Talking to Me, having seen it from both sides in your own experience. The fact that major upheavals could be happening in parents’ life concurrently never really occurred to me when I considered the particular awfulness of middle school, so that was an interesting element. Sorry you had to go through it both ways! If it’s any consolation, the book will definitely make you feel not alone in that.

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