The Toxicity of “Toxic”

fort tryon in springWe gain much of our strength, versatility, and wisdom from difficulties and challenges. Yet today a cult of convenience squats in each field of life. When people refer to others as “toxic,” they are not just using words carelessly; they are suggesting that the people they don’t like (or don’t immediately understand) are bad for their precious existences and deserving of expulsion.

Would the scene in the photo exist if no one could be bothered with difficulty? It took some adventurous sculpting and grappling with stone and plants (and that’s an understatement). What about a great friendship, also a mixture of nature and sculpture? If people dropped friendships as soon as they became difficult in any way, what would be left?

Again and again, I see advice about how to eliminate “toxic” people from your life. The criterion for “toxicity” is basically inconvenience or unpleasantness. Those who speak of “toxicity” rarely distinguish between people who pose difficulties for you and people who really hurt you.

On her website Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the forthcoming Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People (Portfolio, April 25, 2017), declares that you “deserve to have people in your life who you enjoy spending time with, who support you and who you LOVE hanging out with.” The site has been discussed in comments on Andrew Gelman’s blog; while there’s plenty to say about the references to “science,” I’ll focus on “toxic” instead, since that’s the topic of this blog post.

In her short article “How to Spot a Toxic Person,” after describing seven toxic types, Van Edwards lists some tell-tale symptoms that you’re in the presence of someone toxic.  She then assures her readers that they don’t  need these toxic people–that they deserve the company of wonderful people, with whom they can be their best selves. Here is the list:

  • You have to constantly save this person and fix their problems
  • You are covering up or hiding for them
  • You dread seeing them
  • You feel drained after being with them
  • You get angry, sad or depressed when you are around them
  • They cause you to gossip or be mean
  • You feel you have to impress them
  • You’re affected by their drama or problems
  • They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no’

Now, of the nine symptoms listed here, only two clearly have to do with the other person’s actions: “They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no.'” The others have to do with the sufferer’s own reactions and assumptions. Of course those reactions also matter, but they do not necessarily reflect meanness, selfishness, or obtuseness in the other person.

So what? someone might ask. If someone’s company leaves you miserable, don’t you have a right to detach yourself? Well, maybe, up to a point (or completely, in some cases), but it makes a difference how you frame it, even in your own mind. It is possible to keep (or work toward) some humility.

If your explanation is, “This person wants more time and energy from me than I can give,” then it makes sense to try to set an appropriate limit. If that fails, either because you weren’t clear enough or because the other person does not accept the terms, then a more drastic resolution may be needed–but even then, it doesn’t mean that the person is “toxic.” It just means that you have incompatible needs. Perhaps you were like that other person once upon a time; many of us go through times when we particularly need support or seek it from someone who cannot give it.

If the explanation is, “I don’t like the kind of conversation I end up having around this person,” then one option is to change the topic or tenor of conversation. Another is to limit its length (or try to do something together instead of mainly talking). If neither one works, there may be a basic incompatibility at stake. Even then, it doesn’t mean the other person is “toxic.” It just means that you have different interests.

Now, of course there are people who use, harm, and control others. There are people who gossip aggressively and meanly, promote themselves at every possible opportunity, or treat others  as their servants. In those cases, one still doesn’t have to use the word “toxic”; a clearer description will lead to a clearer solution.

Why does this matter? The concept of “toxicity,” as applied to humans, has become a fad; people use it to justify writing off (and blaming) anyone who poses an inconvenience or whose presence doesn’t give constant pleasure. Philosophers, theologians, poets, and others, from Aristotle to Buber to Shakespeare to Saunders, have pointed to the moral vacuity of this practice. Yet the “toxic” banner continues to fly high in our hyper-personalized, hyper-fortified society (and always over the other people).

There are ways to be around people and still hold your ground, draw provisional lines, and take breaks. It’s possible to limit a relationship without deeming the other person awful. It is not only possible, but essential to public discussion, substantial friendship, and solitude. Who am I, if I must dismiss and disparage someone just to go off on my own or be with others? Doesn’t that cheapen the subsequent aloneness or company?

As for whether we deserve to be around people we love, people whose company we enjoy–yes, of course. But we also deserve to be around those whose presence is not quite so easy for us. When appropriately bounded, such a relationship can have meaning and beauty. Some of my best friendships had an awkward start; they grew strong when we let each other know what we did and didn’t want.

I hope never to call a person “toxic”; if it’s my reactions that trouble me, I can address them appropriately; if it’s the person’s actions, I can find a more specific term.

Image credit: I took this photo in Fort Tryon Park.

Update: Here’s an article by Marcel Schwantes (published in Inc.) advising people to cut “toxic” co-workers from their lives as a way of keeping “good boundaries.” Here’s a quote:

5. Cut ties with people who kiss up to management.

They will go out of their way to befriend and manipulate management in order to negotiate preferential treatment–undue pay raises, training, time off, or special perks that nobody else knows about or gets. Keep an eye out for colleagues who spend way more face time with their managers than usual. The wheels of favoritism may be in motion. Time to cut ties.

What? You don’t even know why the person is spending “face time” with management. Why conclude that it’s “time to cut ties”?

This anti-“toxic” stance of this article (and others like it) is much too self-satisfied and self-assured. 

My Galvanic Afternoon

I have just gone on a run around Prospect Park in Brooklyn. I’m sweating and thirsty as I walk home. I think of getting some water at a store but figure I’ll wait. Then a voice gurgles, “Diana! Wouldn’t you like some juice? We have your favorite juice, pomegranate juice.” I look around to see who’s talking but spot no one. 

Last week, the doctor gave me a galvanic skin response bracelet for my running. Since then, various buildings have been calling out to me. At first I thought it was someone addressing another Diana, or perhaps myself going mad, but then I realized it happened only when I was wearing the bracelet.

I refuse the offer with a shake of the head and walk on. The next few stores don’t say a word. But just when I’m about a block away from home, another store whispers, “Diana! You’re almost home now. Wouldn’t you like to get some juice and cat food? We’ll give you a discount.”  

“No,” I say, “no! And stop bothering me.”

When I get home, though, the phone rings. It’s a customer service representative from the bracelet company. “I’m calling you to offer you emotional support with your bracelet experience,” he tells me. “We offer free robot therapy to customers who are having difficulty according to the data. This phone call is scripted and monitored for quality assurance.”

“I want out of this plan,” I tell him. “The doctor said this would be used to measure my temperature and heart rate while I’m running. I don’t want robots or talking stores.”

“Your bracelet has multiple purposes,” he says with drilled pleasantness.

“Why didn’t anyone inform me of this?”

“It’s explained on one of the consent forms you signed.”

“Who has access to my data?”

“Anyone, unless you request one of the restriction plans.”

“What can I do to turn it off entirely?”

“You are entitled to bring it back to your doctor and opt out of the benefits. However, you might want to consider Data Plan 1, which gives you the highest level of control over the data. It’s only 59 dollars a month and comes with free cable, mobile phone, robot therapy, and a vacation package.”

“I don’t watch TV.”

“I suggest you try it. There’s a whole channel devoted to News for You. That’s a state-of-the-art program compiled from all the existing news shows and commercials and customized to your interests.”

“Sorry, not interested,” I say. “I think I’ll just have to throw the bracelet out.”

“Throwing it out is a federal offense,” he replies, “due to the sensitivity of the data. If you really want to opt out of the plan, you’ll need to return it to your doctor. However, we can offer you Data Plan 1A, which has internet service instead of TV. That’s only ten dollars more per month.”

“Thank you, but I’d rather return it to my doctor.”

As soon as I hang up, the phone rings again. It’s my doctor. “I see on my screen that you aren’t happy with the bracelet,” he says. “Could I persuade you to keep using it for another month?” He explains that he has agreed to meet a data quota. “I don’t like it, you don’t like it, but one day we’ll all be wearing these things.”

I tell him that whatever the future holds, I’d rather not wear this when I don’t have to. “I’ll stop by on my way to class,” I say. I head over to the office immediately.

“We’re so sorry it didn’t work for you,” the receptionist says when I hand her the bracelet.

“I’m not,” I reply. “But thank you anyway.”

I make my way to baroque architecture class. I start when I see the professor handing out bracelets at the door. “Even here?” I ask, but she only smiles at me.

Once we’ve donned our devices and taken our seats, she displays Longhena’s Church of the Scalzi, a ghastly edifice. She looks at her monitor. “I see high energy levels from most of you,” she says, “so we’ll be focusing on this church for a while. This is how we’re teaching now. Instead of a one-size-fits-all curriculum based on outmoded ideas, we’re looking at what really excites you.”

I slip out of the room, leaving the bracelet behind, dash down the stairs, and make a run through campus to the street. Then I hear a voice coming from an old brick wall: “Diana! Consider turning back. You have rejected the future and failed the course!”

“The future!” I retort. “We’re talking bad Baroque!”

“It’s the future, because it’s you,” says the wall. “The data show it’s you.”

But I make my way past the wall, and no more walls address me.

I tell one of these walls how grateful I am for its noble lack of words. “Keep it up,” I say. “Stay mum, no matter what the pressure.”

I doubt the wall was listening, but it was worth a try.

Is Personalized Learning a Good in Itself?

Late last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced its new criteria for Race to the Top. Whereas in the past only states could apply for federal RTT money, now the competition is open to “local educational agencies” (LEAs). Each applicant must demonstrate a commitment to “personalized learning”:

RTT-D will reward those LEAs that have the leadership and vision to implement the strategies, structures and systems of support to move beyond one-size–fits-all models of schooling, which have struggled to produce excellence and equity for all children, to personalized, student-focused approaches to teaching and learning that will use collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools to deliver instruction and supports tailored to the needs and goals of each student, with the goal of enabling all students to graduate college- and career-ready. 

I have a visceral reaction to jargon such as “collaborative, data-based strategies and 21st century tools.” Beyond that, I question the value of personalized learning, especially as described here. Accorded top priority, it will likely open the gates to fads and gimmicks: mandatory “individualized learning goals,” aggressively marketed learning software, and more. Personalized learning should be a means, not an end, and should be defined carefully. (I discuss “mass personalization” and its pitfalls in the eighth chapter of my book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture.) 

How could personalized learning not be good? some might ask. How could anything be better than a flexible curriculum tailored to the needs of each child? 

Common subject matter, at its best, takes students beyond their current understanding and preferences. When I taught Book I of Plato’s Republic this year, I saw how it woke certain students up intellectually—students who, if given a tailored curriculum, might not have encountered the Republic at all. Who was to know that they were ready for it or would appreciate it? A good common curriculum offers students things that they would not necessarily choose on their own. Students should have opportunities to choose some of their readings, and courses, but common curriculum can open up a surprisingly individual experience. 

What do U.S. Department of Education officials have in mind when they speak of “personalized learning”? Somehow I doubt that the Republic figures in their plans at all. They are more concerned with skills. In their ideal environment, teachers will meet frequently in “data teams,” analyze student work, and determine how to help each student progress. (We do this already, but they’d say we should do even more.) Since it is impossible for a teacher singlehandedly to address the needs of 100 or more students, schools will likely purchase products, such as software that captures and analyzes student discussion, producing graphs of students’ speaking patterns, or clickers with which students may answer multiple-choice questions. The use of such devices will count as personalized learning, simply because each student will have a progress chart. 

Good software can help immensely with certain kinds of instruction. Online language laboratories, quizzes, and even lessons can supplement what students are learning in the classroom. The key word here is “supplement.” Students should use any and all tools that truly help (and not replace) their learning—so that they can come into the classroom fully prepared for the instruction and discussion. In other words, students, generally speaking, should take care of their own personalization, and teachers should take care of the common part. Yes, there is overlap, but it should not stretch too far. 

Of course, teachers personalize the learning to a large degree. They review student work and adjust the lessons accordingly; offer choices on certain assignments; and provide additional help to those who need it. Such personalization, though, is subordinate to the larger goal of teaching something important, lasting, and beautiful. Subordinate it should remain. 

Now, the grants are only for LEAs where at least forty percent of the participating students quality for free or reduced lunches. One might argue that disadvantaged students need a more highly individualized approach than others do. However, such an assumption has dangers. Schools with a moderate or high poverty rate (especially grant applicants) would likely focus on skills, whereas schools with more affluent students would be at liberty to teach substance. In addition, the high-poverty schools would endure clamor over personalization; it would come up in their meetings and memos and appear in large font on their websites. They would have to show evidence of personalization at all times, whether or not it made sense. We would see curricular bifurcation, as before.

What are we trying to do, ultimately? Have students create shiny portfolios? Data-driven “look how I’ve grown” slideshows? Or do we want to bring students into a larger conversation about something? Granted, this is a false opposition. The best education attends to the individual, but not at the expense of common learning. Latin might be an elective at a school, but everyone taking Latin will learn the same grammar and and read the same literature, for the most part. Otherwise it could not be taught in much depth. A composition course might indeed be tailored to the needs of those present, but other courses would require students to learn specific material. Any good course makes room for both the individual and the common, but not necessarily in obvious ways.

The most unsettling aspect of this call for “personalized learning” is its neglect of the subtly personal: the private encounter with subject matter. A student may be individually transformed by Augustine’s Confessions, but this doesn’t count; the individuality that matters here is the kind that looks like the others, the kind with buzzwords and graphs. In the name of personalized learning, the U.S. DOE rewards conformity of a sort. It favors schools that show off students’ growth charts and portfolios, like teenagers in a schoolyard sporting their brand-new clothes.