When Is Insensitivity Something To Strive For? Answering Hannah Gadsby’s Question
In Nanette, Hannah Gadsby asks, “When is insensitivity something to strive for?”
It’s an interesting question considering that we’re currently in an epidemic of suicides and record numbers of adults medicating themselves for crippling anxiety.
This is not some sort of attack piece of Gadsby, by the way. I truly enjoyed the special although to call it groundbreaking and game-changing is nothing more than wishful thinking. She did a brilliantly written one-person show. Will it change how we perceive comedy? Not a fucking chance. Hell, even Shakespeare wrote dick jokes, and one Netflix special, no matter how well written and performed (aside from the unnecessary last 15 minutes, in my opinion), is going to reverse things. I know we want what we want and we want it NOW! but that just isn’t how things ever pan out.
To the question:
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), 40 million Americans over the age of 18 are affected by anxiety — roughly 18 percent of the nation’s population. Of those 40 million people, almost 7 million of them suffer from [generalized anxiety disorder], with 15 million suffering from social anxiety disorder, 14.8 million suffering from major depressive disorder, and 7.7 million affected by post-traumatic stress disorder.
Setting aside the judgmental labels of being overly sensitive or emotionally unavailable, let’s look pragmatically at the question.
We’re obviously not talking about being insensitive to the cold or heat because our natural adaptability gives us the coping mechanisms to either clothe ourselves, make fire or use water and/or air conditioning to brave the elements. Our nearly hairless bodies aren’t physically capable of handling the harshness of weather. Becoming less sensitive to the effects of nature’s thermostat is simply a part of our survival as a species. It’s why those who live in California come to Chicago and feel like 65 degrees is freezing. Their bodies adapted to the desert heat and are thus less capable of handling the cooler temps.
Imagine for a moment, the person so angry at nature’s disregard for humanity that he raises his children in a hermetically sealed room. Temperature controlled. Everything padded and corner-proof.
When his children finally achieve adulthood and leave the nest, the shock of reality would devastate them. They likely wouldn’t survive very long demanding compliance to their comfort and need for the absence of corners. If they did survive, they would either be permanently crippled or be forced to adapt.
But we aren’t talking about physical survival here. We’re talking about emotional survival.
When it comes to emotional survival, when is insensitivity something to strive for?
I believe there are two types of sensitivity we should address. The first is sensitivity to others. The second is personal sensitivity.
Being insensitive to others is never something to strive for, at least not in a society that has slowly crawled it’s way from openly torturing heretics to religion in the streets for entertainment. Life among humans creates a natural distrust that breeds this sort of insensitivity. Get gamed by enough fraudulent panhandlers and eventually one becomes less sensitive and more wary of all panhandlers. If your only experience with a minority is the slanted perspective of a crime procedural on Bravo, your insensitivity to that minority is going to expand. Lose your job to someone not like you and that person begins to represent a tribe that you see as predatory.
It isn’t pretty but it’s completely human to do so. Not only is it human, it’s completely inevitable and beyond our ability to control. We can’t demand it away, we can’t legislate out of existence. Controlling the thoughts of others is a fable (unless you're Putin and you're controlling Trump).
Why would anyone strive for this sort of insensitivity? “You’re just too trusting,” she says. “Be careful because people will take advantage of you,” he explains. “Read the fine print or you’ll get fucked.”
Because people — all people — kind of suck. Gandhi was a racist, MLK fucked around, your mom gambled away the rent money and you traded your only livestock for some beans. The best you can do is be cautious and work on yourself.
Personal sensitivity has revealed itself today to be more liability than boon, however. The inability to cope with micro-aggressions (they’re micro — it’s in the name) with nothing more than either rage or self-incrimination is nothing if not destructive. Like in nature, the world simply will not be shamed into being less ignorant or bias and minor offenses create a need for a bubble of protection in order to survive. A safe space where you can control the behavior of others.
I’d argue that personal insensitivity can be manifested by not taking yourself too seriously, not expecting to feel good most of the time, and finding coping mechanisms that are not capitulation to behaviors that offend yet allow for the deflection of it nonetheless.
That the insensitivity to the thousand cuts is required to survive the self-created anxiety over the known but unacted and the unknown. It is essential to move away from the crippling depression or simple apathy required to take one’s own life.
The dichotomy of embracing the insensitivity to life among those insensitive to others is to open oneself and embrace the offense, accept the hurt and grow from it.
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.”
― Louise Erdrich, The Painted Drum
“There is nothing stronger than a broken woman who has rebuilt herself.”
— Hannah Gadsby
Yes. In the narrative of our times, it has to be a broken woman rebuilt, but it is as applicable to widen that statement so everyone can share. Scars mean you survived and are stronger for it. Being broken, betrayed, left, hurt, marginalized, beaten aren’t good things and no one should have to endure them. But all of us do and there’s simply no escaping it. Hell, most people go through five or six traumatic events like Gadsby’s assault in a lifetime and most come out stronger, smarter and more ready for the next one just like her. I’m not pulling that out of my ass, either.
This isn’t some Mother Theresa “Suffering equals grace” bullshit or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” meme — it isn’t the trauma that makes you grow, it’s what you do after that makes the difference. You question reality, you question yourself, you make decisions to, perhaps, no longer be self deprecating in your act and write a show that gets picked up on Netflix. You work at survival. You learn.
Maya Angelou was raped at age seven, told her brother and a few days later, her attacker was found dead. She was so broken by the experience, she didn’t utter a single word for the next five years. And yet she forged ahead and wrote things. She once admitted that she didn’t become what she was despite her early trauma, she became what she was because of it. When she wrote, she said she wrote over her scars — scars that only she could see and touch and feel.
Here’s where many will scream at their screen and call me a toxic male, but the substantive difference between physical pain and emotional pain is choice. You can’t really choose whether the pain you feel from freezing outside with no clothes on or being physically assaulted. That’s beyond your choice to feel but, unless you die, usually goes away over time. You can and do choose to feel the emotional pain associated with betrayal, bullying, and marginalization just like you can and do choose to replay that shit over and over in your mind. You choose to be offended and to respond.
More to the point, you choose how you react to it and how you deal with it in the future.
While Gadsby directs her question to the white, heterosexual men in an audience of white, heterosexual men who chose to come to a stand up show featuring a lesbian comic (which is kind of the definition of preaching to the choir because I can pretty much guarantee no anti-gay white Neo-Nazis paid a dime to be in her audience nor bothered to watch it on Netflix) and tells them to “pull your socks up” she does so while giving the rest of the tribe(s) a pass.
I’d expand that advice to everyone.