The Emotional Republic Of China

Words and feeling and the party line. Leaning on Western studies of social psychology, the writer deconstructs how the powers that be have taught Chinese people how to feel.

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Zhou Lian

BEIJING — I still remember that summer day. I was seven years old, visiting the factory where my parents worked, when the large speakers broadcasting the Red Songs were suddenly interrupted. It was a public condolence read with a low voice full of grief.

I was playing with other children in front of the gate. My mother came to pull me into the house and told me solemnly that I was not allowed to laugh in public because — our kind Soong Ching-Ling grandma has passed away.

Though I didn’t fully understand what it was all about at my young age, I immediately accepted my mother’s explanation and tried hard not to express anything particularly happy for the rest of that day.

It was not until many years later that I understood that, strictly speaking, rather than being based on moral reason my mom’s explanation of the death of an iconic leader of the revolution was based on an intuitional training and emotional discipline — our “kind grandma” had died, and playfulness was therefore the wrong behavior. It’s an instinctive judgment that needs no inference, just like we feel the joy of seeing flowers and sense heart palpitations hearing the word “cancer.”

Robert Zajonc, the late Polish-born American social psychologist, is convinced that humans have an “emotion priority.” We are not at all so rational, neutral and objective as some assume when dealing with information. Contrary to what people imagine, humans tend to make emotional judgments first and foremost. Not only is it a preference, but is also more powerful than our rationality because it directly stimulates and influences a human’s behavior.

As Zajonc put it, people will begin to have a good impression of any words or images to which they are sufficiently exposed. This tendency of associating the familiar with what we feel good about is called the “Mere-exposure effect.”

‘Great’ Mao

From childhood until adulthood, various matters are accepted with likes and dislikes through this particular effect, and this forges corresponding emotional responses. This universal theory also plays out with its particularities in modern China.

For example, Soong Ching-ling is “kind,” Mao Zedong is “great,” Zhou Enlai is “beloved,” the old society is “evil.” The KMT (Taiwan’s Nationalist party) is “corrupt.” Taiwan is associated with “needs reclaiming,” democracy automatically with “chaos,” while the United States is associated not only with “American imperialism,” but also “wickedness” as well as “having not given up the wild ambition to subjugate us.”

Mao looking *great* as he watches over his cadres, in a 1969 poster (wikipedia)

This kind of unhesitating reaction is called “pattern matching,” in psychological terms. It’s economical and practical, rapid and spontaneous, as well as inert.

Naturally, it doesn’t necessarily mean that people cannot question and modify their initial intuition with moral reasoning after-the-fact. The research of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt — notably The Elephant and Rider Metaphor — draws analogies between elephants and rider to express intuition and conscious reasoning. Though the elephant (intuition) isn’t an absolute dictator, its authority, or say inertia, is much larger than that of the rider (rationality).

In my personal experience, my most notable elephantine inertia is reflected in my judgment of the “beloved Premier Zhou Enlai.” Though much historical data prove that Zhou Enlai committed many errors during China’s Cultural Revolution, and he had some personal shortcomings, it doesn’t do much to change the warm feeling and respect for him deep in my heart.

When I realized that on this very problem the rider of the elephant indeed was unable to influence the elephant, I suddenly understood why I will never be able to convince some of my leftist friends.

In another one of his books, “The Righteous Mind,” Haidt listed six intuitions as moral foundations: care/harm, liberty/oppression, fairness/lies, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation. He believes, within America’s political spectrum, the political left tends to rest more on the first three foundations that reflect their emphasis on compassion for the poor and a struggle for political equality. Meanwhile, the conservatives are more willing to sacrifice love in order to achieve other moral goals.

If this analysis is applied to what inspires the Chinese, one of the fundamental reasons why liberalism faces all sorts of difficulties in China is the lack of childhood love, freedom and a fair emotional education. When facing moral differences and political conflicts we should aim to abstain from the dogmatic position of “I am the truth, you are fallacious.” We should concentrate rather on communicating with the elephant instead of only with the rider of the elephant. After all, it is emotional education that has the power to fundamentally change a person.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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