Has Resilience Become a ‘Dirty Word’?

Let’s just call them ‘TV Personality’ shall we? Their name is already everywhere and if you’re curious, you can piece it together and look it up. Everything TV Personality says is so dedicatedly on brand anyway that you’ll probably work it out. Anyway, I don’t really want to talk about TV Personality specifically, or any one particular social media dispute. I want to talk about resilience. But the context is helpful, so let’s start with a sequence of events.

A young tennis player retires, apparently injured, from a match in which they were trailing and nearing comprehensive defeat. This follows a week when they’ve received a lot of excited attention and details of the injury are unclear. A former tennis player in commentary suggests perhaps they weren’t up to the challenge and, in turn, receives concerted criticism on Twitter for effectively calling another human weak, absent any medical information about their wellbeing. Enter TV Personality, who tweets their support for the commentator by way of an even less nuanced description of the player’s inability to handle pressure, while misspelling the player’s surname. TV Personality now gains the attention of many Twitter users, several of whom wish to remind TV Personality of a recent episode of TV which culminated in their walking offset because of something someone was saying that they didn’t like.

There follow many hours of back and forth between TV Personality and their critics. In amongst various coded criticisms of various athletes and praise for others, TV Personality manages to make subtext text with the following clarification (which you are welcome to Google if you’re still curious):

“Mental strength and resilience are not dirty words. They’re good things that need to be taught, nurtured, encouraged & celebrated from school onwards. This would be immeasurably easier if so many high profile people stopped playing the victim.”

Let’s now X out of a few tabs, forgive ourselves for approaching this debate on someone else’s terms, and just unpack the merit of this statement.

Why would someone feel the need to say that resilience is not a dirty word? It seems like one of those indisputably positive things. Who would choose to be less resilient? For as long as I have been conscious of resilience as an idea, I have been aware of people wincing when it is mentioned. I don’t remember hearing the term in school from teachers or my parents (though I do remember reaching a provincial cross-country final and our coach telling us he wanted to see us running with ‘complete disregard for our own health and safety’). I did two social science degrees in the naughties before being introduced to resilience as a focus of study during my third. A fellow PhD student told a roomful of academics that they would be using Resilience Theory as a framework through which to interpret his research with young people in State care. Hands went up. He was asked did he mean resilience solely from the perspective of the individual? In the context of his project, was there a risk that using this lens would lead to a reductive and quasi-moralistic categorisation wherein some of the young people in care would have their highly complex experience reduced to a simple label: this young person A shows resilience, in contrast to this other young person B, thus explaining why A has fared better than B.

Many social scientists instinctively resist explanations located exclusively at the level of the individual. I sometimes show students clips I have compiled of how local news outlets cover exam results day. Usually there’s an interview with the top-performing student, who gets asked what tips for study and revision they would offer to younger viewers aspiring to straight A’s. Other students get asked what they plan to do next, which university they’re heading off to. I’m not sure if it’s due to the questions asked, or the editing, or the nature of the day itself, but I have struggled to find instances of students mentioning their parents or their families. In the reporting, there is limited discussion of the role of communities, be that in the sense of how the people in a community come to value learning, or how a young person’s exam performance represents only a narrow facet of their formation as a citizen, as someone whose community will depend on their broader education to be sustained and make positive decisions into the future. Money is never mentioned, though it lurks silently in the background in the shots of contrasting types of schools. Maybe it’s not the day for it, but nobody ever questions or calls attention to the entire exercise of examination as a means of sorting the population into different life paths, the role of this credentialist system in reproducing privilege and social hierarchy.

You cannot satisfactorily account for someone’s exam performance by talking about their techniques for revising. So much resource, so many decisions, so many interlocking institutions go into shaping what that individual even perceives as possible. But, of course, here we arrive at a point of political and philosophical tension, as well as academic dispute. For some, you can present all the graphs you like, point to all the patterns, summon all the abstractions you wish, you’ll still not get your A’s unless you put down your joystick and go revise. No army of tutors, no amount of firm impressive handshakes will learn you the material you need to know when you’re asked on the day. And, by extension, if you want out of a cycle of poverty, the best thing you can do is knuckle down.

So, returning to the statement about resilience, there is something telling about framing resilience as something ‘to be taught… from school onwards’. As if school itself is nothing but an arena for unbridled formation and self-discovery, a simpler and fairer place than the adult world, in which a well-meaning nudge from a skilled educator could set you on your way to be a leader of… let’s just say others. As if every school were the same; as if many didn’t in fact require an abundant store of resilience just to make it from Biology through to big break.

I think that, in reality, very few people take a position anything like as extreme as Thatcher’s supposed denial of society’s existence, or at the opposite pole, one that denies any true individuality, says that there are no actors, that choice and consciousness are illusions which occur to distract us while power flows through us like electricity through pipes. What we have instead are leanings, tendencies to reach towards and defend accounts of the world which foreground either the individual and her choices on the one hand, or on the other, the many constraints placed on those choices by the structures of power which permeate everyday experience.

To emphasise resilience, its critics assert, is necessarily to over-simplify the nature of individual experience and overstate the power any individual has to change their reality. I think this gets conflated with saying ‘nobody should try and become more resilient: we should fix The System before becoming preoccupied with self-improvement’. To me, this is a category error that misses the bigger point. That point is this. When resilience becomes a policy objective, it turns the volume down on those systemic structural problems which produce precisely the adversity we want people to be resilient against. It also shifts responsibility away from those who could use their power to augment those structures, and onto individuals who ought to be more resilient.

But this is precisely what we see happening in every conceivable area of policy development: some facet centring on citizens’ ability to fend off the worst effects of how other policies are failing. Climate resilience is, to me, an almost self-parodying framing. Yes, absolutely, those most likely to experience the worst impacts of climate change ought to be helped to be as ready as they can be. But the idea that you would divert one cent from actually combatting climate change, changing human behaviour, decreasing our reliance on unsustainable and damaging sources of energy and food, is a capitulation. Economic resilience is a similar story: how can we equip people for the growing automation of labour? Oh yeah, well who decided we need mass automation? Could we perhaps discuss the proposal before making countless people jobless?

Again though, nobody is seriously arguing that individuals shouldn’t seek to become more resilient in any of these areas. Let’s return to the scene of the unpleasantness. Should we teach young people techniques to deal with social media abuse? Almost certainly yes. But surely just as important as building their resilience in this emerging domain of everyday life, is pointing out their opportunity to be the change they desire: to treat people with kindness online and see if they don’t see the good in that. But then of course there are bigger questions still. What of the architecture of social media themselves? How much responsibility for vindictive harassment on social media platforms ought to fall to the corporations which privately and profitably curate these spaces?

I am curious precisely who has told TV Personality that mental strength and resilience are dirty words. What I’m guessing has happened is that people have made some of the types of points that I’m making, about how one person’s resilience is beside the point and focusing on it exclusively leads us down blind alleys of determinism, or perhaps suggested that what TVP understands to be resilience might actually be socio-economic privilege masquerading as individual virtue. That, in turn, is misinterpreted and caricatured as saying that nobody should aspire to become more resilient. As a father to a four-year-old, I often silently wish for greater resilience on the part of my daughter and myself (c.f. “Daddy, can you help me with the dinosaur puzzle?” “Sure. Do you think this is part of the tail?” Child’s face crumples into tears. “No you’re not doing the tail, I’m doING tHE TAIL!!”)

I am also curious where the phrase ‘mental strength and resilience’ came from and what it tells us about this perspective. Perhaps it’s time to start referring to TV Personality using his preferred pronouns. Unquestionably, a large part of the response he provoked was due to his being a man agreeing with another man about a young woman’s inability to handle a tennis match going against her. Rightly or wrongly, when people hear a man tell a woman to toughen up, show more strength and less weakness, stop ‘playing the victim’, they take is as implied that she should be more masculine, and more tolerant of a society that disproportionately values masculine traits. Again, the question arises, between an individual sportsperson deciding to prioritise their personal wellbeing over their sporting ambitions, versus a society that problematises that decision as insufficiently masculine, which should concern us more?

Hours after finding herself at the centre of these exchanges, the player released a statement, first clarifying that the issue was not a skeletal injury, but nonetheless a set of symptoms which concerned her medical team. The statement also included one of those phrases you can interpret in whatever way suits your prior opinion. This was to the effect that the preceding week’s events and excitement had taken their toll and ‘caught up’ with her. TV Personality dutifully quote-tweeted this, ostensibly in support and sympathy, but also reaffirming and claiming vindication for his initial reading of events.

This pattern of argumentation is becoming very familiar. Bad faith is assumed in every direction. People take offence and argue past one another rather than engage. Two potentially compatible and complementary worldviews are not recognised as different in their emphasis, but as mutually exclusive. And so often it seems to boil down to two over-simplifications, which I will in turn over-simplify as ‘But the system!’ versus ‘Whatever the system, it’s still up to you to make your bed’. The net result being that pinning down what is the ‘resilience debate’ (or, for that matter, the ‘social mobility debate’, or the ‘integration debate’) becomes nigh-on impossible, because these aren’t really debates with well-defined propositions or sides.

In my optimistic moments, I see in all of this the seeds of a more constructive dialogue which confronts a central tension of our times. On the one hand we have, as individuals, the tools immediately to hand to each relentlessly pursue our own unique potential self, to improve our lives daily and nurture our greatest talents. On the other, we are every day more interdependent, our fates more intertwined, our unique realities more intermeshed. Meanwhile familiar structures and stratifications largely where each of us fits in this interdependency and the vantage point from which we can see the potential our lives. Our collective mood at present isn’t one which disposes us to agreeing any version of these starting points. We’re at an adolescent stage of our collective reasoning: we want to win arguments, or just to storm off and speak to our friends. Maybe if there’s a resilience-building project which most urgently needs our attention, it’s our collective tolerance of differences in opinion.

Photo by Wokandapix is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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