As the pandemic rages now through the heartland, I’m trying hard to understand how so many people in this country can be so convinced that this coronavirus is not real—even some people who are dying of it. Maybe you heard the interview this week with a nurse in South Dakota who says the some patients would rather see themselves as having lung cancer than COVID. I mean, lung cancer!
The arrogance of this position is stunning—as if humans could dictate the terms of reality. Or escape from being affected by a virus. As if we could live outside nature.
It’s a clear reminder that humility is a crucial skill for surviving here on Earth. Let me repeat: humility is a survival skill.
This is not how we usually think about survival. We usually say that it belongs to the strong, the ones on top. So, since we locate survival in dominance, much of what Western society trains people to do is to become masters—to succeed, to claw our way to the top. And Western society’s history is one of enforcing dominance—through dividing people into social classes, through enslaving and trying to eliminate those with dark skin, through asserting mastery over the Earth and exploiting the Earth. These actions are consistent with believing that survival depends on supremacy.
But then along comes a virus—so tiny that it takes an electron microscope to see it, and so simple that scientists are divided about whether it’s even alive. It’s just a long strand of RNA with an oily coat that needs others to invade to further its own existence.
And here our story of mastery falters.
Because we discover we can be prey. And it comes as a huge shock when we’re used to thinking of ourselves as sitting at the top of the food chain. Of course we are being bitten by mosquitoes and consumed by mircoorganisms all the time. But we don’t actually think of ourselves as prey. It’s too humbling.
I remember the philosopher Val Plumwood’s famous story of being attacked by a crocodile. She was canoeing in the backwaters of Australia when a log in the waterway turned out not to be a log at all. It was a crocodile, and the crocodile was watching her with eyes of flecked gold. Then the crocodile attacked, bumping her canoe until Plumwood was forced to jump to land. But at the very moment she jumped, the crocodile seized her between the legs and carried her, as she wrote later, “into the suffocating wet darkness.”
Crocodiles whirl their prey in a death roll and then hold them underwater until they drown, and this is what the crocodile did to Plumwood, holding her under until she was sure she was gone. But at the last possible second, her head broke water and she gulped air. So the crocodile took her under again into another roll of terror. Finally she again surfaced. This time she grabbed a branch and strained to pull herself out of the water. But the crocodile seized her once more and spun her under the water a third time.
Finally this death roll ended too, and Plumwood grabbed some grass on the muddy bank and with sheer adrenaline pulled herself up and away from the crocodile’s jaws. But then she had to bind up her jagged flesh and somehow find help. She limped through the bush for hours, finally blacking out and crawling the rest of the way toward rescue.
Later she wrote of the horror we feel at the idea that we might be food for others. Think of how we prevent worms in the ground from breaking down our bodies after death: first the embalming, then a steel coffin, then placing that coffin in a vault of concrete. We spare no expense in setting ourselves apart from those who would gain nourishment from us. Plumwood wrote, “We may daily consume other animals by the billions, but we ourselves cannot be food for worms and certainly not meat for crocodiles.”
Having to see herself as meat changed Plumwood’s life forever. Before the crocodile attack, she wrote, she viewed life as if “from the inside,” as if she were the central character in a story that revolved around her own continuation. We all do this, she said, going about living as if the Earth exists to keep our human selves continuing at the center of its story line. But it’s a dangerous delusion. And if that image of ourselves suddenly shatters, she added, “the mind can instantaneously fabricate terminal doubt of extravagant proportions: This is not really happening. This is a nightmare from which I will soon awake.”
In her case, she said, “this desperate delusion split apart as I hit the water. In that flash, I glimpsed the world for the first time ‘from the outside.’” She saw herself from the point of view of the crocodile. Suddenly she was no longer the central character in the world’s story, the one at the top who eats others but can never be eaten by them.
Plumwood learned that she was prey. We are prey. We are not separate from the universal feast—and we certainly are not the masters of that feast, as we like to think.
When I reread Plumwood’s words this week I heard them echoed in the dying COVID patients who deny that the virus is real. The nurse in South Dakota said, “Their last dying words are, ‘This can’t be happening. It’s not real.’” For these patients, the “desperate delusion,” as Plumwood called it, has not yet shattered, not even as they face death.
What can account for this level of delusion? Seeing oneself as central to the world story has much to do with it. In other words, hubris. Arrogance. But in addition to considering ourselves supreme over all the Earth, there is another kind of supremacy at work among the COVID deniers, and that supremacy is whiteness.
I spent some time this week with Jonathan Metzl’s book Dying of Whiteness, published last year. Metzl is a professor of psychiatry and sociology at Vanderbilt, and he researches public health. He studied three states in the heartland where white backlash created support for policies that damaged public health in those states, including the health of white people. For example, his home state of Tennessee chose not to implement the Affordable Care Act, so that while public health improved in the neighboring state of Kentucky, which did enact the ACA, public health in Tennessee, especially of poorer white people, suffered by comparison.
And those same lower-income people supported the bad policy. Metzl interviewed one man named Trevor, who was dying a slow death of liver failure. As Trevor put it, “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it. I would rather die.” When asked why, Trevor said, “We don’t need any more government in our lives. And in any case, no way I want my tax dollars paying for Mexicans or welfare queens.”
These are chilling words. Trevor was willing to die to keep people of color from taking resources that he thought of as belonging to white people. He was dying, in effect, for the supremacy of whiteness.
Metzl says he met many people with Trevor’s views, people willing to commit what he calls “political acts of self-sabotage” in order to protect whiteness. In a sentence that sounds prophetic from a book that came out a year before COVID, Metzl wrote that his research showed that “Trump supporters were willing to put their lives on the line in support of their political beliefs.” And those beliefs were fueled by white resentment—essentially, the fear that whiteness might no longer reign supreme.
So the deeper problem here, Metzl says, is not individual racism among people like Trevor, it’s that racial resentment is the driver behind laws and policies enacted to keep whiteness at the center of the storyline. It’s racism baked in to governance.
And it’s what Metzl calls “the false promise of supremacy.” Because supremacy is maladaptive. It doesn’t lead to good decisions or good outcomes. Through the story of “whiteness as supreme,” we have profoundly endangered the health of society and of the planet as a whole. For by dividing ourselves into two camps, white and other, we follow the illusion that our fates are separate.
The truth is that we ride in the same Earth boat, and the idea that some are deserving and others are not is a delusion. And it is a dangerous one, for it leads white and privileged people to keep punching large holes through the hull of the only boat we will ever know.
And through the storyline that “humans are supreme,” we have managed to wreak havoc on the delicate balances of nature, creating crises of air and water and extinctions that will take generations, maybe thousands of years, to heal. We conned ourselves into believing that the story line of Earth revolves around us, and it comes as a shock to have our delusion shattered.
The truth looks a lot more humble. Humans are but one participant in an intricate webwork of life where everyone eats, and everyone is food. Where a virus can figure out how to jump to human cells and use them to further its existence. And dividing ourselves into separate human camps only hampers us from responding to this deadly predator.
For this is how predation works—each side developing ever more creative strategies for outwitting the other. In a world of eating and being eaten, this is the evolutionary pressure we put on each other. To deny that we humans are part of the communal feast—to deny the existence of this new predator virus—is to hamstring our own ability to evolve new strategies for thwarting it.
Supremacy is maladaptive. Thinking we are superior to others—whether human or other-than-human—is dangerous. Why? Because it is not true. We all come into existence; we all eat and are eaten; we all die. Clinging to supremacy, because it is divorced from reality, leads toward death rather than life. Toward extinction not survival.
To survive, we need to see clearly. Because only by seeing reality can we respond appropriately. Only by acknowledging that we are vulnerable to a virus can we figure out how to save our own lives. And only by seeing the lives of all humans as joined can we pool our resources and imaginations well enough to survive.
This is how humility becomes a survival skill. Because it takes being humble to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around us. And it takes being humble to realize that to survive, we have to honor the lives of others, both human and other, who are different from us.
So do only the strong survive? It’s far more likely that it’s the humble who survive, because the humble are living with eyes open to their surroundings. And in this humility lies the greatest strength of all, the strength to be flexible and to adapt to conditions as they arise.
How do we break through the psychosis of our current moment? To allow delusions to be shattered so we can see more clearly? How do we find our way toward humility? These are pressing questions, but we’ll need to leave them for another day.
In the meantime, here’s wishing you a heart that’s open enough to be humble and eyes that can truly see.
For digging deeper
Val Plumwood survived the crocodile attack in 1985 and went on to write about it in “Being Prey,” an essay published in Terra Nova 1, no. 3 (Summer 1996): 32–44. Another version appears in The Eye of the Crocodile, by Val Plumwood, edited by Lorraine Shannon (Canberra: Australia National University Press), 2012. You can read a shorter version online at the Utne Reader site, July–August 2000.
Jonathan Metzl’s book Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland, came out in 2019, and you can read the introduction online at Google Books.
Update: Months after producing this podcast, I learned of a wonderful reading of Plumwood’s own telling of the story in her book The Eye of the Crocodile. The reading aired in February 2020 at To the Best of Our Knowledge, an episode called “‘We Are the Feast’: A Feminist Philosopher’s Life-Changing Encounter with a Crocodile.” If you have a chance, listen to this riveting reading.