Following Our Digital Footsteps

by Ean Tam, May 19, 2021

On January 21st, 2020, the United States reported its first case of COVID-19 in Washington state. Over the course of a year, offices emptied, schools closed, and normal life disappeared. By April 2021, over 553,000 Americans had passed away due to the pandemic. Now, as vaccine shots continue to make their way into people’s arms, the hope of defeating the pandemic appears more attainable. The vaccine is our shot back to the workplace, the classroom, and, some would say, back to normal life.

While suppressing this respiratory disease itself may be possible, many people struggle to take a deep breath and relax. For more than a year, across the country Americans have been sheltering in their homes, taking in the world through screens and behind masks. They have been waiting to return to work, hoping to regain jobs they lost at no fault of their own. It will take time for people to regain a sense of control over their lives and examine the mental health effects of the pandemic.

Perhaps we can comprehend how the pandemic played into the worst sides of ourselves. How did transitioning to a life online affect us? What will be our ‘new normal’ post-pandemic? How do we want to discuss mental health? To answer these questions, we should examine the research into our social and online behavior, including new techniques in studying social media activity.

A Life Online

When isolation orders began, we observed the panic: not as frenzy crowds going berserk in the streets, but in the simplest of manners: lining up at the supermarket. Under the threat of prolonged lockdown, citizens translated their insecurities through their wallet. In the United States, where consumerism is a part of our culture, our spending behavior can exemplify our human instincts: “Cash, and the fantastic appeal of what money can buy… provide a way for humans to distance themselves from the disturbing realization that they are animals destined to die” (Arndt et al., 2004). Certainly, not everyone assumed COVID-19 was going to be the ultimate scourge of the human race, but the mindset was there. As a reflection of that mindset—that we as humans can have some control over our lives—we decided to wipe out the supermarket shelves before COVID could wipe us out.

Of course, the online world to which we were regulated put us face-to-face with another nuisance we had already been trying to grapple with: misinformation. Unfortunately for us, online misinformation has only become worse. In beginning of the pandemic, so little was known about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Once a rumor, half-truth, or plain lie made its way online, there was no way of knowing how far it could travel. But it is clear that unreliable sources induce panic and anxiety, stoking our fears of the current situation, encouraging us to prepare more (Usher et al., 2020; Johal, 2009).

When ventures outside of our homes are limited to stocking up on groceries, the possibilities for personal connections are lost. Small talk is hard to come by, especially when you are six feet apart, wearing a mask, and staring through the glare of plexiglass. Physical interaction has become impersonal. Even the relationships established before the pandemic have been hurt. The online connection has been unable to keep up with the loneliness. While we can turn on our cameras to see each other’s faces on screen, the interaction is not a proper substitute for in-person contact (Lippke et al., 2021). In a study of 212 Swiss undergraduate students, researchers found that the students, because of the pandemic, were increasingly working alone and not engaging in networking with their peers. Students’ depressive and anxiety symptoms also increased. The concerns about the students’ minds ranged from the “fears of missing out on social life to worries about health, family, friends, and their future” (Elmer et al., 2020). For mourners who require “restorative activities (e.g., travel, spending social time with friends),” those options vanished (Lee and Neimeyer, 2020). The emotional connections that would have helped no longer do, and the strength of the friendship has diminished. This faltering sense of belonging and attachments to others can manifest itself in our physical and mental health (Baumeister and Leary, 1995).

It is no secret that internet use and mental health are intertwined. More time spent on the internet affects our social interactions and increases the chances of cyberbullying. It appears the relationship between internet use and social interactions can go either way: problematic internet use (PIU) can be both the cause and the result of diminished social interactions. When internet use is the cause, social interactions suffer because of depression, neglect of offline obligations, and obsessive behaviors, all of which are linked to PIU. When PIU is the result of diminished social interactions, the internet is seen as a coping mechanism—a world to which people can escape (El Asam et al., 2019).

However, the world people enter is not always so agreeable. Excessive internet use has a profound impact on adolescents because they are not only victims of cyberbully, but also encouraged to take part in it. Online communities offer opportunities for validation. At times, participating in cyberbullying is a way for some adolescents to ‘fit in’ with their online counterparts. Moreover, an adolescent who engages in such internet behavior can be expected to develop PIU (Chao et al., 2020). It appears that most of the time, victims of cyberbully do not allow the abuse to end with them. They will have “a desire to respond, which may encourage others to join the fray leading to a potentially long and drawn-out series of increasingly abusive and antagonistic communications” (Chao et al., 2020).

Before lockdown, excessive users of the internet had the ability to separate themselves from their devices. However, once life went online, that opportunity disappeared. We all, in a way, became problematic internet users. A life online, while necessary for the past year, has shown to be harmful to our mental well-being.

Back to Normal?

When we eventually emerge from this pandemic, the cloud of lockdown will still hang over us. One of the lingering concerns will be the home as the petri dish. Throughout this pandemic, citizens have created their own fortresses, hoping to keep the COVID invader at bay. Every trip outside of the home was a potential for letting an intruder in. That is why we wiped down all our groceries and bathed ourselves in hand sanitizer after every door handle. The pressure to keep the home decontaminated has been especially hard on those living with vulnerable groups like the elderly.

Retreating to our homes for the past year has proven to us that some things are simply no longer worth going out: movies, restaurants, shopping. However, “even people who do not become housebound may become fastidious germaphobes, striving to avoid touching ‘contaminated’ surfaces or hugging people or shaking hands” (Taylor and Asmundson, 2020). Pandemic sanitation standards will persist, similar to how some American families maintained their parsimonious, self-sufficient lifestyles after the Great Depression (Taylor and Asmundson, 2020).

The stress of yourself being a carrier and potential hazard to those around you can be exacerbated when living conditions are tight. When living conditions are limited, tensions can flare. Unfortunately, some people find themselves trapped at home with COVID outside and an abuser inside, making their situation a possible source of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Taylor and Asmundson, 2020).

For those who have contracted COVID-19, some have had to deal with guilt for possibly infecting others, embarrassment for having contracted the disease while others did not, and shame for not protecting oneself enough. Not even our healthcare workers have been exempted. In Italy, Daniela Trezzi, a 34-year-old nurse, took her own life in March of 2020 after she had tested positive for COVID-19. Trezzi’s colleagues reported that her suicide may have been the result of her concerns of having infected other people (Giuffrida and Tondo, 2020). As COVID-19 surged in New York City last April, Dr. Lorna Breen, an ER doctor at New York-Presbyterian Allen Hospital, committed suicide. The virus had taken the lives of many of Dr. Breen’s patients. Despite the overachieving and dedicated passion to her job, Dr. Breen’s family believed she “was devastated by the notion that her professional history was permanently marred and mortified to have cried for help” (Knoll et al., 2020).

Plenty of people will be able to return to normal life post-pandemic, to go back on the street as if nothing has changed. But for many members of the Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, this is an impossibility. A wildfire of misinformation spreads (and continues to spread) across the internet, pinning a substantial number of American citizens as walking embodiments of SARS-CoV-2. Therefore, for AAPIs, returning to a normal life post-pandemic does not mean traveling down the street as if nothing has changed. As the United States begins to open, we are already seeing increases in racist attacks against AAPIs. We have seen this before. In 2014, Ebola was blamed on Africans because it was deemed an “African problem” (Usher et al., 2020). The ease of scapegoating specific demographics is an example of maladaptive coping “where coping is emotion-focused rather than problem-focused” (Cho et al., 2021).

We would like to think there is a chance for a return to normal. However, for many people, this is an unlikely future. Quarantine and the pandemic experience have affected the mental health of citizens across the globe. The pandemic has left us lonely, guilty, and fearful. It has forced some people to channel their insecurities into counterproductive behaviors. Behaviors that prevent us from regaining a sense of camaraderie and interconnectedness—some things we all lost this past year in quarantine.

Putting Our Online Activity to Good Use

Although living our lives on the internet has strained everyone, there may be something to gain from our past year online. In recent years, mental health researchers have turned their eyes to social media. With every post, like, or share, there may be a hidden meaning waiting to be deciphered. A variety of social media websites have been utilized for possible insights into specific mental health issues. Twitter is a popular site for study. It has been used for learning about detecting signs of depression and suicide (De Choudhury et al., 2013; Tsugawa et al., 2015; Coppersmith et al., 2016). Instagram, Reddit, and Tumblr have been used to study depression, suicide, and anorexia, respectfully (Reece and Danforth, 2017; Shing et al., 2018; Chancellor et al., 2016).

Taking advantage of machine-learning to comb over patients’ extensive social media activity, researchers have found indicators of mental health illnesses. For example, researchers classified tweets of suicidal individuals by their expressed emotions, emoji usage, and frequency of tweets. They found that tweets usually expressed sadness then anger after a suicide attempt, and that frequency of emotional tweets increases while emoji prevalence decreases (Coppersmith et al., 2016). The machine-learning systems allow for detecting these indicators with accuracy as high as 80 to 90 percent. This technique of combining computing power with psychiatric evaluation has led to the term “digital psychiatry” (Chancellor and De Choudhury, 2020). The focus on social media is particularly helpful in studying younger generations. Regardless of race or medical history, a younger age has been “the only significant predictor of blogging and social networking site participation” (Chou et al., 2009).

Northwell Health, New York state’s largest healthcare provider, has realized the importance of using social media for the purpose of engaging with patients as soon as possible. Since 2013, Northwell’s Early Treatment Program (ETP) has specialized in treating adolescents and young adults suffering from psychotic symptoms. Dr. Michael Birnbaum, Director and founding member of the ETP, studies the application of social media as an indicator for psychosis. I spoke with Dr. Birnbaum to learn more about his research with social media and its implications.

“This line of research was happening in the world of computer science, but not so much in psychiatry,” Dr. Birnbaum explained. “The idea sort of organically arose through reading the exciting literature on machine-learning and social media. Thinking about some of the major challenges and obstacles to delivering effective care, we came up with this solution.”

To perform his studies, Dr. Birnbaum and his colleagues retrieved social media archives donated by participants. These databases were downloaded straight from social media websites and then inputted into machine-learning systems provided by computer scientists from institutions like IBM, Cornell Tech, and Georgia Tech. The magnitude of data for these studies were immense. For instance, in one study, from just 223 research participants, Dr. Birnbaum and his team had collected 3,404,959 Facebook messages and 142,390 images. With this Facebook data alone, they found that the machine-learning system could identify research participants who had schizophrenia spectrum disorders (SSD) and mood disorders (MD). In terms of posts and messages, those with SSD were more likely to use words of sensory perception, those with MD were more likely to make references to the body, and SSD and MD groups were both more likely to use curse words. When it came to Facebook photos—a more abstract source of analysis—Dr. Birnbaum and his research team found that those with SSD and MD were more likely to post smaller photos by dimension, and the hues of photos from MD participants were more blue and less yellow (Birnbaum et al., 2020).

Now, while the volume of information is essential to the experiment, the social media archives are not limited to just the research participants. Within these archives, you can find private messages sent by the research participant and messages sent from second parties whom the participant was communicating with.

“One of the other ethical issues is the fact that there are a ton of secondary subjects: all of the friends and connections to other users who don’t necessarily agree to have their data donated and analyzed, and so that’s something that, as a team, will need to sort of grapple with,” Dr. Birnbaum explained. To handle this ethical issue, Dr. Birnbaum’s studies had to eliminate the data from these secondary parties. So, while these secondary subjects may not have their private messages inputted into a machine-learning system, there is no denying that those messages are being stored somewhere at some point. It will be up to the patient to inform his or her friends that their conversations may eventually find their way into a stored database. Consent, conservation, and confidentiality of social media information are only some of the big hurdles of digital psychiatry (Wongkoblap et al., 2017). However, Dr. Birnbaum believes that with the correct system in place and an understanding from the public, the application of machine-learning can find success in psychiatry.

“This shouldn’t be about surveillance or taking the power away from the patient. It’s just the opposite. In my mind it’s creating a way for the patient to be able to learn more about themselves and also share it with their clinician. Just like when you go to see your doctor who orders a blood test or an X-ray, you donate your blood to inform because it’s going to improve your care. Though most people don’t like taking their blood, similarly, I imagine a situation where the benefits would be clear and patients would be willing and interested in donating their digital data to inform their care in a meaningful way.”

Furthermore, Dr. Birnbaum highlighted a key issue in psychiatry: the reliance on self-reported information. It has been shown that self-reported data can be unreliable and underestimate health issues (Wallihan et al., 1999; Newell et al., 1999). Dr. Birnbaum elaborated, “We just are notoriously bad at this—all of us—at describing our own behaviors. Most of us can’t remember what we ate for dinner a few days ago, and so I think that these things can be immortalized in digital data, and so we can accept it more readily and use it.”

And in terms of the depth and perception from which we can learn, social media information may be the closest thing psychiatrists can have to 24/7 observation of their patients. Retrospective analysis of a patient after they have been admitted into the hospital is not the best solution. Social media information may hold the key.

“A patient sees the doctor periodically, and they meet for a certain amount of time and then that’s it,” Dr. Birnbaum said. “You don’t really know what’s happening in between meetings beyond patient self-report. The [social media information] provides information about what was going on between sessions. So, you can learn a lot more about, or rather from a different source and a more objective source, about what people are doing, thinking, and feeling.”
Of course, social media information is no substitute for in-person meetings. For Dr. Birnbaum, “I imagine a situation where someone donates their digital data a day or two before they come to meet me in my office, and then we can discuss the findings and determine whether or not we need to change the treatment plan.”

Although Dr. Birnbaum explained earlier that routine treatment involves monthly meetings with patients, the timing of when a patient should donate their social media archives is not exactly clear: “That is something that has yet to be empirically explored. Maybe it’s once a month when they come see me, maybe not. I could imagine a situation where it is done at the beginning of care and maybe perhaps periodically after that. I think it depends on what information we’re after, what we’re looking for, and how each individual uses social media.”

In the end, social media activity would just be one component of digital psychiatry. The way Dr. Birnbaum sees it, “Social media is a piece of the puzzle. They’re also people looking at speech, facial movements, wearables, cell phone data. All of this stuff paints a picture. A more comprehensive picture.”

What’s the Point?

On April 9th, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled, “Loneliness, Anxiety and Loss: the Covid Pandemic’s Terrible Toll on Kids.” In it, the author, Andrea Peterson, details the faltering grades, confidence, and motivation of young students. One 13-year-old stated, “[I]t’s been a lot harder to make friends and talk to new people… I feel like a lot of us drifted apart… It has set in that I’m alone” (Peterson, 2021).

With vaccines getting administered around the world, our public health appears to be on the right track. For many of the students who spoke with Peterson, transitioning back to in-person social activities will be difficult, but nonetheless, they will finally be in-person. Hopefully, for all of us, returning to in-person work or school will be the remedy we need. But the final obstacle we will face is the way we confront mental health as a society.

When The Wall Street Journal shared Peterson’s article on its Twitter profile, many of the comments were supportive—a lot of teachers and students voicing their approval with the awareness raised by the article. Then, of course, there were comments like these:

https://twitter.com/HRHSherlock/status/1380646040714375170

https://twitter.com/eagles2sixers/status/1380923582268764164

It would be quick and easy to say kids these days are just soft. It would be quick and easy to say there are more pressing matters than this. But the people who choose these quick and easy solutions seem to forget that we are all wired differently. We process things differently. Just as physical abilities differ from person to person, our ways of handling strains of our mental health differs. And to those who say the deaths from COVID-19 are more important: yes, preventing deaths is the number one priority, but the pandemic will be over. Can we talk about mental health effects then? Or would we have forgotten about it already?

It is unfortunate to think that these attitudes can exist within families, preventing people from getting the help they need. Whether it be depression or psychotic disorders, stigma exists everywhere. The family unit is not always equipped to understand the needs of someone suffering from a mental illness.

“For the most part, it’s impossible to tease apart providing good care to a patient without involving their family,” Dr. Birnbaum told me while explaining the role of family at the ETP. “So, it’s critical that the family understands what’s happening and has a connection to the treatment team, is involved in the treatment decisions in some capacity, and knows how to be most helpful and supportive for their child.”

It is no secret that there is a clash of how we discuss mental illness. Some people, due to culture or age, like to keep it under the rug, while younger generations tend to be more open about mental health. Those who like to keep a tight lip about it find themselves being blamed for being a part of the problem. Well, to put it simply, they are. I would hope people do not see that as a political opinion. It is informed medical advice.

When asked about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and culture, Dr. Birnbaum explained, “I think that’s part of the work and that’s part of the advocacy. And part of the excitement of early intervention is sort of getting the message out that there are resources and tools and help available. The more we talk about it, the better.” He added, “Hopefully that’s something that we can do by changing society.”

Changing society will be no easy task. It will take time, just like waiting for this pandemic to be finally over. The ‘new normal’ waiting for us will ultimately be defined by us. If we decide to keep things the status quo, then that is what we should expect. As difficult as the past year has been, we ought to make the most of it. With the new advancements in machine-learning, we can learn from the online activity we amassed in quarantine. Work like Dr. Birnbaum’s shows that studying our online presence can improve the way we comprehend mental health. We can learn more about ourselves, mental health, and possibilities for early treatment for young people. When it comes to pandemic, the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting brighter. While we cannot say the same for mental health, our digital footprints can help lead the way.


Work Cited

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@eagles2sixer. “I’m sorry the kids had to stay home on their phones for a year but please. Did the kids that worked in dangerous factories or lived during the blitzkrieg or black in the south in the early 1900s or during the depression or a million others not have it 1000X worse?” Twitter, 10 Apr 2021, 12:40 p.m., twitter.com/eagles2sixers/status/1380923582268764164.

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Should We Embrace Race in the Workplace and School?

by Ean Tam, January 16, 2021

***FALL 2020 CONTEST SUBMISSION***

As a student of the New York City public education system, I have always been in a diverse environment. For instance, my elementary and middle schools had an annual Multicultural Day Fair. The younger students performed traditional dances from different cultures, while the older students set up tents around the campus and presented research they had done on specific countries or an influential person. I enjoyed the Multicultural Day Fair, but I never thought of it as anything particularly special. It was just an event that I had always participated in since kindergarten. A few years into high school is when I realized that not all schools in America are as diverse as mine and how diversity can be a privilege. What diversity has taught me in terms of social interactions with people of other backgrounds is not a lesson that every person in America has the opportunity of receiving. However, in today’s world, where companies and firms can draw in employees from all across America and the world, employees may find themselves in workplaces where a majority of their coworkers are from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Schools are another part of society in which people may experience culture shocks or accidentally stumble into a cultural clash. Employers and school administrations may try to mediate these differences by encouraging either of the two strategies: color blindness or multiculturalism. The colorblind strategy advocates for people to be oblivious of race, whereas the multicultural strategy embraces race. Having been accustomed to the multicultural mindset all my life, I want to explore how the colorblind strategy compares. How successful is the colorblind strategy not only in leading people to ignore race, but also in establishing a cooperative and supportive environment? 

At the 2016 Republican National Convention, Ivanka Trump introduced her father, Donald Trump, and claimed, “He recognizes real knowledge and skill when he finds it. He is colorblind and gender neutral.” Evidently, she has linked color blindness as a means of seeing a person’s true worth—what he or she can bring to the table is more important than his or her race. This very same idea is highlighted in Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The notion that our personal attributes solely define who we are is very attractive. So, it is not hard to see why a colorblind strategy would be implemented in a company or school. But how successful is the colorblind implementation when it comes to people looking beyond a person’s race? Research suggests grim potential for the colorblind strategy. In a study conducted at Dartmouth College, researchers Dr. Jennifer A. Richeson and Dr. Richard J. Nussbaum found that participants who had been told the colorblind strategy was most ideal in a diverse setting were more likely to show signs of racial bias versus the participants who had been told the multicultural strategy was better (419-421). The research  participants were presented with names and were asked to categorize them as “White” or “Black” names, and they were presented with pleasant and unpleasant stimuli and were asked to categorize them as “Good” or “Bad.” Richeson and Nussbaum observed students of the colorblind group took longer to categorize negative stimuli as either “Black” or “Bad,” but were faster to categorize positive stimuli as either “White” or “Good.” They interpreted this discrepancy as a sign of the students’ racial bias. This categorizing system may seem like unconvincing evidence of bias. However, this system, called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), is well known and utilized by researchers to find the true attitudes people do not want to admit (“Implicit Association Test”). Richeson and Nussbaum’s research suggests that even the very idea of the colorblind strategy being successful was enough to create a considerable amount of racial bias within the students. The participants in this study were participating on their own free will without any personal repercussions (Richeson and Nussbaum 419-421). So this makes me wonder, what would be the effects on workers who have to keep a colorblind mindset since their paycheck depends on it? 

Dr. Michael I. Norton et al. of Harvard Business School demonstrate how color blindness affects work productivity and interactions between black and white coworkers. Norton et al. concluded that white workers were more productive with other white workers and communicated more in order to complete the task at hand (950). This ease of communication was facilitated because the white worker was more willing to use specific terms such as “black” and “African-American” when doing a categorizing activity. However, when the white workers were put in the same situation but with a black coworker, white coworkers no longer had the confidence to use those specific terms regarding race. Norton et al. explain that interactions between the black and white coworkers went further downhill as the white coworkers’ “… attempts to appear color-blind—by avoiding race—are accompanied by additional costs: less friendly nonverbal behaviors” (950). I found the results of this article interesting because it presents the colorblind strategy unintentionally becoming a form of extra-baggage in someone’s head. Instead of focusing and being able to communicate freely, a person who is attempting to be colorblind is carefully watching every one of his or her words. Now, I do not interpret (and I am sure the researchers do not imply it either) that being able to “communicate freely” means being able to mention race as comfortably as one likes. Not at all. “Communicate freely” is just everyday conversation that we should all be able to engage in. The colorblind strategy makes the everyday conversation subject to paranoia and increased self-restraint. Much like how a germaphobe is too afraid to venture outside because germs may or may not be on the next door handle, coworkers may be skeptical of those from other backgrounds because an accidental racial offense may or may not be lingering in the next conversation. As a result, coworker interactions are limited, brief, and uncordial. 

It is important to note that the workers described in the above study were not committing any kind of discrimination by limiting their interactions with black coworkers. They just did not want to be put out of their comfort zone, and that in itself should be convincing enough that the colorblind strategy is flawed. However, there is more research contributing to a narrative that the colorblind strategy separates people more than it brings them together. While the research mentioned so far has been focused on coworker-to-coworker interactions and not so much coworker-to-employer interactions, the research concerning education policy is just about equally focused on teacher-to-student and student-to-student interactions. This should give some insight into how the colorblind strategy affects authority and how such effects trickle down. 

Ideally, a successful educational system is one that makes every student feel welcome and comfortable to learn the material. In 2017, the United States Department of Education published a report stating, “Achieving a diverse student population in a given school building is a major accomplishment, but additional efforts are important to avoid the replication of inequities and disparities in achievement and access within a school that has a diverse student population” (18). This report takes the stance that a diverse student body will not automatically find its own way of including every student on the same path to success. Surprisingly, the twenty page report makes no specific reference to multicultural or colorblind strategies (it does not even use any form of the word “multicultural”). Although the US Department of Education report does not stress a particular strategy, it does advise school districts to consult legal experts if the school districts wish to recognize students’ race and cultural background (5). The report also emphasizes the importance of funding if a school wants to increase diversity because proper funding is necessary to enroll students from outside of their own districts (5). The US Department of Education report has made it seem that recognizing race, cultural backgrounds, and increasing diversity is quite the hassle: legal consulting, examining state and local laws, and allocating the proper funds. It may be possible that the colorblind strategy is an easier strategy to apply in schools than the multicultural strategy. A colorblind strategy ignores race, thus relieving any obligation a school administration may feel to increase the diversity of the student body. Not only does the colorblind strategy have an idealistic “I recognize people for their worth” mentality, but it can also be more practical and convenient. As mentioned earlier, this US Department of Education report was published in 2017, but the colorblind strategy and diversity in schools have been issues long before then. What is the historical basis for the colorblind strategy? 

Dr. Subini Ancy Annamma and co-researchers of the Stanford Graduate School of Education argue the persistence of the colorblind mindset in education is a result of the misinterpretation of a dissenting opinion from the famous 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case (147). The lone dissent in the case by Justice John Marshall Harlan stated, “Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law” (559). Annamma et al. see these two lines of Harlan’s dissent to be the root of colorblind policies not only in schools, but also in society in general. Annamma says it is important to understand that just because Harlan says all the laws of the land are colorblind does not equate to Harlan believing race is irrelevant in all matters (Annamma et al. 147). However, it would appear that Harlan’s dissent has indeed been taken as an advocacy for the colorblind strategy for an all-purpose use. In the years following Plessy v. Ferguson, “[a]ccording to the liberal discourse that has developed in the post-Jim Crow era, a good citizen is colorblind” (Choi 56). So, color blindness has become a methodology of progressives to combat the idea of “separate but equal.” While well-intentioned as a means to combat discrimination, the colorblind strategy in contemporary times has actually been shown to encourage discrimination and discourage inclusiveness in schools. 

In a 2016 article published in the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, Yale University researchers Aragón, Dovidio, and Graham defined inclusiveness as a means “to increase retention and enhance the achievements of people of color and women in STEM education, research, academic, and public sector careers” (201). Aragón et al. focused on the attendance of teachers to the National Academies Summer Institutes on Undergraduate Science Education, which  aims to promote inclusive teaching methods in schools. According to the post-attendance data, teachers who endorsed the colorblind strategy were less likely to implement inclusive teaching methods and activities and were more easily convinced that an inclusive education was a bad idea. The teachers who endorsed the multicultural strategy had the exact opposite results—they supported inclusive teaching and were not easily convinced that an inclusive education was a bad idea (210). Based on the results of Aragón et al., I interpret the colorblind strategy as a mindset that minimizes the needs of different groups. Schools may inadvertently leave some students behind because recognizing the students’ differences would disrupt the schools’ commitment to the colorblind strategy. 

While I am alarmed that teachers of the colorblind mindset would so easily dismiss inclusive programs, I am not surprised that teachers of the multicultural mindset were open to more inclusive teaching practices. Relating back to my own personal experience, I see now the efforts my elementary and middle school teachers made in order for every student to feel included. For example, whenever a cultural holiday would be approaching, our teachers would ask students of that culture to explain the importance of the holidays and traditions involved. It was not awkward or a forced one-off moment in class. The teachers would try to incorporate the holiday into the day’s lesson. In hindsight, I see how important such activities were to making us feel that we all had an equal opportunity to contribute to the class. We were not just students listening to the teacher—we had something to offer. Applying the evidence provided by Aragón et al., I can presume that if my school had embraced the colorblind strategy, no such activities would have taken place. We would have lost out on a chance to build a personal connection to our teacher and class. 

Inclusiveness may not be a priority for teachers of the colorblind mindset, but the reduction of discrimination in schools is a common goal for both the colorblind and multicultural strategies. In spite of that, the colorblind strategy has been found to decrease students’ ability to recognize discrimination when they see it. In a study of elementary grade students, Dr. Evan Apfelbaum et al. of Northwestern University investigated how the colorblind and multicultural mindsets affected the students’ responses to various scenarios (1587). In one scenario, a white classmate physically harmed a black classmate and then justified his actions by stating the black classmate would play rough too since he is black. Only 50% of the colorblind group of students said the black student had been discriminated against. In the multicultural “value-diversity mind-set” group, 77% of those students reported discrimination (1589-1590). Based on this data, I cannot trust any pro-colorblind school administration that touts a decreased rate of discrimination or bullying on the basis of race. I have no way of knowing whether the colorblind strategy actually decreased acts of discrimination or merely decreased the rate of reporting of such acts. 

On the other hand, if a school following the multicultural strategy reported a decrease in discrimination, there is data suggesting the multicultural mindset was actually responsible. In an article published in the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, Dr. Frances E. Aboud and Dr. Anne Beth Doyle assessed the attitudes and interactions of high- and low-prejudiced students. After discussing race with low-prejudiced students, the high-prejudiced students “became significantly less prejudiced in their evaluation” of others, especially if the low-prejudice students expanded on the similarities among people of different racial backgrounds (161). Aboud and Doyle’s advice: allow students to talk about race and start the conversation early on. If left unattended, students with prejudices and racial biases can grow up and allow these negative ideas to manifest and grow stronger. An open dialogue of race is essential to ridding students of any prejudices they may have. A colorblind school would frown upon discussions of race, and the students are deprived of an opportunity to learn how their prejudices were misguided. This not only affects a student’s behavior (whether or not he or she will discriminate), but also how he or she will interpret other’s behavior (deciding whether or not another student’s discrimination is wrong). 

Of course, it is not to be implied that colorblind students are prejudiced and that is why they do not report discrimination. Dr. Janet W. Schofield of the University of Pittsburg offers insight into the minds of the students who are aware of discrimination but decide not to report it. Schofield studied middle schools that insisted their student body were colorblind. Her data is especially valuable because Schofield did not impose the conditions on the students. The behavior she observed was the result of a long term institution of the colorblind strategy (268). To put in perspective of how long the colorblind strategy had been imposed on these students, one student was bewildered when Schofield told him Martin Luther King Jr. was African-American (280). In one school, Schofield noticed students had a harder time reporting any kind of problems—not necessarily problems of discrimination, just basic classroom complaints—because the students did not want to use race as a description. Schofield acknowledges that students in this particular middle school “[w]ere well aware that making references to race displeased many of their teachers and might also offend peers” (273). As a result, students, fearful of retaliation for identifying others by race, were hesitant to come forward when real problems arose. The students were clearly aware of their teachers’ colorblind expectations and—given the teacher-student relationship—conformed without question. The colorblind mindset does not solve the issue of discrimination in schools; rather, it merely shoves it under the rug and forces students to turn a blind eye. 

We can now see the parallelism between the workplace and the school setting. Schofield showed us that in colorblind situations, students will be mindful of their every word when reporting to teachers because they fear their teachers’ discipline. Recall Norton’s et al. study in which white coworkers became less friendly and communicative in order to appear colorblind; they too were filtering their words of any suggestions of race. Although differing in age and circumstance, students and workers manifest similar behavior when in colorblind situations. Both inhibit their everyday behavior in order to spare themselves an unpleasant reprimand from the authorities who implemented the colorblind policy. Given this parallelism, we can now return to previous studies and make a few assumptions. Apfelbaum et al. found students of the colorblind mindset to be oblivious of clear cases of discrimination; thus, workers will also be incognizant of racial injustices in the workplace. Aragón et al. exhibited colorblind-endorsing teachers to be opposed to inclusive teaching strategies; thus, colorblind-endorsing employers will also show distaste for programs to coalesce diverse workplaces. 

My personal experience convinced me that the multicultural strategy is effective in creating a cooperative and supportive environment. Examining the evidence, it is difficult to say the same for the colorblind strategy. Schools and businesses may find the colorblind strategy attractive due to its convenience and historical context, but they should consider the actual ramifications of imposing it. Is the colorblind strategy successful in making people oblivious of another’s race? No. The colorblind strategy encourages internal racial bias in coworkers. Given the similarities between worker and student behavior in colorblind situations, it is reasonable to believe that students would just as likely develop internal racial biases in school. Is the colorblind strategy successful in establishing a cooperative and supportive environment? Being that the colorblind strategy deters everyday conversation and work productivity, synergy may be hard to find. How does the multicultural strategy fare, provided the research and not just my personal experience? From the same studies, multiculturalism does what the colorblind strategy cannot. Inclusiveness is prioritized, and discrimination is recognized and—most importantly—reported. Multiculturalism does not mean students or coworkers have to address ethnicity in every conversation, but at least multiculturalism allows for that conversation to happen. Multiculturalism can disprove prejudices and improve our understanding of those who are culturally and racially different from ourselves. Acknowledging the research, the colorblind strategy would be an ill-advised imposition in both schools and workplaces.


Works Cited

Aboud, Frances E., and Anne B. Doyle. “Does Talk of Race Foster Prejudice or Tolerance in Children?” Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, vol. 28, no. 3, 1996, pp. 161-170. EBSCOhost, doi.org/10.1037/0008-400X.28.3.161

Annamma, Subini A., Darrell D. Jackson, and Deb Morrison. “Conceptualizing Color-Evasiveness: Using Dis/ Ability Critical Race Theory to Expand a Color-Blind Racial Ideology in Education and Society.” Race Ethnicity and Education, vol. 20, no. 2, 2017, pp. 147-162. Taylor & Francis Journals, doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2016. 1248837

Apfelbaum, Evan P., Kristin Pauker, Samuel R. Sommers and Nalini Ambady. “In Blind Pursuit of Racial Equality?” Psychological Science, vol. 21, no. 11, 2010, pp. 1587-1592. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41062417

Aragón, Oriana R., John F. Dovidio, and Mark J. Graham. “Colorblind and Multicultural Ideologies Are Associated With Faculty Adoption of Inclusive Teaching Practices.” Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, vol. 10, no. 3, 2016, pp. 201-215. PsycARTICLES, doi:10.1037/dhe0000026

Choi, Jung-ah. “Unlearning Colorblind Ideologies in Education Class.” Educational Foundations, vol. 22, no. 3-4, 2008, pp. 53-71. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ857639&site=ehost-live&scope=site

“Implicit Association Test.” Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/odcc /implicit_association_test.html.

Norton, Michael I., Samuel R. Summers, Evan P. Apfelbaum, Natassia Pura, and Dan Ariely. “Color Blindness and Interracial Interaction: Playing the Political Correctness Game.” Psychological Science, vol. 17, no. 11, 2006, pp. 949-953. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=mnh&AN=17176425&site=ehost-live &scope=site

Plessy v. Ferguson. 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Supreme Court of the United States, supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/163/537/

Richeson, Jennifer A., and Richard J. Nussbaum. “The Impact of Multiculturalism Versus Color-Blindness on Racial Bias.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 40, no. 3, 2004, pp. 417-423. Science Direct, doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2003.09.002

Schofield, Janet W. “The Colorblind Perspective in School: Causes and Consequences.” Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. Eds. James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks. 5th ed., John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005, pp. 265-281. 

Trump, Ivanka. Republican National Convention, 21 July 2016, Quicken Loans Arena, Cleveland, OH. Introductory Speech. Time, time.com/4417579/republican-convention -ivanka-trump-transcript/

United States, Department of Education, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. “Improving Outcomes for All Students: Strategies and Considerations to Increase Student Diversity.” Diversity & Opportunity, 19 January 2017, ed.gov/diversity-opportunity.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and E.B. White: Controlling the Narrative with the Confidence of Their Readers

by Ean Tam, January 3, 2021

***FALL 2020 CONTEST WINNER***

At first glance, it may seem odd to compare Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and E.B. White. Other than spending their childhoods in Westchester County, New York, what else do they have in common? Ocasio-Cortez is a current United States congresswoman, representing New York’s 14th district. For many, she is a symbol of change: she defeated her well-established primary opponent despite being outspent 18-1; she is the youngest woman to serve in the US Congress; she sponsors bills considered to be radical, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for all; and she even has an asteroid named after her (Hajela; Mosher). On the other hand, White can be seen as a standard bearer, an idealistic image of an Ivy League-educated white male who came to age before any of the two world wars. Even during the Great Depression, White lived comfortably as a writer for the New Yorker (Heitman). As a co-author of the prolific style guide, The Elements of Style, White has set the bar for writers for decades. His books, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, have influenced countless children as they learn to develop their own styles of writing. Dr. Laura Lisbeth of Stony Brook University characterizes White’s influence as “a tradition in Anglo-American literacy,” for The Elements of Style “certainly turned the English language into a personal expression of his idiosyncratic preferences” (Lisbeth).

Comfortability would not be an accurate descriptor of Ocasio-Cortez’s life. Despite rising from poverty and winning her own voice in the United States Congress, her troubles as a young, idealistic woman of color were far from over. On July 23, 2020, Ocasio-Cortez gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. She reprimanded her colleague, Representative Ted Yoho, for his offensive remarks that he delivered to her personally on the steps of the Capitol Building. Ocasio-Cortez rebuked not only Yoho’s remarks, but also Yoho’s compliance with a culture that has served to the detriment of women throughout American history. In 1941, almost 80 years earlier, White made his mark in literary history and published his essay “Once More to the Lake” in Harper’s Magazine. In the essay, he details his vacation to a lake in Maine with his son. White weaves in and out between the past and present, merging them together and revealing how some things never change.

As different as Ocasio-Cortez and White are, a common theme between these two works is the past and how it affects our present and future. Because the barrier between past and present is fluid for White, he uses the past as a way of telling the story of the present. Nostalgia would not be enough to describe White’s attachment to his childhood: he actively lives in both worlds. Ocasio-Cortez uses the past not as a point of nostalgia, but as a point of reference from which society should use to change the future. Unlike White, Ocasio-Cortez does not wish to live in the past. She would rather live up to her reputation and change the future for the next generations of women. Both White and Ocasio-Cortez share a common theme, but differ in how they examine the implications. Using rhetorical devices such repetition, parallelism, anadiplosis, and antimetabole, Ocasio-Cortez and White engage their readers with cohesive and rhythmic sentences that display the authors’ control over their narratives. By having this control, both writers can focus their readers to the details and emotions they wish to convey. In return, the readers have confidence in how each author interprets their relationships with the past.

Prominent rhetorical devices used by Ocasio-Cortez and White are parallelism and repetition. In the opening of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech, she describes exactly what Yoho had said to her. She says, “[H]e called me disgusting, he called me crazy, he called me out of my mind, and he called me dangerous” (00:14-01:43). The repetition of the opening, “he called me,” creates an intensity that is palpable to the reader. Even to those in the audience who are already aware of the incident involving Yoho, there is an anticipation built up because of Ocasio-Cortez’s wording. To those who are not aware of Yoho’s remarks, this repetition would be even more enthralling: ‘He did what? He called her what?’ This kind of excitement provides emphasis to Yoho’s comments. There is particular stress on “crazy” and “dangerous.” The parallelism allows the reader to find cohesion (Kolln and Gray 129, 152-153). The remarks Ocasio-Cortez relays to her audience are not broken up by different structures or introductions. She consistently states, “he called me.” This, in effect, keeps the reader focused and attentive to the string of offensive remarks, instilling outrage and disappointment.

A second instance of repetition and parallelism in Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks comes soon after the first. She denies that Yoho’s comments hurt her personally. She says, “Because all of us have had to deal with this in some form, some way, some shape, at some point in our lives” (01:43-03:11). As she repeats “some,” she implies that Yoho’s remarks are not an isolated event; rather, his remarks come in a long line of incidents that Ocasio-Cortez acknowledges she shares with “every woman in this country.” Thus, her use of “all of us” and “in our lives” allows her to build a relationship with the women in the audience. When considered together, the two quotes accomplish three things: instill anger in the audience towards Yoho and disgust towards his remarks, imply Yoho’s remarks are not isolated and are an unfortunate consistency throughout Ocasio-Cortez’s life, and build a shared experience with Ocasio-Cortez’s target audience, which is actually split. She is simultaneously addressing men and women to different effects: men are meant to feel guilty and responsible, while women are meant to feel sympathy.

In his essay, White observes his fellow campers and writes, “This was the American family at play, escaping the city heat, wondering whether the newcomers at the camp at the head of the cove were ‘common’ or ‘nice,’ wondering whether it was true that people who drove up for Sunday dinner at the farmhouse were turned away because there wasn’t enough chicken” (3). Here, White exhibits parallelism in structure. His use of gerunds provide a sense of eloquence and activity. Given White wants to reminiscence in past experiences and merge them with the present, eloquence and activity are welcomed sentiments for the reader. White does not provide the kind of repetition that Ocasio-Cortez has. However, White’s objective of describing the experiences at the lake is made stronger without repetition. Although repetition does not imply the experiences themselves were repetitive, it may lead the reader to believe they were. Ocasio-Cortez uses repetition to make it apparent to her audience that Yoho’s remarks have been a repeated occurance in her life. Thus, repetition may not serve White so well in this manner. After all, why would someone feel nostalgic about a camping experience that feels repetitive? Repetitive would be counter to White’s portrayal of activity and eloquence. Even though White and his son engage in almost routine activities—fishing, swimming, boating—White’s recollection of his childhood negates any sense of the story being repetitive. He says, “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing” (1). He adds, “I kept remembering everything…. It was like the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen with childish awe.” (4-5). By continuously remembering the first time he ever experienced these activities, White allows himself to reconnect to the “childish awe” those first experiences instilled in him. He is not so much repeating activities, but instead repeating positive emotions. As for the reader, they can see a parallelism in his wording as well as the parallels between White’s past and present but without any perception of repetitiveness.

Both Ocasio-Cortez and White portray themselves as being in control of the narrative. Both of them make their statements from personal sentiments, but from different sources. White derives his purpose from the personal bonds he has forged with his son and his own childhood: years could not separate White from his affections for his childhood memories, sentiments he hopes to pass on to his son. Ocasio-Cortez makes it evident she derives her purpose and conviction from personal wounds: “he called me.” Both Ocasio-Cortez and White build shared experiences. Ocasio-Cortez shares her experiences with the women in her audience. White shares the experiences with himself (past and present), his father, his son, and the other campers. 

The two works differ in how the reader assesses Ocasio-Cortez and White. The reader is meant to feel sympathy and reverence towards Ocasio-Cortez — sympathy for her years of being the recipient of offensive remarks, and reverence for her bravery and solidarity with her fellow women, a stance that many would argue is long-overdue. The reader feels more inclined to involve themselves with Ocasio-Cortez’s narrative, whereas the reader may feel more inclined to ‘sit back and watch’ the narrative being portrayed by White. White’s narrative is unique to himself not only because it is, of course, his personal story, but also because his story evades the circumstances of his time. As White and his son have a nostalgia-filled summer escape to the lakes of Maine, the world is in its second world war, and many sons are dying far away in unfamiliar places. White is afforded the privilege to take his reader for a ride as he navigates his way through past and present experiences that are out of the readers’ control. Ocasio-Cortez, representing herself as a casualty of another person’s privilege, wants to apply the past to the future. The future is never certain and she is addressing all generations of Americans, men and women as well. Ocasio-Cortez forces the reader to think with her about the implications of the past. She has a universal message, whereas White’s message is most definitely not shared amongst the readers of his time. 

In the use of parallelism, an author may feel inclined to also build up to a climax. The term climax used here should not be confused with the climax in a sequence of a story, but it does bear resemblance. Just as a story can develop to a critical moment for its plot, a sentence or set of sentences can end itself with a climax of ideas (Kolln and Gray 49-51). For example, observe how Ocasio-Cortez uses parallelism in this sentence: “I could not allow my nieces, I could not allow the little girls that I go home to, I could not allow victims of verbal abuse and worse to see that, to see that excuse and to see our Congress accept it as legitimate and accept it as an apology and to accept silence as a form of acceptance. I could not allow that to stand which is why I am rising today to raise this point of personal privilege” (04:35-05:49). The parallel structure and repetition introduce a series of clauses with “I could not….” The repeated use of the opening is an example of anaphora (Kolln and Gray 130). The parallelism builds up until Ocasio-Cortez reaches the climax: She could not allow that to stand, and she goes on further explaining her purpose before the House. The climax is the definitive statement. This is where all the repetition and parallelism has led to. This is the most important statement. This is “why [she is] rising today.”

White also creates a climax in his sentence: “We caught two bass, hauling them in briskly as though they were mackerel, pulling them over the side of the boat in a businesslike manner without any landing net, and stunning them with a blow on the back of the head” (2). White uses climax to narrate a specific instant with his son. This is another use of parallelism (continuous use of gerunds) that culminates with the climax of killing the fish. The reader is drawn into this action sequence that is resolved by a climatic finish. It is climactic both rhetorically and in terms of the sequence of events. Both Ocasio-Cortez and White create a climactic point to show their readers that they have reached a control over the ideas, and they are steering the readers toward an end goal. Ocasio-Cortez’s climactic end goal is to show purpose for speaking. White’s climactic end goal is to finish an action sequence. 

Another way Ocasio-Cortez and White take an authority of their narrative is by using short sentences. In order to dispel Yoho’s use of his daughter and wife as part of his apology for his behavior, Ocasio-Cortez issues this statement, “I am someone’s daughter too” (05:49-07:12). She then goes on to claim she will not anguish herself waiting for Yoho to properly apologize: “I will not do that to myself” (07:12-08:18). Short sentences gravitate more attention than longer sentences (Kolln and Gray 29-30). Here are clear instances of Ocasio-Cortez using that fact to her advantage. There is no surprise that both sentences begin with “I.” Ocasio-Cortez wants her reader to feel the impact of these short, yet meaningful sentences. What made her write such short sentences in the midst of her longer remarks? Obviously, it comes from personal conviction: “I am…,” “I will….” Similarly, White uses short sentences. When he describes the nature of the lake, he says, “There had been no years” (3). White wishes to be firm and declarative to his readers in his recollection of events. He asserts with confidence that nothing has changed. The emphasis in the sentence falls on “no.” This strengthens the readers’ trust in White’s narrative. Another short sentence by White is a deliberate fragment. Within his remembrance of the lake, he adds, “Peace and goodness and jollity” (4). White only wants to encapsulate the serenity of the experience. This serenity must not be shared with any other ideas because it is personally significant to White. Thus, a short sentence suffices. 

Both Ocasio-Cortez and White use short sentences to command authority from their audiences. Ocasio-Cortez obtains authority through justified defiance and strong will. White obtains authority through his confidence in detail and assessment. Of course, the authors do not blatantly say, “I am defiant,” or “I am confident in my recollection.” Good narrators will show, not tell. Through short sentences, Ocasio-Cortez and White show these sides of themselves without explicitly telling the audience. 

Throughout their respective pieces, Ocasio-Cortez and White enhance their writing with a play on words. The first device is anadiplosis. This is used when one clause ends and another begins with the same word or phrase (“Anadiplosis”). There are two instances where Ocasio-Cortez uses it in her speech. When she begins a fiery condemnation of men using derogatory terms towards women, she says, “It happens when individuals who hold the highest office in this land admit, admit to hurting women and using this language against all of us” (09:06). In the course of her speech, Ocasio-Cortez insinuates that Yoho has not only wronged her, but also wronged women across the country; he adheres to a terrible culture that has treated and continues to treat women so poorly. Insinuation is one thing, but now Ocasio-Cortez puts special emphasis on “admit” by ending the first clause and beginning the second with the same action. In Ocasio-Cortez’s mind, the act of Yoho admitting he has used derogatory terms towards women is not best served by saying it once. She needs to say it twice and add how Yoho’s admission is an affliction towards “all of us” women. In the second clause, “admit” is not the only word that has emphasis. “Us” also has stress on it, creating an even greater sense of solidarity with her female audience. 

Contrast her first use of anadiplosis with her second use of it: “Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man, and when a decent man messes up as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize” (08:18-09:06). “Decent man” is clearly in the limelight of Ocasio-Cortez’s sentence. This is another instance of showing, not telling. Ocasio-Cortez has branded Yoho as the opposite of a decent man because he admits to his actions but refuses to take the proper responsibility for them. Yoho is evasive and not forthcoming. Characterizing him as such without explicitly saying so can be created by Ocasio-Cortez’s use of anadiplosis. The emphasis and stress allow the reader to infer the intention behind her words. 

White uses anadiplosis in a manner similar to Ocasio-Cortez’s second use of it. Towards the end of his essay, as White begins to make his final assessments of the camping experience, he states, “This was the big scene, still the big scene” (5). It is a conclusive statement, in which White reaffirms that the present lake and camping experience resembles the experiences from his childhood. There is emphasis on “still” and, of course, “big scene.” The reader can feel the confidence White instills in his statement. There is no uncertainty. An alternative way White could have written this sentence is, “This was the big scene, [and it] still [is] the big scene.” We can see here how White uses ellipsis to leave out phrases that are understood (Kolln and Gray 132-133). This omission allows the sentence to be more precise and controlled by White. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s use of anadiplosis is to uphold Yoho to his actions, turn her audience against him, and place herself on the moral high ground. White does not use anadiplosis to reflect badly on anyone else. Rather, he uses anadiplosis to reflect on his own ability to recall detail and connect to the past. Nonetheless, their uses of anadiplosis aid in their ability to command the narrative and direct the readers towards sentiments the two authors want them to feel. This is an indispensable tool, not only for politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, but also for storytellers like White. 

An additional rhetorical device involving repeating phrases is antimetabole. This time, however, the repeated phrases are in reverse. For example, Ocasio-Cortez explains the wife and daughter excuse is a fallacy: “And so what I believe is that having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man” (08:18-09:06). Ocasio-Cortez reverses “decent man” and creates two different meanings. Her proposition can be more definitively stated as, “Having a daughter does not transform a man into decency. Having a wife does not show the decency of a man.” The use of antimetabole is a witty way for Ocasio-Cortez to explain herself. The purpose of her speech is to condemn the idea that having a daughter or wife excuses inappropriate language towards women. The antimetabole accomplishes this and has the added benefit of being catchy and quote-worthy. Politicians are always searching for the one-liner or debate hook to jab at their opponents. It is evident to the audience that Ocasio-Cortez has found hers.

White also uses antimetabole but more subtly. White says, “I began to sustain the illusion that [my son] was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father” (2). White has reversed “was I” from one clause to the other. The purpose of White’s essay is to illustrate how the imagery and sentiments of the lake remain constant, but the roles are transferable: he becomes his father, and his son becomes him. White’s use of antimetabole is an eloquent way of stating this occurrence. Recall how White’s repetition and parallel use of gerunds added an eloquence to his wording. The antimetabole reaffirms that eloquence and engages the reader with the abstract idea of transposition. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s use of antimetabole puts her in a position to judge. Her moral high-ground gives her that responsibility. Her self-identification as a fellow victim gives her the right to confront the culprit. As stated earlier, White exhibits eloquence in his imagery and eloquence in how he describes such imagery. This duality adds to the fairy tale-aspect of his story. Fairy tales, or children stories, usually involve a lot of flowery language to charm the reader with the ‘magic’ of the scene. White authored many children’s books, but he may have excused this essay from that flowery diction. His use of antimetabole helps get similar ideas across to his audience. Without antimetabole, Ocasio-Cortez’s idea would be more lengthy and less characteristic of a political speech, and White’s ideas would lose the essence of eloquence and charm he had been establishing throughout the essay. 

The last major rhetorical tool that Ocasio-Cortez and White share is the use, or lack of use, of conjunctions when creating a series. Polysyndeton is the excess use of coordinating conjunctions, while Asyndeton is the absence of coordinating conjunctions (Kolln and Gray 128-129). Ocasio-Cortez uses asyndeton as she depicts Yoho’s actions as having greater repercussions than he may have assumed. She says, “In using that language in front of the press, he gave permission to use that language against his wife, his daughters, women in his community, and I am here to stand up to say that is not acceptable” (07:12-0:8:18). The list is composed of wife, daughter, and women in the community. Ocasio-Cortez does not put “and” before “women in his community.” Ocasio-Cortez implicates Yoho’s actions as an offense to a never-ending list of women in America. The asyndeton does not give any emphasis to each listed object (wife, daughter, women in community), but it implies the list of victims can go on and on. ‘Victims’ is a strong word, but given the circumstances, it would not be a far cry to assume Ocasio-Cortez wishes to portray women as victims of never-ending misogyny from men. This misogyny coincides with the use of the asyndeton: never-ending misogyny equates to a never-ending list of victims. 

White uses polysyndeton in his essay. In the beginning, he describes why he prefers to go to the lake than the ocean. He claims, “I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the woods” (1). Here, White uses an excess of “and.” The polysyndeton allows White to list three aspects of the ocean (restless tides, cold water, and wind) without sacrificing emphasis on any one of the three. The excess “and” adds rhythm to the sentence, as the reader bounces from one idea to another. The sentence is lengthy, but White can focus the readers’ attention to the details he feels important to him. White begins his essay by describing a trip to the lake in Maine when he was a young boy, but now he has “since become a salt-water man.” White is his own man now with his own preferences and judgements. He can go where he pleases. So what would compel him back to the lake? What would override his preferences that he has accumulated in the years since boyhood? Evidently, it is the restless tides, cold water, and incessant wind of the ocean. All three can be so brutally harsh that they convince White to turn his back on his own present-day preferences and return to the sanctity provided to him when he was a young boy: a sanctity from his past. 

Ocasio-Cortez and White—separated by decades, circumstance, and purpose—show that rhetorical devices are not limited by genre or style. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style” (qtd. in “Quotable Quotes”). Ocasio-Cortez and White, when writing their respective pieces, did not think to themselves, ‘I will use parallelism and anadiplosis to convey my ideas.’ It was the passion that led them through their drafts: Ocasio-Cortez’s passion for change and White’s passion to enjoy the memories of his childhood.

In a chapter of Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Craig Hulst writes, “The rhetorical situation of a piece of writing is everything surrounding it—who the audience is, the purpose for writing it, the genre of the writing, etc.” (88-89). The difference in rhetorical situation between Ocasio-Cortez and White is obvious, but the rhetorical devices they used empowered both authors to control the events around them and command the narrative. The reader trusts White’s recollection of his camping experience, and the reader understands how White jumps between past and present and realizes the end of his childhood and the beginning of his son’s. The reader can feel the frustrations in Ocasio-Cortez’s speech. The reader grows disappointed with Yoho’s poor excuse and the culture he perpetuates. The reader can focus on the implications of the issue Ocasio-Cortez addresses, and she engages them to think about how to prevent the future from being a repeat of the past. Some readers may believe White’s essay is an example of his privilege or that Ocasio-Cortez’s judgement is incorrect, but there is no dispute that the correct rhetorical tools gifted the two authors with the means to make their case in the first place.


Works Cited

“Anadiplosis.” Literary Devices, go.shr.lc/2Zia6Ul. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020. 

“Antimetabole.” Literary Devices, go.shr.lc/30RgT6D. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020. 

Hajela, Deepti. “Political Novice Ocasio-Cortez Scores for Progressives in NY.” AP News, The Associated Press, 27 June 2018, apnews.com/45eb9af59317402699b23c4826a8192c. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020. 

Heitman, Danny. “The White Pages.” Humanities, 24 Jan. 2014, www.neh.gov/humanities/2014/januaryfebruary/feature/the-white-pages. Accessed 8 Aug. 2020. 

Hulst, Craig. “Grammar, Rhetoric, and Style.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, edited by Driscoll, Dana, Mary Stewart, and Matthew Vetter, vol. 3, Parlor Press, 2020, pp. 86-99. 

Kolln, Martha, and Loretta Gray. Rhetorical Grammar. 8th ed., Pearson, 2017. 

Lisbeth, Laura. Interviewed by Carolyn Cosentino, Sophia Hoss, Kathy La, and Patricia Paulynn Mallari. The Elements of Style, 26 July 2020, you.stonybrook.edu/elements/laura-lisabeth-interview/

Mosher, Dave. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-Year-Old Who Defeated a Powerful House Democrat, Has an Asteroid Named After Her — Here’s Why.” Business Insider, 28 June 2018, www.businessinsider.com/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-asteroid-2018-6?utm_source=copy-link&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=topbar. Accessed 8 Aug. 2020. 

Ocasio-Cortez, Alexandria. United States House of Representatives floor, 23 July 2020, United States Capitol, South Wing, Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. Point of personal privilege. 

“Quotable Quotes.” Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/quotes/3247685-find-a-subject-you-care-about-and-which-you-in. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.

White, E.B. “Once More to the Lake.” Harper’s Magazine, 1941.