August 12, 2016

Unhappiness as Identity (or, Unhappiness as Privilege) (or, Why Denying Chelsea Manning Her Unhappiness Has Drastic Social Consequences)

There's something comforting in the declaration I am unhappy. It is as if I have a right to claim that I am unhappy, insofar as to say that I have the privilege to claim unhappiness as identity. But does being "unhappy" grant me entry into a "community—" that is, an invisibly fenced-in group of people that share this unhappiness manifesto? How unhappy am I allowed to be—socially, institutionally, or imaginarily? And like anything subjective, is my unhappiness politicized?

Last week, I read an article about Chelsea Manning facing extreme consequences for attempting to kill herself while incarcerated in complete isolation for leaking classified war documents and subsequently violating the Espionage Act. Instead of getting her the psychiatric help she so obviously needs, the government has decided to increase her periods of solidarity and press further charges on her.

Manning has been in solitary confinement for a little over six years. That is, she has essentially zero communication with anything other than herself except for brief 20-minute "recreation periods" which Manning described in her article for The Guardian as "brief periods, every other day or so, I was escorted by a team of at least three guards to an empty basketball court-sized area. There, I was shackled and walked around in circles or figure-eights for 20 minutes. I was not allowed to stand still, otherwise they would take me back to my cell."

Manning is not permitted to admit her unhappiness despite the cruel and gruesome details her of detainment. Should she complain during her periods of "exercise," she is sent back to her cell. Should she refuse cooperation with prison guards when they try talking to her, she is punished. Should she attempt suicide, she is thrown more punishment of solitary confinement (the very thing that resulted in her suicide attempt). Manning is in a deep cycle of unhappiness but she is not allowed to claim the identity. The consequences of prohibiting her from claiming an identity—something the US military is no stranger to prohibiting—result in nothing other than a tortured woman living a life of no-touch, no-talk cyclical unhappiness.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, has claimed that "most of the scientific literature shows that, after 15 days, certain changes in brain functions occur and the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible." Despite the scientific evidence that suggests solitary confinement is psychological torture and has extreme irreversible mental health consequences, the US military continues to solitarily confine Manning and subsequently deny her emotions. What does denying someone's right to be unhappy do to his or her creativity? Should the government have the ability to deny an emotion and subsequently creativity in general? Where do the lines of governmental privilege end and what is at stake when we allow our emotions to be policed?

I can't help but to think about my own unhappiness and the ways I use it to craft an identity. For me, unhappiness itself grants me entry into a community of sufferers. I am able to encircle myself with unhappy friends, unhappy literature, and unhappy societies (e.g. the "Sad Girls Club"). Some of my favorite pieces of art have come out of some sort of unhappiness and I am grateful to have the privilege to access them. I realize that this is not the case for many people—Solitary Watch estimates that 80,000 to 100,000 incarcerated persons are held in some form of isolated confinement every day.

Whether or not Manning hates herself, it's clear to me that the government explicitly hates her and projects its own feelings onto her while simultaneously denying her the right to have an emotion. We must advocate against the policing of emotions and we must acknowledge that solitary confinement is essentially stripping a person of any social communication which leads to the stripping away of emotion and identity.

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