Every fall, among other courses in the Communication department, I teach a section of public speaking at Regis. The course is called Speaking to Make a Difference. I help young, inexperienced speakers better understand that if you want your words to matter to anybody outside your own echo chamber, you’ve got to respect your audiences, acknowledge their diversity, genuinely attempt to connect with them, put your thoughts in order, and help them to hear and take in your insights, arguments and your ideas. You can’t just yell at them, direct your words at those who already agree with you, or make ad hominem attacks without losing a lot of potential listeners. If alienating half your audience doesn’t faze you, you might not be working hard enough, as a communicator, to merit anybody’s attention. Go ahead and rant; it’s your right, but who should care what you’re saying, and why? Add something of substance to what I already know and believe, I urge (in the role of coach- standing-in-for-audience). Challenge something I think I know but may not fully understand (if you actually understand it better); cause me to think about a tired issue in a fresh way, or at least tell me a good story (one that is grounded in truth, even if allegorical/metaphorical). Earn my time and attention.
Anyway, that is where I’m coming from as I respond to two things: first, a clever and spot-on video, Opinion Rhapsody, that came across my social media transom today (not new, but new to me) and second, to the predictable, boring, tiresome piling onto Kamala Harris in the immediate wake of Biden’s VP selection this week.
As Opinion Rhapsody suggests and most mature, self-aware adults know, it’s a cheap and terribly easy thing to do, to criticize and attack not ideas, practices or processes but specific people from one’s moral armchair. It’s also easy to stir up a mob who approves of and will cheer on our1 slacktivistic, self-righteously-propelled poison darts.
Opinions have always been a dime a dozen, exchanged carelessly among family members and friends, usually with insoucience and impunity. Now, with the internet and social media, we can make our opinions (cheap and easy though they may be) immediately and widely public. Where, for centuries, it has been acknowledged that certain rhetorical skills and ethical responsibilities make an orator or other social commentator worth listening to (not merely vocal or outright dangerous), today everyone with emotions, fingers and thumbs feels competent to occupy the realm of public meaning-making with no training, care, consideration, forethought, or understanding of how messages function or how public communication works. This has proven unfortunate for kids who, far too early in life to state a public opinion or have access to a bullhorn, now put all kinds of personal, private, obnoxious or deeply regrettable stuff out there only to come off badly in ways that stick; for anyone with boundary issues; and for all of us who, after a glass of wine, blithely post some observation we think is apt, necessary and trenchant, but which turns out to shock and offend three-quarters of our circle of remote, mediated “friends” along with some of our intimately- and historically-invested, actual friends.
At home we sit, with our coffee or tea, scrolling through (and being tweaked) by baseless garbage–or (point taken) perhaps reading well-written, meticulously-researched, eye-opening books, articles and blog posts. Suddenly, we feel –just because some idea or argument resonates– that we have, ourselves, done all that inventing, reasoning, research, questioning, weighing, formulating, theorizing and concluding. Now, all fired up in complete agreement with somebody else’s original thinking or subversive revelations– somebody else’s intellectual work, not our own–we react online to current topics or events that challenge what we now claim as our true identity: we are informed warriors for the Good, armed with new insights, new jargon, new positions, new hatreds, new perspectives. We regurgitate (in haughty, embittered or enraged tones) what we only half understand, as if we’re now experts worth listening to. React, spew, hit POST, and pat ourselves on the back: “There! I’ve passed on my wisdom and done my civic duty while signaling my social and political virtues to all people far and wide.”
What we’re really doing, if we’re honest, is 1) NOTHING (at best): just blowing off steam in the way people have blown off steam, in their intimate circles of friends, for centuries– only now, we do so in public, somehow without any humility or embarrassment. Or, 2) we’re actually doing damage. How? By jumping on a convenient bandwagon from which we will throw sticks and stones; from which we will opine, attack, criticize and dismiss. We mob-up and smugly promulgate fear, loathing, hatred and sanctimony: we bully celebrities, authors, journalists, politicians and other public figures, and we spread ill will. I guess it makes us feel bigger than we are, more important that we are, more effective than we are.
Reading social media posts that slam Kamala Harris and knowing only a little about her biography– enough to be impressed by it– I think, first, “Seriously? She’s not Black enough? Not exciting enough? She wasn’t hard enough on police brutality…she made mistakes… apparently (while doing a lot of good) she failed to have a perfect record?” (Unlike, I surmise, the perfect records of all of her critics).
According to some armchair moralists (as much as I can make out, mostly under-forty progressives and Bernie liberals) Harris is not allowed to have attempted to work from within the system, rather than against it from the outside. She was to have risen to a position of power without having an ego, without ever having made a mistake, without reflecting the system’s dysfunction. Her ‘firsts’ mean nothing, or not enough. Her work on and support for the DREAM Act, for healthcare reform, for tax reform, for a path to citizenship are not enough. Where she succeeded, Ho-Hum. Where she failed, she’s a monster.
Then, it dawns on me. “So,” I realize, “Yes, it definitely seems that you’d like Donald Trump to win the 2020 Presidential election.”
That must be what motivates the attacks upon her, because here is reality: the choice has been made by the Democratic presidential candidate and his team, and no amount of shitslinging at Biden2 or Harris at this point can possibly help anything or anybody except Donald Trump. Because, after weighing a great number of factors from electibility to qualifications to reputations to record to relevant experience to political commitments to interpersonal and public communication skills to who knows what else, Biden and his team, who had a very difficult decision to make in a year when the stakes could not be higher, made their best informed decision: it is done.
You can, at this point– if you are antiracist, feminist, pro-social, and actually want a better, more decent, more just world– help them to succeeed (and help the country) by shutting up unless you have something actually insightful or thoughtful to offer; by voting for them; by rolling up your sleeves and trying to help deal productively, at your local level, with the mess that is American democracy. By volunteering to engage meaningfully with the many, complex, intractable problems embodied by any political party, system or representative today.
You can become an activist for positive social change, hopefully one with a vision other than destruction, a vision that does not shut down alternative viewpoints, sets of values, and experiences. Hell, you can run for office yourself: that is, either try to influence things from the periphery or to change them from inside (as Harris and so many other public servants– like Obama–have done). Get a taste, for yourself, of how difficult it is to make a real difference in the world.
What? No time or interest in pitching in to make things actually better? No desire to get involved politics? Then please– if that describes you–shut up about politics; don’t impact the election then back away, your hands in the air to demonstrate how clean they are, and claim you had no influence, no voice, no responsibility for the outcome.
A final few thoughts:
Most of us have not worked with or within the justice system (and many of its vocal critics have only worked against, not inside, it —from which vantage point it is sometimes hard to see or grasp all the intense, systemic, cultural factors that make change so difficult)3.
The systems in which we are all enmeshed have many dimensions and place many constraints upon the actions of those within them, not all of those constraints visible to outside observers.
Grownups who inhabit the public realm and serve by holding office have made public mistakes. Grownups with significant careers in justice or politics have often had to enter the systems they’d most like to change, and the entry fee is often steep: it may well cost them part of their souls to get inside deep enough to actually have gain the traction and the power to change things.
Whenever I come across someone who has actually done meaningful justice work as a writer– like Ibram X. Kendi–they don’t spew acid all over Facebook, maybe because instead, they’ve put in their years of invested, intellectual and creative labor, had their work reviewed and judged, accepted and published…or they’ve built a career in journalism, or they have otherwise earned the right to be heard.
I for one, would love to give you my time and attention; to hear what you have to say when you start adding something reflective, complex, unique and valuable to what we all must start seeing as a conversation, not a pie-throwing contest.
If you’re mainly just against— mainly into canceling and criticizing–well, join the millions of other people who live only to tear down, and who do nothing to envision or impact how a better future might possibly come about.
1 When I use “our” and “we” here, I mean “you and me both, maybe, some of the time” or “some other people, some of the time”— the linguistic choices, in a non-journalstic, non-academic piece, being “I,” “you,” “they,” “we,” and the possible implications being “all of the time,” “some of the time,” “rarely,” and “never.”
2 Note: nowhere have I written that Biden is an angel, nor that he has always done what I consider to be the right thing; nowhere have I claimed that he is perfect. I accept Joe Biden, as I accept Donald Trump, as flawed human beings. Nowhere have I claimed that Kamala Harris is a perfect person or even a perfect candidate. I’ve never encountered a perfect person OR candidate. As an invested citizen of the world and of the United States, and as a voter, I’ll take Biden’s accumulated moments of imperfection, his missteps, his bumbles, oversteps, even his wrongheadedness in the past and present– and his choice of Vice President–over Trump’s pompous, soulless, rudderless, lying, mean, woman-hating, racist, world-eating narcissism…now and always.
3 I recommend listening to This American Life’s Burn It Down if you have fantasies of changing institutions from the inside or the outside.