Admonitio

The human/inhumane injustices built into and reinforced by American power structures and expressed throughout our history are (this is crucial) subject to criticism, reformation and transformation because of our founders’ foresight, because of checks and balances, and because of our Constitution. I would expect any American (who knows our history, who reads literature, who thinks critically, and who understands the importance of meaning made in larger contexts) to be in accord1.

Besides appreciating the fortunate fact that we are in this together —individuals, families, neighbors and strangers, Americans with Americans, Americans with undocumented immigrants, Americans with the rest of the world—most of us also recognize that the best aspects of our nation are the values and beliefs that:

…no single person, cabal or party should hold all political power nor govern unconstrained

…we all must have equal rights and protections

…free expression of dissent (outrage, criticism, satire and humor, protest) ought not and cannot be muzzled or punished by the State

Americans who enjoy our (far-from-perfect, but possible to improve in enlightened, sustainable ways) common freedoms, protections and provisions—from police and fire departments to roads to economic assistance to education to parks to protected religious gatherings and practices to national defense—are beholden to the American Constitution, which guides, organizes and provides the foundations of our collective, civil life.

And, honest Americans who take advantage of and appreciate even some of those common freedoms, protections and provisions must see that the intentional undermining of fundamental processes that promote the peaceful transfer of power is a terrible, selfish, shortsighted and nihilistic idea, the consequences of which would spell the end of our messy but hopeful republic… as well as the end of those freedoms, protections and provisions for everyone but the rich, the connected, the powerful. Civil War? Those do not tend to proceed without bloodshed nor to end well. Societal chaos as a change agent is nothing more than an outraged child’s fantasy, a revenge tantrum that imagines satisfaction in somehow making society pay, with immeasurable costs. The French Revolution was against and away from monarchy, towards the hard-won establishment of a republic. The fight was towards equality, democracy and justice, not away from it.

These thoughts today in response to Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, a member of the House GOP leadership, who recently tweeted (according to a 9/25 Denver Post article):

“The peaceful transfer of power is enshrined in our Constitution and fundamental to the survival of our Republic. America’s leaders swear an oath to the Constitution. We will uphold that oath.”

I do not agree with Cheney, my fellow Wyomingite, on all (or many) matters, but we have the right and responsibility to differ. I stand with her on her statement, however.

I trust and hope she is speaking the truth and that, should the challenging party and its candidate win, she and her fellows will honorably follow through to ensure the continuance of our nation’s long tradition of peaceful transfer of power following elections.

Conservatives and liberals, Democrats, Progressives, Republicans, Independents, unaffiliated, straight, White, Black, Brown, young, old, pretty, ugly, smart, not-so-smart, short, tall, weak, strong, wealthy, middle class, poor, rural, urban, homeless, healthy, compromised, abled and disabled, law enforcement, military, and civilians, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists: I trust and hope all agree that, should the current party in power win, the same respect for the outcome will prevail.

I trust and hope that the dictum United we stand, divided we fall 2 resonates for most of us in prosocial ways that acknowledge our interdependence. United we stand is not a call to elite groups to stand together against those who would constrain their power. It is not a call to terrorists, fringe groups, rioters and conspiracy theorists to imagine themselves a “we” special and apart, only to turn on and destroy the fabric of our larger society with nothing to offer in its place.

Or, is it?

Is a larger, generous, honorable “we” —the we of We the People, of United we stand—even real? The One Nation Under God— has that notion of “one” been shown to cover too many self-righteous, separatist passions, sins, hatreds and divisions to survive a critical examination? Is there a we of fellow humans, all in this together, a we not seduced into interest groups—tribes, clans and gangs—by willing participation in discrete “communities” that exist only to excite feelings of superiority, reinforce stereotypes and create distances?

Is there an American “we” that embraces this project of living together without tearing apart what’s best rather than fixing what’s worst?

If not, what will become of… of you? And you? And you? Of him? And her? And her? And them? Of me?

1 With some tweaks or disgreement by those more well-versed than I, a literate if simple citizen with no special proclivity for political histories.

2 Attributed to, among others, the estimable Aesop; Mark 3:25; Matthew 12:25; Luke 11:17; enshrined in the patriotic lyrics of founding father John Dickinson; repeated by Patrick Henry and Stephen Douglas; reproduced in the unofficial State Motto of Kentucky and on the Missouri State flag, and heard in many a speech and song.

Image: (c) Can Stock Photo / zapomicron

Againstness

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.

A Word from Our Sponsor

Social media platforms, their proprietors, and their investors thrive on our addiction to unpleasantness, contention, and drama.

Our thoughts are not thoughts, they are “posts,” and they constitute “content.” “Content” (which those of us who are active on social media produce collectively, liberally, mostly for no compensation) lures us and others in, where we become part of a platform’s algorithm designed to generate as much interest and money as possible.

We and our pithy (or, more often, pissy) complaints, allegations, reactions, attacks–the eternal chorus of ugliness we produce and reproduce–are what make Mark Zuckerberg and his ilk filthy rich: every post we write, read, like, dislike or share not only gives data to the company and its advertisers so they can better target us, but also, our freely-given opinions (often in response to trolls and bots) keep others logging on and reading. Our posts cost Facebook, Instagram and Twitter nothing, but are worth (to them) the “engagement” they spark and the economic activity that results from that “engagement.”

Our social and political bile, along with our gossip, gems of wisdom, playful images and conspiracy theories, are social media’s product, and their product sells other products. We produce, reproduce and consume waste (wasted time, wasted feelings, wasted thoughts) for entertainment, and Facebook, Twitter and Instagram turn it all into gold. I contribute to the wallets of billionaires, with no compensation for me, when I write then post this: I have willingly provided free content.

Transponding

I planned take up with a couple of folks’ Facebook pages but seems I have rather more to say than might be welcome on someobody else’s sovereign rhetorical space. At least here, I can go on and on, as I am wont to do, and I haven’t offended an original poster on his own page.

I refer to the tempest in the teacup that has come on the heels of an actual tempest in our streets in recent days. I just read J.K. Rowling’s essay. It is thoughtful and well-expressed, not the angry, hateful, ignorant screed I expected, based solely on the outraged response it has gotten in the press and especially on social media. What troubles me greatly, as a teacher of critical thinking and dialogue, is the idea that, according to some bandwagon thinkers, anyone not on the bandwagon should be disallowed to have their own, different experiences and narratives (about which, for Rowling’s own part and on her own behalf, she speaks eloquently–at least in the essay presently the subject of the ruckus). Rowling, I take it, according to her critics, is to be soundly and publicly spanked for daring to express her own thoughts on a subject that, she makes clear, is of deep personal interest to her and important to everyone, not only to those who identify as trans (and not just to those most activist, most vocal, and most angry). Rowling is rightly concerned about the chilling effects, upon critical thinking and public conversation, of any movement or discourse that brooks no dialogue and no nuance; that labels, as an enemy, anyone who doesn’t fall in line and walk the approved talk. Her reflections upon her own youth resonate powerfully with my own (disallowed, untold, marginalized) story) of coming to terms with, finally accepting and making a space for my biological sex and my experienced/performed/ascribed gender and sexuality (both of which varied fluidly along a spectrum) in a world that tolerated some, but not much, deviation. Claiming to be a proponent of freedom of expression while punishing a woman who speaks her truth is bewildering to me and strikes me as anti-feminist and even anti-woman: surely, Rowling’s right to dissent and to speak her mind was hard-fought and hard-won by feminists and by herself. It must have taken her, a public figure with a lot to lose, a great deal of courage, in this “I Hereby Cancel Thou!” era of social media, to challenge the emergent, master narrative of the self-righteous marginalized: to dare to tell her own story as if it were as legitimate as the stories of others, and to have her own perspective. She must have given her essay careful thought and sleepless nights, and ended up feeling that she had to take the risk. I don’t see anything in her essay that is, truly, “devastating” as at least one headline labeled it. (The number of women who are raped every year globally is devastating. The number of black men in prison, or the number of black victims of police violence is devastating. The scope of prescription drug dependance and abuse is devastating. Children kept in cages at our border– that is devastating. Rowling’s essay is not).

Rowling’s reflections might be welcomed as adding yet more depth, breadth and understanding to a complex subject that is relevant to all humans–in which case, she and everyone else has an equal stake in it. Or, perhaps, this ought to be an insider movement, no concern of Rowling’s or anybody else who is not vociferously identified with the rhetoric (in which case, why ought anybody to care what an irrelevant, “insider-only” movement says or wants?) This is what I hear Rowling saying: she is concerned, as are many (gay, lesbian, bi, straight, female, male, trans) people–scholars, health professionals, social philosophers, feminists– about how women and girls are impacted by a return to binary thinking that underpins some versions of trans performance; concerned about the serious implications of messages we send to developing children, adolescents and young adults who necessarily face questions of who they are, how they “fit in” or don’t, and how to deal with powerful, often conflicted feelings of emerging sexuality and identity–and she is also concerned that we have entered (yet) a(nother) time in our society when women who voice a reflection, story or opinion that doesn’t fall into political line with approved activist rhetoric are vilified, put back in their places and told to shut up.

On Aunt Jemima

My home town paper from Casper, Wyoming came out, yesterday, with an article on the Aunt Jemima brand change. The post was followed by a spate of disgusted or enraged comments ranging from “Unbelievable!’ to “THIS IS SO IGNORANT ITS (sic) BEYOND BELIEF” to “I hope their sales plummet” to “What is becoming of the greatest country ever the political left and snow flakes (sic) will be its undoing.” Here are more:

“Silly people. No problem with Uncle Ben’s.”

“Sad. People should stop being so peddy (sic).”

“As an old, fat woman I am offended by Mrs. Butterworth products.”

“More knee-jerk stupidity.”

Interested in these responses, which number over 200 and counting as of this writing, I made a reply. What I did not address in my comments (that’s for a longer essay) is what I find most compelling, which is how, through a process Ernest Bormann called symbolic convergence, people respond to threats to values–to what must feel like threats to their very existence–by quickly dismissing and ridiculing an idea and then piling on, reaffirming belonging to one group by disaffirming belonging to a different group.

Anyway, what I focused on instead was this:

“I trust,” I wrote, “that most commenters here are intelligent, curious people– some, Christians, perhaps?– who are not interested in just blowing off steam, dismissing an Oil City headline with a contemptuous snort of self-righteousness. Thus, I’ve found and shared some interesting history of the AJ brand below. To that, I add a few thoughts. If one is a black American who has grown up in a white-dominated culture –with our nation’s history of enslavement of and violence against human beings with brown and black skin (and the legacy: generations-long, terrible familial, social and economic effects and ongoing repression, by force, of entire communities) then icons like Aunt Jemima (see the history of the brand below) are insulting and demeaning. They perpetuate the myth that America has been equally good to everybody, which may feel true to some of us but certainly is demonstrably untrue for many.

Yet, do not all citizens deserve the dignifying respect of an American company’s public recognition that its icon has a racist history? Aren’t we all better off acknowledging Jemima’s meanings? What exactly is lost, to any of us, in the Pepsi corporation’s move to update a line of pancake and syrup product with a new name, one that does not remind black Americans, among other things, that black people were once routinely depicted as being jolly in spite of their enslavement?

Point taken that significant change threatens the status quo and challenges our comforting sense of what we claim as our own history and identity. But, our collective history/histories (no matter how familiar and comforting to those who were not excluded from comfort) also hide sins (or wrongdoings, if you prefer) that are possible to redress with simple acknowledgments and responsiveness. Culture, by its nature, learns and evolves. That’s good, because cultural symbols can be toxic to entire groups of people. The time came, in the male-dominated marketing, advertising and entertainment industries, to stop representing women as only capable of being housewives, manipulative shrews or brainless bimbos. The time came to stop representing all men as handsome, hard-muscled heroes, good only for fighting, killing and seduction, or as fat slobs. The time came to stop representing all Native Americans as bad guys or loyal sidekicks; all Jews as greedy and all people of color as lazy. We live among others not exactly like ourselves; we have different stories, but we share empathy. If you cannot empathize, think of it this way. If I use an image of you, laughing and dancing while I call the tune, to sell my product, you’d be right to expect me to stop when I finally understand that it’s humiliating, not harmless. https://www.businessinsider.com/aunt-jemima-history-logo…

I am pretty sure that this will be unread by most people, will receive an angry face or two in response, perhaps a couple of thumbs-up and conceivably a death threat.

A report from the back alley

We live in a house in a city, at the confluence of several neighborhoods, each with its own character, history and demographics. We’ve been urban dwellers for decades and love being in the middle of so much human activity–pleasant, unpleasant, lively, loud, exciting, dangerous, cultural and multicultural, pretty, ugly, rough, civil, surprising, real. The social challenges that impact our country tend to manifest, in some way, within our sphere of daily existence: we are neither remote or insulated from America’s most intractable issues nor from suffering (which, of course, is experienced, at times, by all of us, whether indoors, behind curtains and brick walls; openly, on sidewalks; under roofs, in heated rooms, in underpasses, and beside dumpsters).

Our part of town is diverse in race, class, architecture, politics. Apartment buildings and 7-11 stores (there are two within eight blocks of one another) sit next to small, historic duplexes and single-family-homes. There is a sprawling hospital complex. There are coffee shops, a Safeway, nonprofit services for the elderly and the destitute, medical and law offices occupying cramped Victorians and stately, Federal-style former residences. Between our North-South streets run alleys. Through these alleys flows a continuous pageant of downtrodden and disenfranchised: people who scream at one another, or who dig trash from containers and throw onto the ground; people who quietly set up a box where they stay for weeks; people who spray paint the fences, urinate behind dumpsters, defecate beside houses; people who help keep the alleys cleaned up; people who collect piles of large trash items from god-knows-where and create nests of pure litter. There are people who show up with bicycle parts and chain those parts to every fence and pole; they hang out in groups, accumulating more bikes to disassemble; they smoke, drink, engage in surreptitious exchanges of money for packets of something, and they smile and wave when you pass. There are people who curse you when they see you, and people who slink away from your back door when you arrive home, pretending they were not doing something that you interrupted. There are people who help you close your garage door when it’s stuck open and you have to get to work.

It seems that much of the public conversation about homelessness and camping bans devolves into nothing more than one-upping, labeling and insults.

On our local NextDoor website, bitterness and spite occasionally erupt in the midst of what is usually an exchange of resources, generosity, thoughful reflection and kindness. To me, the rancor among community members is indicative of the levels of frustration all empathetic people feel over a global–not just local–situation that has ancient roots (poverty and injustice have been intertwined with stigma, illness and disability and other forms of incapacitation, as well as with parasitism, forever). The conflating of different circumstances and conditions doesn’t help. Among those who may be temporarily down-on-their-luck (or who never had any advantages or access to a leg-up) are also those not intellectually equipped to thrive in today’s evolving social and civic world; those who are schizophrenic and cannot function without medication and other support; veterans and others who have been traumatized and cannot rebound…women who have been abused and otherwise victimized and who do not have systemic or family support…runaways (and kids whose parents have kicked them out)…people who are self-medicating. I know there are a few who elect to live on the streets (to completely deny their existence seems dismissive and disrespectful, as would arguing that no one, anywhere, ever would ever choose street life when for some, that is the only bearable life). And, let’s be honest here: some individuals do not want to contribute anything to society, but are happy to take advantage of the compassion of others.

These complexities have always made it nearly impossible for governments to address social problems like poverty with absolute fairness or to the satisfaction of everyone, even though many, many good people continually do their best to help.

The difficulty of talking productively about homelessness is wrapped up in our refusal or inability to talk in nuanced ways, our proclivity to categorize, and our tendencies to cast issues and solutions in black-and-white: The homeless ban is cruel! The ban criminalizes homelessness! Homeless people are a nuisance! Homelessness is never a choice! Homeless people got themselves into their situation! People who want restrictions on where homeless people can camp are (spit when you say it) privileged, entitled and selfish. Etc.

To grandly (or cantankerously) blame the City government and the wealthy for everything, or to proclaim “We must do this!” or “We must do that!” is to do nothing but talk. First of all, no institution or class is monolithic. Secondly, who is the “we” in those righteously indignant sentences? Not everyone sees things from the same perspective; not everyone has had the same experiences, and not everyone considers themselves a part of a “we” (take Christians: many would disagree vehemently about whether to address social concerns systemically– focus on the larger picture to make things better in the long run even if it hurts some individuals now? Or try to help everyone in small ways today, but lose the long-term goal, the overall common good?) It’s easy to dictate, from one’s chair, in front of one’s computer, what “we must do!” –but big statements of solutions (when anyone on the ground knows how inextricably complex every solution is) –and belittling those to whom one feels superior– changes nothing.

What most people– that is, working people with bills to pay; with family and property to care for; with a sense of social responsibility overwhelmed by other, personal and professional responsibilities– have actual power to do is to treat others well, online and face-to-face; give what they can to the most effective agencies and organizations; vote responsibly; attend community meetings when possible, and offer to volunteer.

Yelling at each other with put-downs and “I’m better than you” and “You’re evil because we disagree on process!” seems counterproductive in every way unless the goal is just meanness. Casting as horrible the exasperated, middle class urbanites, homeowners or renters who want to keep their neighborhood safe, clean, appealing, walkable and liveable, is just as wrong as casting as lazy and dirty all people who are without shelter.

I suggest to anyone who quite genuinely wants to make things better (as opposed to wishing to blow off steam and make themselves feel superior): stop pointing fingers and adding flames to fires already burning too hot. Acknowledge how complicated the world is, appreciate everyone on the front lines, appreciate the good citizens who pay taxes, vote, own homes and want healthy communities, appreciate our local police, appreciate our in-distress, homeless neighbors who actually try to keep their encampments contained and clean in spite of their extreme hardships… and find out what small things you might do to make things a little better… or, if you can’t do a thing and cannot appreciate, either, well, just don’t add to the misery.

Not to Phub. That’s the question.

As I plan my courses for spring (one is a conversation-based core course; the other, a performance course) I brace for what has become normal: face-to-face, interpersonal behavior that undermines collective focus, presence and wholehearted intellectual participation. It is more common than not for interlocutors, regardless of how it comes across to others (who have put their own devices away, and who are trying to be fully present) to indulge in the perpetual entertainment on the screen in their hands AND to defiantly excuse their constant checking: “You just don’t understand! I MUST read this text! I HAVE TO respond to this post! I can’t POSSIBLY sit here without my phone at arm’s length, its screen ready to distract me, just in case something happens somewhere ELSE.”
 
It is acceptable to opt-out of even the most basic prosocial exercise of granting full attention to what a friend, teacher, parent or child is saying in the actual, physical space we share. It’s discourteous, yes, but apparently fine anyway, to avert one’s eyes to the little personal distractor; to openly read texts and to respond, even while the other, present party may be valiantly attempting to develop a topic or co-create a good conversation.
 
It’s usual, now, to eschew the awkward, human discomfort of our own feelings of social embarrassment, to avoid trying to bridge the weirdness of our differences: differences in background, culture, attitudes, values, even differences in communicative styles.
 
Phubbing—for so compulsive phone-checking is called—is not healthy, but it’s apparently the standard way that we’re now “together”. My students increasingly react with barely-concealed rage and defensiveness if I suggest that having their phones out, competing with the present, physical human exchanges, isn’t productive under some circumstances, in some settings, in some contexts. “You can’t make me put away my phone” has become the outraged cry. *
 
Argue as one may about how one, personally, can multitask out the yingyang—fine, whatever, aren’t you something—doesn’t it depend upon the tasks? Working on a project with a friend, both of you on computers, chit-chatting and murmuring responses to one another while looking at something online, is very different from trying to talk through a personal issue; different from listening when someone is telling a story, and very different from meeting the demands of contributing to a difficult, nuanced conversation in which thinking of and posing thoughtful questions depends upon having followed the thread.
 
In fact, even if one could, miraculously, pay full attention while actually only paying partial attention, one cannot have a committed, thoughtful, connected conversation about many subjects when one is simultaneously signaling, nonverbally, to the other person or persons that one is not exactly fully-engrossed in the moment being shared. That’s because, one is not really sharing it. One is also on alert for something more interesting and entertaining to come across the transom at any moment.
 
Imagine kissing someone you really like, for the first time, and having them glance at their phone mid-kiss. Why are other acts of social communion that demand our full engrossment any different? Classroom teaching and learning are similar to that kiss in this respect: they have the potential to transform; to be challenging if not mind-blowing, intimate and profoundly satisfying, but only if mutual. A meaningful relationship is one in which the physical and intellectual presence of the other–and all the vulnerability and trust that presence implies–costs something: it costs attention. And often, not always, it fully repays and rewards.
 
There are many sides to be admitted. Not all human exchanges, in fact, probably most, are worth the hopes and efforts we may put into them. Some parents go on and on, repeating themselves or just filling the air with sound, if you grant them your undivided ear; some friends are only capable of holding court and never return the favor of curiosity or interest; some teens prattle, rant, criticize and exhaust patience; some teachers abuse the power of the podium and deliver boredom; some of us just suck at face-to-face communication, don’t care, expect others to carry the burden of liveliness, and over time become the problem. Granted, all that.
 
Finally: I’m not without resources, and this post isn’t a request for advice or explanation. I see, think about and understand the issues; I get the complexities. I read the studies, and I try interventions all the time: I have various approaches that work, more or less, or don’t. I have the conversation with students; I balance dialogue with a combination of suggestions, policies and in some cases (never beneficial to the learning process, but only to keeping things easy for myself) lots of tolerance. I’m not posting this in exasperation– I’m beyond exasperation; I’m reflective now– and I’m not asking “So, what do you do?” The topic is proposed as food for thought: here we are, all connected, constantly, addicted consumers, consuming the entertainment of connection like it’s pure heroin. To me, this present condition is alarming, perhaps even more an impoverishment than it can be a boon, and with every passing year, our device-based social behavior contributes to fewer and fewer collectively-focused, mutually-engaged and engaging exchanges in the classroom. We’re less brave, face-to-face. Less likely to create connections across difficult divides. Less tolerant of conversations that might start slowly and need encouragement. Less inventive in our interplay. Kind of… well, less interesting to be around, what with all the zombielike glazed eyes, fixed anxiously upon our glowy, beepy, demanding little objects.
 
Oh, well.
 
* Which creeps me out, and ought to creep all of us out. What have we become?
 

Phubbing and Why It’s Bad for Us | Newport Academy

Heard the word “phubbing” recently, and wondered what it means? “Phubbing” is a combination of two words: “phone” and “snubbing.” Thus, phubbing is the act of snubbing someone in a social situation by looking at your phone instead of paying attention to them.

What is Performance?

Denver Mudman performance, Greg and me, Central Park, NYC

Me (R) with another Urban Mudman. Taken in Central Park: one of several NYC/Bronx/Brooklyn Urban Mudmen performances in the late ’80s.

Performance scholar Marvin Carlson (1996) says that “performance” is a term that’s so often encountered in such a variety of contexts that not much common ground exists. It’s hard to provide a good definition. For example, one sense of “performance” implies the public demonstration of particular skills. Another definition involves the general success of an activity in light of some standard of achievement that may not be precisely articulated—like a student’s performance in school, or an athlete’s performance in the heat of the game.

Erving Goffman (1959) sees performance as ritual interaction that strengthens social bonds. Goffman says, “To the degree that a performance highlights the common official values of the society in which it occurs, we may look upon it as a ceremony— an expressive rejuvenation and reaffirmation of the moral values of the community.”

Recognizing that our lives are structured according to repeated and socially sanctioned modes of behavior raises the possibility that all human activity, at least all activity that’s done with a consciousness of itself, could be considered “performance.

The difference between doing and performing, according to this way of thinking, doesn’t lie in the frame of “theatre-versus-real life” but in an attitude: we may do actions unthinkingly, but when we think about them, this introduces a consciousness that gives them the quality of performance.  (Carlson, 1996, p. 4).

But, if every human act is (or might legitimately be considered) “performance”… then, of what use is the term “performance?”

An ethnographer of human communication, Dell Hymes, has attempted to sort out an answer—because he believes that “performance” is a useful conceptual lens— by contrasting performance with behavior and conductHe says, “Behavior is anything and everything that happens.”

“Conduct” is behavior under the aegis of social constraints and rules of interpretation. “Performance,” a subset of behavior (and probably of conduct) is “conduct in which an actor assumes a responsibility to an audience and to tradition.”

But, that mandate of “responsibility to an audience” is the topic of a lot of debate among social theorists. What does it mean, exactly—“responsibility to an audience?”

And, “responsibility to tradition” is equally problematic. But—maybe not so much. Plenty of theorists and scholars agree that performance is based on some preexisting script or pattern of action, which we could call “tradition.”  For instance, Richard Schechner, one of the principal voices in the study of performance, says calls performance “restored behavior.”

Others have likewise claimed there is no per-formance without pre-formance. That suggests that performance is all behavior that’s replicated and which is responsive to or grounded in social roles and structures—or to put it another way, whatever in the human repertoire has a precedent that it reproduces, thereby becomes performance. SO, performance is how society replicates itself. It’s how norms are established and set: through repetition and reinforcement: Ta da! There we have tradition.

In my performance studies class, I pose a question on the first day: “What does a good person do?” Whatever we do—emphasis on DO—when we’re trying to feel good about ourselves (this obviously excludes sneezing, which might feel good, but it’s not something we do in order to feel “good about our selves”) is based on some preexisting script or pattern of action that was, in the past, somehow rewarding.

When we see someone doing what we understand to be good, we see someone who, most probably, is doing something that resonates with our preexisting ideas of goodness: whatever words we give it.

I don’t mean goody-goodness; I mean what everyone likes to feel: good, not bad. What’s the nature of THAT good?

We use the terms good and bad all the time. Only, we may think of them as states of being (which is, in performance, an error). We might wonder, for example, “What is a good mom?” or “What is a good teacher?”

Let’s ask, instead, “What does a good mother do? What does a bad teacher do? What does a good sister do?” This leads us to performance thinking (and to complexity, because a good mother might step on a bug, or kick the dog, or curse, or even kill someone and still perform good mother competently).

Obviously, we need more context in which to answer a question like, “What does a good mother do?” “What does a good sister do?” (social roles)…”What does a good grocer do?” “What does a good President do?” (professional roles). If the context is simply our society, one might still come up with some answers that most people will agree with: “A good mother makes her child feel loved and safe and important.” “A good sister refrains from criticizing her brother, implicitly or explicitly.” “A good grocer makes sure his store is well-stocked and open convenient hours; she keeps the store clean, the prices as low as possible and the food on the shelves fresh.” “A good President represents the majority and the minority of the people, puts country before self-interest, seeks to unite and strengthen, speaks to inspire, follows and upholds the law, acts as a role model for children…” (etc.)

Why is that? Why would so many of us agree with those statements? It’s because good describes the way people ought to (are expected or morally beholden) behave in relationship to others, to their roles, and to their society. How people should perform.

And, performance is also a way that individuals and societies break things up, or shake things up. Janet Jackson exposes her nipple in front of millions of people, and somehow her performance galvanizes the media and consumes the nation’s discourse for a day or two— and results in all kinds of changes about what can and cannot be done by performers in certain regulated, mediated contexts.

Martin Luther King performs a speech at the nation’s capital and changes history. Al Quaida crashes airplanes into an American city and that performance changes the way the world works.

According to Victor Turner, these disruptions, or tears, or ruptures can ultimately serve to tighten and reinforce social norms…that is, if they don’t instead end up permanently dividing factions into intractable sides, which an outcome of social drama that he would call a permanent schism. That’s a whole other lecture. What I’m saying is that even as performance maintains and strengthens, it also disrupts and upsets, and sometimes, by doing both, helps to transform.

Performance scholars agree that one important characteristic of performance is that it involves a consciousness of doubleness in which the actual execution of an action is compared mentally with a potential, an ideal, or a remembered original model of that action.

The essence of this is the sense of an action carried out for someone: for a present audience, an invisible watcher, an imagined internal parent, for God, or for some observing part of ourselves that evaluates the action to be good, or beneficial, or rewarding (or not).

Doubleness, or awareness, can be seamless in performances that are sincere—that is, we believe our own performance—or can divide us into performer and observer, as in what Goffman calls “cynical” performance. Please: take a look at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance of Truman Capote, and especially pay attention to Capote’s performance for others at the dinner table in the scene Charming the Deweys.

Furthering the idea of doubleness and bringing it into the realm of how we learn and change, Jane Gallop (1995) draws attention to the dramatic or performative taking-on of others’ voices, or as she puts it, im-personation (hyphen included, presumably to draw attention to the “personation” part). The power of im-personation, for Gallop, is its doubleness: it must be taken playfully and seriously by both the performer and the audience.  She writes about impersonating a teacher when she was just learning to teach, for example, and the doubleness of that experience that eventually taught her to teach.

I once auditioned for a college chorus. The conductor asked me to sing the part of the soprano; I insisted that I could not. I had always associated soprano singing with girly-girls and weakness and showing off, and because that was not how I saw myself, I was convinced that I was, in no way, a soprano but firmly a first alto. The conductor looked disappointed and asked me to give it a try. Embarrassed, I said, “Okay, I can fake a soprano voice! I can sound just like a soprano–but it won’t be real.” As she played piano, I proceded to hit every note above high C powerfully and rotundly, as if I were Maria Grazia-Schiavo, surprising both of us. “But, that’s not really singing soprano,” I insisted. “Because, I can’t.”

Like Erving Goffman, Gallop sees the personal as a mask. She argues that when the personal appears, it is always as a result of a process of im-personation. Personhood is always a process of performing the personal for a public. Im-personation, whether it means appearing as a female, or appearing as a male, or appearing as a cool, disaffected athlete, or appearing as a quiet Christian man or an energetic and loving friend… it simply means “appearing as a person.”  Im-personation: the taking on of the mask of personhood.

The notion of this sort of performance, which has been written about extensively by Judith But­ler and other postmodern theorists, has been consistently misunderstood as meaning that we can be whatever we want.  That is obviously not the case. We can’t be whatever we want. But, we can play at be­ing whatever or whoever, or however we desire.

And, through play, we learn something. We can learn, deeply, in our bodies, in our movements, in our bones, something of what it might be to be different than we now are, to perform something or someone else. If we are used to describing ourselves as shy, and habitually play out shyness when we are with others, rehearsing it every time we do it—and even if we are totally convinced that we ARE shy (a stable characteristic of an unchanging self—whatever that might be!) performance, especially impersonation, lets us play at being bold. And then we learn, “Oh, if I can play at being bold, I can be bold.” What’s the difference, if it’s all performance?

As Butler (1988) points out, “to say that I ‘play’ at being one is not to say that I am not one ‘really,’ but rather, how and where I play at being one is the way in which that ‘being’ gets established, insti­tuted, circulated, and confirmed. This is not a performance from which I take radical distance, for this is deep-seated play, psychically entrenched play.”

In many of the above notions (ritual social interplay… doing with a sense of being noted or observed; pretending to be other than what/who/where one thinks of real… or half-seriously and half-passing as another) we can find a common sense in the notion of performance: that of play (or “a play”) of a deep nature, capable of recreating, sustaining, making visible, challenging, and recreating participants’ experience of self, of social sameness/difference, and of possibility.

Thus, in the idea of performance, there are deep implications for us, in terms of our ability to learn, change, and grow and to become different from what—or how—we “are” in the ways we want to be different.

Writing about OUR/selves

Here we are, in the thick of Mile High MFA summer season (and, here I am, in the thick of searching for a literary agent and—one is allowed to hope—a great editor and an enthusiastic publisher, all willing to take on my flawed work and help to make it stronger). Thus, writing, criticism, editing, revision and publishing are all on my mind. I came across a 2017 New Yorker article (click, or see below this post) and wondered if others might find the subject as thought-provoking as I do.

The blog post you’re reading now is an example of how easily one can hit a button and find an audience today. But, what we write about and post or publish—what we choose to spend time on and to put before readers in these extremely challenging times (and for what reasons) —seems worth considering. I’d argue it amounts to a matter of conscience. Do we just think, “If I have a feeling, I ought to share it?” Do we assume that our own emotions, encounters and adversities make experts of us in certain domains—or, do we make writing a process of inquiry, researching and reflecting upon subjects whose complexities we might not, at the outset, wholly grasp?

Or, do we respondwith curiosity and commitment, in fresh waysto, say, questions of race and racism, crises of migration and immigration, drug cartels and other indomitable peddlers of misery? The plight of refugees, land use, injustice, poverty, democracy, women’s health and education? Do we interrogate our own entitlements, privileges, personal and social responsibilities, proposing new ways of thinking and telling (our own and others’) stories in ways that illuminate something otherwise hidden in these often tired or frustrating, yet vitally important, discourses?

Ought we investigate and profile innovative and/or courageous figures? Do we research and expose bullies and sociopaths who dominate the halls of corporate and political power? Do we help readers to better understand the nuances of a given local or national challenge, trend or issue?

Ought we raise topics for mutual consideration and open up spaces in which different opinions and values can truly exist? Create fiction that reveals the invisible, gives voice to the unspoken or the unspeakable? Make poetry that, like music, resonates in the bones and expands the soul? Write with self-awareness, humor, generosity and respect for our readers (those who bother, in spite of having their own lives and troubles,  to engage with our work?) Do we seek to understand (or even to acknowledge the lived humanity of) our readers at all?

Ought we gaze into a mirror, see only ourselves, and sob, “Now, there’s someone worth writing about! Especially the sad and unfair parts! The world needs to know how I suffer!”

Ever since Holly Hughes first made me uncomfortable, blew my mind, and opened my pores back in the early ’90s (World Without End), I’ve reacted to personal narrative performances and personal essays in two ways.

First, NO: not if I’m supposed to understand the author as a special case, to applaud the self-appointed, plucky-but-tragic hero, whose condition cannot be matched by my own negligible aches and pains (of which the author knows nothing and about which he cares not at all). He hasn’t earned the right to foist confidences upon me (rapport is a two-way street) and hasn’t considered that I might also have a rich, full set of my own experiences that range from excruciating to ecstatic to terrifying.

But YES—IF (like Hughes) the writer introduces me to a story or subject both intimate and universally relevantsomething she expects that I will recognize and relate to (and, through which she treats me, her voluntary audience, with plenty of respect and empathy, not as a punching bag or as a clueless naif who needs educating).

YES—IF he has worked with a savvy friend, a seasoned editor or a skilled director (to help him understand how he’s actually coming across; that is, IF he’s opened his autobiographical writing to criticism and revision before expecting me to take it in).

YES—IF they are a good (articulate, bighearted, larger-context-oriented) communicator… then, by all means, bring it on: the private, the regretful, the insightful, the comical, the heartbreaking.

Hughes, Spalding Gray, Annie Sprinkle, Julia Sweeney (among many others, all of them performers of deeply personal work) accomplished all that and more. David Sedaris, and Mike Birbiglia (among many others) have made us laugh until we wept at the sorry, awful, wonderful condition of being mortal. J.D. Vance, Jeannette Walls and Tara Westover (among many others) have written with benevolence and empathy about their lives, making the story about the people around them, and about the world, eliciting love for the complicated characters that inhabit their thoughtful autobiographies.

I’m not sure that, truly, the personal essay boom (or personal narrative explosion) is over, as the author of this 2017 New Yorker article proposes. If not, let’s hope more personal essayists follow in the footsteps of those who have made the personal not only about themselves, but about us.

The Personal-Essay Boom Is Over

There’s a certain kind of personal essay that, for a long time, everybody seemed to hate. These essays were mostly written by women. They came off as unseemly, the writer’s judgment as flawed. They were too personal: the topics seemed insignificant, or else too important to be aired for an audience of strangers.

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