In today’s Washington Post opinion piece, Teachers Are Under Fire in Increasingly Bizarre Ways, authors Waldman and Sargent also write:
How, the article wonders, and how (I ask) can librarians do their jobs? How can teachers possibly teach (or enjoy teaching) when the message is that they are probably up to no good? When they are surveilled and scrutinized? How can a teacher be playful, creative, spontaneous, joyful, loud, funny, confident, encouraging, or authentically engaged when she might be fired for the “wrong” expression of any of those qualities?
Claims of harm–and the extremely general denunciation of “harmful” acts — are specious, like calling someone a witch if they act in ways that you decide are disobedient. The proof of a “Witch!” allegation was found (or not) by strapping down and dunking the ostensible witch under water, where, if she drowned, she wasn’t a witch after all– and if she did not drown, she was obviously dangerous and must be burned at the stake. Unlucky was she who ran afoul of the local clique of “Christian” mean girls, who’d smile in smug satisfaction while enjoying the spectacle of their victims running out of air or writhing in the flames.
“Harmful” (the term now thrown at anyone bullies don’t like) is a charge that is used to justify self-righteous attacks against educators who have run afoul of some cabal. The term has no clear or useful definition. It relies upon hearsay. It privileges the accuser’s feelings, words, and perspective over the feelings, words, and perspective of the accused (and over any counter-narratives provided by witnesses, and over curiosity or reason). “You caused harm!” now excuses attacks. Pointing the finger at someone with the claim, “You caused harm!” is like crying out in the public square, “You murdered my child, you Devil!” The imputation is likely to get the accused set upon by an angry mob without any further evidence, much less dialogue.
“Harm” is subjective. In contexts where “harm” is used to fire someone (the teacher in the article reads a book to kids that includes butts and farts, and is out of a job in no time, having thus potentially harmed children) the term “harm” functions as an incontrovertible label. “You caused harm” is used to shut down lively discourse, criticisms of authority, nuanced thinking, and (gasp) humor or other forms of free expression.
Can harm actually be caused by a teacher? Of course, duh. I won’t go into sexual improprieties or assaults here, or patterns of obdurate abuse of power. Let’s just talk about offenses like reading a funny butt book to kids, or challenging college students to think beyond and outside their comfort zones and political scripts. We teachers can and do (all, I imagine) sometimes hurt others, inadvertently or on purpose. That’s the nature of being a person in a room with other people, or a living thing among other living things. Part of the courage needed to be a teacher– to stand, day after day, in front of a roomful of mixed learners (some perpetually mad; some eager; some smart; some not so smart; some hypercritical; some eternally bored)– involves finding ways to connect, to enliven interest, to spark change (for learning is change) while remaining, ourselves, engaged, and hopefully while being present in each moment, even sometimes forgetting ourselves as we enter into classroom conversations. When we forget ourselves– stop monitoring our behavior–we’re way more likely to make a quip, or to speak sharply about a topic we care about, or to accidentally step on a student’s emotional toe because we assumed we’re all on the same friendly page, but we’re not.
Most of the time, if we’re wrong, we say “Oops!” and “Sorry! Misspoke! Didn’t intend offense!” or “Here’s what I meant to say,” or “Won’t happen again.”
To productively deal with alleged harm, prosecutorial types as well as the prosecuted might be wisely advised to be curious and specific: What happened? What was said or done? By whom, to whom, with what effect, according to whom? Was there an error or misperception involved? Was there a physical assault? A verbal assault? Is a conversation in order? An apology? Should mutual understanding be sought, or perhaps not? Was the harm truly egregious? Or maybe were someone’s feelings hurt in a way that might heal after a few hours’ anger and a glass of wine with friends (or even with the purported “harmer” to mend the relationship?)
One remembers, with profound gratitude, being guided or sometimes just propelled through uncomfortable feelings and resistance, by great teachers and librarians… whose business it was to expose students to new ways of thinking; whose life’s calling was to wake students up to their own creative, intellectual and emotional capacities. Thank you, Miss Tyler! Thank you, Monte Henrie! Thank you, Joanie Evans, Casey Kizziah, Lisa Jacobson, Robert Perillo, Fay Simpson, Polina Klimovitskaya.
One remembers being helped to laugh at one’s own ignorance, weaknesses and fears. Thank you, Jimmy Tripp, Mario Siletti.
One remembers experiencing, in school, brilliant moments of insight and growth after having been surprised, even shocked, in transformative classrooms. Thank you, Barbara Dobos!
Gone are those days, thanks to the tyrannical Crusaders (not for anything truly good, only against what they deem bad) who– believing only in their own pumped-up feelings of perfection–cannot imagine how wrong they are, nor acknowledge the harm they, themselves, wreak.
For the past year, whenever we walk up 17th Avenue from our house in the direction of the park, which we do daily, I anticipate the hole. I don’t say anything. Michael is sometimes in the middle of a joke or anecdote—one meant to illustrate the focal topic of that particular walk—and I don’t care to cut in with irrelevancies. Our subjects range from teaching as opposed to telling… to how power corrupts (perhaps especially those who think they’re incapable of abusing theirs)… to what we should have for dinner. The choices are: frozen pizza, a salmon sandwich, takeout from Pepper Asian Bistro, a Caesar salad, poke, chili with fritos, or a shrimp chimchanga. Really, it depends on the mood we’re in.
Strolling by restaurants with their animated patios—populated in spite of COVID-19, much to our relief, as we want our neighborhood businesses to thrive even though we would not personally sit among others with our masks off and our mouths open no matter how delicious the barbecued sausages look—my attention shifts as I prepare to pass the hole. After the intersection, I can see it ahead. It’s about a foot long, eight inches across, and it vanishes off the edge of the sidewalk: a gap where there is no concrete and no grass, no dirt, nothing at all, just an opening into an impenetrable blackness. When we’re beside it, I glance in but do not exclaim, What the actual hell is up with that hole?
The hole is a feature of an area immediately in front of a row of rental units where families and children live. I know this because not only do I see kids playing there, on the stoops, but because the sidewalk often has a stray ball or a trike lying about. I wonder if anybody who lives there has worried about the hole enough to call the property owner or the City. I wonder if the property owner and the City have ignored their concerns. I wonder why the property owner or the City don’t care.
The hole is also right there where plenty of pedestrianswalk. The elderly, young couples in love, joggers, drunken revelers, dads pushing babies in strollers, entire groups of coworkers, and whole families pass by this fissure every morning, afternoon and evening. COVID has forced us all to veer frequently off the concrete to avoid others by the health-conscious distance of six feet. Why hasn’t someone stepped into this thing and broken a leg, or like Persephone disappeared into the depths? Why haven’t I?
Last spring, I called Public Works. I reported not just the one but several similar orifices I’ve seen in the course of our wanderings. There’s a patch on 18th Avenue that has caved in to the point that it could swallow a small dog, let’s say one of those irritable, super-yippy little things with the underbite and all the fur. Whether or not the dog would deserve it, I won’t speculate. They can’t help how they are. None of us can.
My tone, during the call, was one of courteous excitement hardly bordering on panic at all. The person to whom I spoke wanted to know the exact locations of alleged holes, which coordinates I described. She then wondered if this wasn’t perhaps the responsibility of the owners of the adjacent properties. But, these holes are all over the neighborhood, I said. On the verges. A verge, as I am sure you know, is that area between sidewalk and street. It’s not clear that it’s the City’s duty to keep these safe, but if the City doesn’t, and the property owners don’t notice, care, or take action, somebody could die.
I wasn’t planning to end the sentence like that; I meant to write, Then who will? but I realized that someone COULD die. People die all the time. One minute, they’re riding past you on their electric scooter, all shorts and a t-shirt in February, which is so passive-aggressive. The next, a wheel having slipped slightly off the edge of the concrete, they—minus their red Warbys, which land with a clatter on the curb—have vanished into the murky depths. Whether or or not they would deserve it, again, is not for me to say.
And, I pressed the Public Works lady, don’t you want to understand the nature of the holes, the underlying cause, so you can better respond?Even if it’s not absolutely the City’s issue, you don’t want to ignore that there could be a much bigger thing going on, of which the holes are but a sign. There needed to be an investigation, was my message.
The Public Works lady suggested that I submit an online report that would/could/might prompt some kind of action. I pictured a phlegmatic, older male in baggy pants and a windbreaker. He would come take a looksee and set into motion something, perhaps Caution tape, a crew with walkie-talkies, the disruption of traffic, the discovery of complex of subterranean caverns, the remains of early settlers or (older than that, far older) of paleopeople. Ghosts would be released. Or, they’d find a portal. Or nothing. Who knows? I wanted to. So, I did submit, I submitted liberally, attaching photographic evidence to my emotional plea. Then I relaxed, as much as I ever do, and waited.
Months passed. Things happened on the news. It was easy to imagine worst-case-scenarios, unstoppable societal mayhem, anarchy, Armageddon. There was always COVID, of course, and the isolating features of its perpetual avoidance, plus distressing images of a man whose windpipe was crushed by a police officer, plus protests (covered incessantly on Fox and CNN as if protests were the only thing happening in the whole universe, and as if the image of one burning trashcan, played over and over, or six kids breaking windows, meant utter chaos had been unleashed upon the planet) plus the upcoming U.S. Presidential election and its fraught discourses across all media channels and platforms, plus the development of a sprawling tent encampment, desperate people with nowhere else to go, on our block. Shop windows were boarded. Murals and graffiti appeared, some angry, some mournful, some ugly, some beautiful.
There was also this. One day, Michael and I were followed home by a very large, pale, half-naked, bearded, muttering man. No, no–he pursued us. We’d walked by him, parsing the effects of organizational climates in which relational and intellectual discomforts are voiced as accusations, and where differences of communicative style or perspective are only framed as the entitled behavior of the privileged. Anyway, what? Oh, right: so, this giant, shirtless dude decided to come after us like old Squish Plop in the campfire story.
There were people out and about. We weren’t alone, but among the public, so why he picked on us—two average-looking, masked, middle-aged pedestrians—is anybody’s guess. We glanced back, and there he was, barrelling towards us, half a block away. We glanced back again—Ha ha! It looks like that fellow is after us! Ha ha!— and he was thirty feet from our heels and gaining. We ended up more or less hightailing it into our house, where we slammed the front door and heard him barge onto the porch. He rearranged our porch furniture—Thump! Scrape! Bang!—then sat in the lounger, talking loudly to himself. I worried that he would hurt himself, given his size and the age and frailty of the lounger. After about five minutes, Michael opened the door and said, “You’ll have to leave. This is our porch, and you can’t be up here.” Michael came back inside, and we called the police, who never showed up. We expected our visitor to throw something through the big picture window, which he did not. But, eventually—after fifteen more minutes—he lumbered from our porch and, on his way out, tore our front gate right off its hinges and stomped on it. When Michael went out again to ask him stop destroying our property (I’d decided to watch, not to participate) the man hurled a splintered stave at Michael’s head, which it missed by a couple of feet, smacking hard against the house.
In November, it snowed, and when the snow melted, the hole on 17th Avenue was still there, more defined now, less a crevice and more a crevasse. At this point in the year, we were discussing Zoom and whether it allows for greater intimacy than socially-distanced classrooms where everybody is masked. Nodding vigorously (to cover my distraction and alarm at the hole’s persistence) I agreed with Michael that in some ways, it does. On Zoom, you can see people’s faces, their expressions, and you’re not shouting through a mask. But, you miss presence—physical presence. You lose the ripples of spontaneous laughter that can energize a classroom. You lose eye contact.
In the weeks and months of winter, the hole has continued to stare at me, cyclops-like, when we go by. In the middle of the night recently, it came to me that our neighborhood must sit atop a vast sinkhole. The openings I can see on the surface are indicators of an imminent catastrophe. The City is, no doubt, aware of what’s going on, but the scope of the problem is so vast, they can’t imagine how to deal with it, so they’re pretending it doesn’t exist, as Cities do. When everything caves in one day, they’ll be all like, We had no idea! What a tragedy!All those people. All those houses.The pub, the taco place, the waffle house, all of it, gone forever. Huh! If only someone had submitted an online report with attached photos, all this could have been avoided.
I ponder cities and their governing bodies, all governing bodies. I consider how challenging it is, even for the faculty in my small department, to come together, discuss an issue, and get something tangible accomplished.
I think about how—given the wealth of our nation, our level of prosperity and education, and the sheer number of us who care about quality of life for all (even if selfishly, because a rising tide, yadayada)— we ought to have solved homelessness by now. As a nation, and as communities of neighbors, we ought to have figured out how to truly and sustainably help our down-and-out, our neediest, those who suffer the most among us, while ensuring that the healthy and the capaple can find work, are able to earn a decent living, and are in a position to take care of themselves. I guess it must be true that maintaining a permanent, helpless, dependent and unhappy underclass is politically and economically beneficial to those in power, else we’d surely have done better. What the hell is up with that hole?
Given the frankly astounding reach of science and engineering—the capacity of our very best thinkers and designers to develop solutions to problems—we ought to have been on top of the human-caused components of climate change for decades, if not for a century, collectively and without significant infighting. We should have realized the aspirations of scientists, environmentalists, clean energy advocates who have been on this since the Industrial Revolution started spewing filth into our (only) (shared) (necessary) air and water. The whole energy enterprise, to the extent that it poisons our only home, is unsustainable, a bad idea, and needed to commit to change decades ago. What the hell.
We should, by now, have managed to productively address the flow of human beings across (arbitrary, socially-constructed, but important) borders without subjecting our society, our families, our children, to traffickers and terrorists, and also without vilifying, torturing, warehousing, and treating as inhuman those who most need empathy and compassion. Not everyone who wants to come into a country belongs there, and not everyone who crosses a border brings blessings with them. Nor does everyone bring ill; some bring hunger and hope, determination, love, goodwill, creativity, brilliance. Are we stymied by the complexity? Welcome to societies across human history: welcome to many thousands of years of Who’s “We?” How Do We Live Together? To Whom Are We Responsible? How Do We Protect Our Loved Ones? How Do We Best Thrive? Ought we not to be in a somewhat better place in our response to these questions, given millennia of practice? What the hell.
Shouldn’t we (after all this time on the planet, living among one another, sleeping with one another, raising families, creating communities, depending upon each other for help when we most need it) have, long ago, reduced violent policing (by our own civil servants, against us) for the benefit of all? Surely, by now, we ought to have been able to successfully mitigate patterns of intimidation and brutality by badge-flashing, uniform-wearing, gun-toting law enforcement… without undermining the capacity of police to protect and to serve, while recognizing and promoting ethical officers, and collectively improving the cultural health of our local police forces, thus of our communities. What the hell.
Our species is amazing at reproducing, creating, designing, building, repairing damaged cells, sewing bodies back together, improving chances of survival for people with any number of illnesses, connecting the world via invisible signals. We’re the best at making things explode, brewing better and better beer, and landing a probe on Mars. We’re just not all that great at fixing some things. Why would I expect that a phone call to the City of Denver might result in a City employee coming out to examine, assess, put into context, and deal with the gaping holes that riddle our neighborhood?
I appreciate that as many things work as do: that traffic flows on our streets; that people go to the grocery store, hand over bills or swipe a magic chip and are allowed to leave with food and paper products; that I can teach a remote class on Zoom during a pandemic; that there are parks in which parents push toddlers in swings on sunny days. These all seem like miracles to me. But, what the hell is up with that hole? I probably won’t accidentally fall into it. Possibly, nobody else will, either. I hope the neighborhood will not be sucked into the earth. I have to believe that it won’t.
The clickbait on CNN (cnn.com) reads Gen Z Says This Emoji Isn’t Cool Anymore. Curious if not outright alarmed, I swirl my finger around on my touchpad, tap, then try to take it all in without panicking.
“New York (CNN Business) Bad news for people who frequently use the 😂 emoji: It is no longer cool,” I learn. First (because you have to in these situations) I take a couple of deep, calming breaths. Didn’t I text my someone recently— it feels like yes—and didn’t I say something I thought was witty, and didn’t I use 😂? Dear God, say it’s not true… but, there it is on my Android. Turns out the occasion wasn’t wit, but embarrassment: after inadvertently thanking my brother for a cake that he did not send me (someone else did) I had followed up that errant message with a jokey, “Oops! Wrong person! Sorry! 😂”
Like words spoken aloud in the presence of others, you can’t take back a text*. This only one of the five things** I loathe about texts: they hang there and taunt you for eternity with your social errors, your misspellings, typos and now, uncool emojis. I feel sad. M doesn’t reply to my apologetic mea culpa over the cake-thanking fiasco, which—even though I myself rarely respond to texts, not because I’m a passive-aggressive jerk (I am not) but because I never hear the alerts and never remember to check for them—is not like him, and I blame the emoji. Guess I am not cool enough now to merit even a friendly “No prob, Sis 👍” Or whatever is cooler than that like, I don’t know, “Geen prombleem, Zus! 👱♂️🤜🏻🏋🏽♀️🇳🇱!” or even just, “🦬.”?
Come on, dude, cut me some slack!
Oh, 💩*** —that’s not cool either. I feel faint, so I crack a beer, which is what I do when life throws me a curveball during Happy Hour. I decide to compose a lighthearted, abashed-but-clever, follow-up text to M, to rectify our apparent falling-out over my lack of coolness. “BRO!” I finger-type, punching at each letter with the stylus of one, stiff pinky since thumbs were not designed for typing. “I was 🙇🏼♀️ to realize that I used 😂 in my earlier message. I know, I know, I must’ve been 🍺👨🏻🎨. Can we just 𓀒 and 🛺🏝⚓️??? I’m your 👩🏻🦳, for 🐡 sake. Bygones! Anyway, also, just wanted to reinforce that I know you did not 📦 me a 🍰.”
Which, in retrospect, seems excessive if not bitter, and after a couple of hours reconsidering, I decide it was a mistake to send it but I don’t know what to do next. I scroll through a dozens of emojis online, all of which, to me, look patently uncool. With such a low bar, I try to understand what the criteria might be for uncoolness among stylemaking Gen-Z-ers. I realize that I’ve long considered ALL emojis, and the word emoji, to be stupider than anything in the whole universe.
Then, mercifully, something gives. I don’t 🛒 a 🐀’s 🍑 anymore. Gen Z-ers and CNN can’t control the 🥔ing frame if I don’t let them. When they first invaded language, I vehemently resisted 😂 and 🥰, 👍 and 💋. Only in the past few years did I allow ❤️❤️❤️ to supplant what xoxoxo had previously done a fine job of expressing, because I wanted to be not sternly traditionalist but playfully 🤷🏼 if not wholly acquiescent. I now realize the extent to which I’ve allowed teenagers and the imperialism of pop culture establish new, impoverished standards for what I’d been raised to understand was good, not bad: the desire and capacity to articulate nuanced experiences, ideas, and feelings, yo.
I recently came into and read a collection of letters and essays written mostly by the male members of my paternal family’s older generations. My father and his cousins grew up on rich bottomland, on a farm in Kansas, near Hiawatha. They were a sprawling, extended family, photographic evidence depicting overalls and haystacks, cornfields, tractors, fishin’ poles, barns. My dad, who went to community college then majored, post-Korea, in English at the University of Denver, earning his graduate degree in Education at the University of Arizona, writes one or two essays a day and has done this for decades. He’s also a skilled code-switcher: he can pepper a conversation with (citational, ironic, or unconscious) breadbasket and military colloquialisms, then deliver an articulate indictment of contemporary political leadership, contextualized by history. Dad’s a philosopher, a voracious reader, and now, at 88, a blogger. The capacity to understand and proficiently use written and spoken English is pure joy to him. Dad’s cousin, Les, has likewise produced eminently-readable, even poignant, essays, from travel memoirs (he was a long-distance biker in earlier years) to compelling depictions of life in Hiawatha in the ’50s, complete with keenly-observed and fascinating portraits of local characters. Even today, he can vividly recall detail of their lives, some of them folks his family knew and others near strangers. Another cousin, Raymond, saw the world through the eyes of a do-er, a hands-on fixer, an engineer, and wrote about life from that perspective. None of them ever used a single emoji, for which I’m grateful, as I’ve enjoyed reading every word of their stories and observations about life.
I suppose what I’m getting at, ultimately, is what Wittgenstein so eloquently put in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “The 🚳 of my 👅 are the 🚳 of my 🌏.” It’s a tension, of course, because language is fluid, organic and imaginative, not fixed by its rules but described as much as prescribed by them. Also, most people don’t speak only emoji, so there’s that to refute the sense that the world is going to 😈 in a 🧺
Which has nothing to do with my concern over having outed myself as uncool to my brother, so who cares? I lose another night’s sleep over his radio silence, then am awakened to a text. It is quiet, affectionate yet powerful, a minimalist’s mocking rebuke:
Not even ???, just ? And he did it both effortlessly and emojilessly.
I wonder if M is really that much cooler than I, but of course, he is, and I stand before the evidence, humbled by his eloquence.
*Wait, can you? Text me if yes.
**1. Pecking at a tiny keyboard 2. Undeniability 3. Phubbing: texts taking precedence over what’s happening in real, physical, face-to-face time 4. The expectation that you’re at the beck and call of your little alert; that you’ll drop everything and reply 5. Autofilling 6. Uncorrectability once sent. That six. So what?
***Did you know you can italicize poop, and this is what it looks like, just a bit leany.
We (MK & JG) were talking about the systemic therapy technique of treating the problem not as an idea or a conflict but as a separate character in the family drama. In this approach, depression, agoraphobia, anorexia, and alcoholism, for example, can all be considered as having their own presence and their own agenda.
We wondered if this might be a useful way of considering the role of the smartphone and social media in some families. Janna was thinking about the pull of the screen—the seductive, almost irresistible pull—that, like a manipulative narcissist at the dinner table, dominates the space, determines the course and limits the scope of conversation, demands attention, turns participants into consumers of his own message, distracts from the boredom of maintaining established relationships, and works to beguile in order to control the available emotional, social, and economic resources.
What character from literature would it be? Michael wondered.
After considering the daemons of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials—animal extensions of humans souls, or familiars—and Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula (who, once invited inside a home, can come and go at will; who craves human blood, and who transforms those upon whom he feeds into the undead—a later post, maybe) we came up with Moliere’s Tartuffe.
Tartuffe, a stranger, impresses bourgeois family man Orgon with his show of piety: Orgon sees him praying in a church and, moved by Tartuffe’s goodness and his poverty, invites him to live in his home. Orgon doesn’t suspect that the destitute Tartuffe knows he’s watching when Tartuffe gives some of the alms he has received. A certain emptiness in the lives of Orgon’s family now makes them susceptible to their new boarder’s claims of godliness. Orgon and his mother are both credulous if not infatuated, but others can see that Tartuffe is a hustler, all show, who merely pretends to be a moral guide. He is in fact greedy, gluttonous, and lustful, shrewd and conniving.
In such a way, your smartphone and the platforms it expresses (platforms designed only to operate upon your psyche and to empty your bank account) wheedles its way into your life with implicit claims of relevance and goodness, its admonitions towards self-improvement.
* * *
Consider the family’s complaints about Orgon’s obsession with Tartuffe:
Could not, I think, be loved more tenderly;
At table he must have the seat of honor.
Anyone offering actual human contact who has ever been brushed off—at dinner, say—in favor of a smartphone can understand the frustration. The smartphone’s centerpiece in family life is also echoed in these observations about Orgon’s behavior around Tartuffe:
He’s lost in constant admiration, quotes him
On all occasions, takes his trifling acts
For wonders, and his words for oracles.
It is the nature of obsession to devalue whatever is not engrossing.
Whoever does his [Tartuffe’s] will, knows perfect peace,
And counts the whole world else, as so much dung.
* * *
The false fronts of social media were designed to keep us searching for approval, just as the religious front of Tartuffe was designed (by himself) to make Orgon and his mother feel righteous by following him. Ultimately, the problem with a false front is that it leads us to “pay the self-same honor both to masks and faces.” When we interact on social media, we can forget that (not counting real-time, face-to-face talk on screens) one can see only a mask. We can’t see the spaces between the thought and the post or text or “like,” so we tend to assume that things were spontaneous that were not.
* * *
The difference between the hypocrite and the truly devout is that
They [the truly devout] are not always judging all our actions,
They’d think such judgment savored of presumption.
But Tartuffe—and social media—judge everything they see.
* * *
Orgon agrees to marry off his daughter to Tartuffe, even though she is in love with someone else, someone suitable. The daughter is pretty sure she will kill herself as a result—ironic in light of recent concerns that the suicide rate among American kids has spiked since the invention of the smartphone.
Neither Tartuffe nor a smartphone can meet the real needs of a teenage girl.
* * *
Perhaps the height of tartuffery in social media is its use to generate charitable donations. Tartuffe constantly trumpets his own charity when in reality he is nothing but a sponge. The idea that a social media company generates ad revenue for each click on a charity page is pretty sobering.
* * *
Certain apparent self-reflections on the part of social media moguls—note The Social Dilemma (2020) —may seem to refute the analogy, but think again: when caught at duplicity, Tartuffe proclaims his own wickedness, which leads Orgon to defend him.
Orgon disinherits his son rather than hear any criticism of Tartuffe (even though Tartuffe admits the accusations were true). And when Tartuffe is seen to want too much, his patron offers even more. It’s a way of disproving that one is a slave to idolize one’s master, and that applies pretty clearly to some people’s attitude toward their phones.
During an undergraduate Communication class in which the topics were responsiveness, emotional resilience, and presence in relationships, Janna picked up a nearby i-phone—all the students had theirs on the table in front of them, as usual. This was pre-COVID, when touching someone’s device was not thought to be a health concern, but Janna might as well have grabbed the student by the buttons and ripped open her shirt, so shocked was the reaction.
She used the i-phone (gently and briefly) as a prop, to demonstrate what interpersonal communication can look and feel like when one party keeps glancing at their screen while the other party wants to create a live, present conversation. Within fifteen seconds of having touched it, she laid the device back down in front of the student—who (along with her classmates) were thereafter unable to focus upon the point of the demonstration. Several angrily defended their at-home, in-class, and everywhere use of their devices, using language and tone suggesting that Janna had rudely and personally insulted them. They needed to be reachable by parents, they insisted. They needed their devices in order to take notes. Their phones were not distractions, but tools. If Janna were not old (one student proposed) she would have a different relationship to smartphones and screens. She would understand their benign and beneficial uses, and she would not even playfully call into question their unassailable goodness.
* * *
Google and social media platforms rely upon algorithms that detect pretty much all of our proclivities, our desires, our fetishes. Tartuffe gets the upper hand at last because he knows the family’s secrets. He cons the father into deeding him the house. In pursuing an affair with the mistress of the house, he for once reveals the heart of his hypocrisy.
In any case, your scruple’s easily
Removed. With me you’re sure of secrecy,
And there’s no harm unless a thing is known.
The public scandal is what brings offence,
And secret sinning is not sin at all.
* * *
The play resolves with a deus ex machina—the king steps in and sets things right. Permit us to suggest that getting the deus out of the machine is just what’s needed.
We don’t have a host of suggestions, although an awareness of how media operate—how platforms are designed to both addict us and to commodify our attention—and a real grasp of the relational costs of phubbing (the actual term for snubbing present people in favor of whatever notification or unanswered need demands attention on one’s device) can help. Media literacy, which emphasizes messages and critical consumption, is a good idea—teach critical awareness of how messages are constructed and how we use media, and cultivate curiosity, not defensiveness, about our own media habits—that has gained considerable traction, at least in the Communication discipline and in primary education, over the past twenty years.
Perhaps the lesson is cultivating genuine presence: doing the work and making the investment of actually listening and responding to people in real time who are trying to distract you from your device.
Also, it might be useful to distinguish social screen time (such as playing video games with others or watching movies with others) from solo screen time, which leaves children at the mercy of tartuffery.
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 human/inhumane injustices that are built into and reinforced by American power structures are (this is crucial) subject to criticism, reformation and transformation. This is due in part to our founders’ foresight, to checks and balances, and to our Constitution. It’s also due to our belief in and respect for these things.
I’d 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 fall2 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?
1With 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
* Which creeps me out, and ought to creep all of us out. What have we become?
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.
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 respond—with curiosity and commitment, in fresh ways—to, 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 relevant—something 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 andTara 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.
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.