are salon's back?! in search for a civil public sphere

In 17th century Paris, the Salon phenomenon brought curiosity, enlightened thought and informed conversation to life.  It is the stuff of fantasy.  Leading thinkers, gathering together in the public sphere, to talk with one another, sharing ideas, listening, learning and arguing about how society might better function.  Print media did not yet exist, and so people had to gather, leaning in to one another to learn.  There were participants and there were spectators, but ideas were the champions of the day.  Ideas soared or were slayed based on the informed, rational, and civil public discourse that swirled around them. 

I have long dreamed of creating a similar arena in today’s world, expanded to include every gender, race and class.  I am a scholar with a PhD.  So yeah, I guess I know things.  But there are many, many gaps in my knowledge, and I would love nothing more than to sit with people on my porch, in a coffeehouse, or at a bar, and learn from others.  To think with people about things that matter.  To be so curious about what I don’t know that I listen to learn, not just to respond.  To discuss ideas that could bring more flourishing to people or the planet.  To talk about the many ways trauma, hate or fear destroy lives.  To bring our thoughts out into the open in an attempt to spur just action.

While I have romanticized this idea for over a decade, I have simultaneously shunned social media as distraction propping up vanity.  I have had no interest at all in redefining the words “friend”, “like”, “follow” or “tweet.”   People chasing the ridiculous approval of others become more performative, less authentic, right?

Enter the hypocrisy of my dreams. 

While I was busy shunning all the shallow people, most of you were experiencing small and large doses of the amazing salons of Paris without me!  While I was too arrogant to feel left out, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that perhaps platforms like facebook, reddit, twitter—and even instagram and snapchat to lesser extents—had become the new public sphere.  These arenas can beautifully create space for the exchanging of ideas, the fostering of curiosity, and the engaging of thoughtful discussion.  The salon lives! Could it be? On social media, of all things?

If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face. 

When my teenage son earned a phone and begged for an instagram account, I reluctantly created an account as well (in the name of good parenting).  Within a year, the slippery slope of engagement led me to create a twitter account as well (in the name of launching  Here is what I’ve learned.

Social medias are public spheres.  Conversations are happening 24/7, and people from every walk of life engage each other in this magical space.  Yes, there is a shit ton of noise.  Yes, there are many more uninformed people with intense opinions than should be legal.  Yes, I wish they would all stop talking.  But I have learned that there are also interchanges full of wonder and curiosity.  There are people teaching others everywhere.  Lonely and oppressed people have been uplifted; silenced voices have been given a megaphone.  Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Words and images speak to the soul.  Words are now amplified to destroy lives more than ever.  Images undermine and ruin careers and futures.  But words and images also offer us powerful ways to engage our deadened and distracted souls.  They give birth to empathy and compassion hard to find in our own routines.  They create space for curiosity and wonder.  Social media, with its manic merging of words and images, provides all of us with the ability to share goodness and beauty on a large scale.  It is easy to bemoan the destructive influence of social media as it spews hate and dehumanizes people who think differently; nevertheless, I offer an apologetic for the redemption of these platforms upon which we might remember how to engage civilly.

I am instinctively a binary thinker, but I am learning, partially through my disgust at social media, that binaries destroy nuance, and a lack of nuance prevents empathy.  In an ode to nuance, I would like to suggest that perhaps we might recognize the possibilities for an enlightening, empathy-building, public discourse provided by social media platforms.  If Parisian salons of long ago call to my weary soul, then I must do my part to create the same hospitable environment in the arenas I enter, whether online or face to face.  Rather than placing all our despair or all our hope in “the media,” or in “social media,” could each of us do our part to keep conversations going?  Instead of trying to win an argument, could we try to listen to a perspective wildly different than our own?  Could we privilege understanding over correcting?  Rather than creating profiles and a way of being in the world that encourages others to either passively observe us or to defensively react to us, could we actively attempt to interact?  To share ideas, to engage in conversations, to create a public sphere where perspectives are discussed, where the experience or thoughts of others are considered and honored?  As long as we pretend like the problem is “out there” or “with them,” refusing to acknowledge the ways in which we ARE the problem, social media will devolve in the same ways everyday conversations have: into defensive anger and the stubborn denial of other perspectives. 

Social media is a public space in which ideas, dreams, practices and policies are debated and discovered.  Long Live the Salon!

Because I believe civil discourse helps us all become better humans, creating more connected communities, and because social media is a ubiquitous public sphere, I am committing to do my part to make it feel more like a French salon, and less like a Spanish bull ring.  Join me?

on stoning: glass houses, arguing badly and hypocritical living

As a novice participant in the Twittisphere, I am new, and frankly overwhelmed by, the manic nature of the thing.   Having spent a lifetime in which completing tasks gives me great joy, Twitter might be my new Kryptonite.  You can’t finish.  It’s never done.  You check and get caught up, and then 10 seconds later there is more, so much more.  Your eyes burn, your brain is constantly in what feels like the-hour-before-a-headache-starts, and your attention span has suddenly always just done a line of coke, unable to focus and jittery as hell.  As I said.  Manic.

But I have begun with a digression.  Twitter has confirmed for me that many people feel under siege.  There is a sense that the sky is falling constantly.  I get it, and I feel it too.  The clarity that arises with 280 characters, combined with the ability to do simple fact checking, can lead one to feel like some of our nation’s leaders are really petty, mean, liars.  And yet, here is my problem: Twitter can be, at times, a metaphorical arena for a brutal stoning.  A target arises who has said or done something wrong, and people quickly gather, rock in hand, and fire away.  I am not that interested in our capacity to be mean to each other. This is not new. What is worth thinking about, however, is the lack of context we bring to the stoning.  How do we, either through attacking a person or even by our collective outcry of “Wrong!”, not realize that we are contributing to the problem?  Not to mention glass houses and all that.

I want to argue that we might temper our engagement in macrodiscussions with an awareness of ourselves in the micro context.  Many of us loathe the extremist and hyperbolic views we hear spouted on tv and social media.  We feel outrage when we hear people tell half-truths or give junk analysis of a situation.  We are angry when a person’s character or judgment is maligned.  We lament the cowards who do not speak up for, or write policies for, the vulnerable among us.

I am all for outrage.  I am all for resistance.  Our status quo is criminally unfair for the poor and for people of color.  To quote Jesus tho, “Let he who has not sinned throw the first stone.”  If we really care about helping each other find our most compassionate, honest selves, can we justify screaming at others for being unkind?  As we engage in this macro battle for our country, can we also wage war in our own micro realities?  Can I see all the terrible out there while also acknowledging all the terrible in here?  As much as it stings to say out loud, I have come to the conclusion that the “Washington swamp” is a perfect reflection of all of us.  I say that with great reservation.  I spent the last year trying to understand how “they” could be so terrible.  How all of “them” voted for “that.”  The truth though, is that the level and manner of discourse out there is not that far removed from my own ways of communicating.  We tend to believe the end justifies the means, but in this case, the end happens in the first place because our means are so dysfunctional.

How often do we talk to people with whom we disagree?  Do we take the cowardly way out and assume it is “bad manners” to engage in subjects that make us uncomfortable?  Many of us talk freely as long as we know no one will disagree or challenge our perspectives.  This kind of hiveminded thinking leads to confirmation bias, strengthening our particular arguments without actually exploring other angles.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of doing. 

How often do we weigh in on issues we don’t fully understand, demonizing one position with a drastic oversimplification of the issue?  How often do you double down on your point of view when someone challenges you, discrediting or dismissing your conversant instead of listening with curiosity and responding with humble conviction?  We rarely take the time to inform ourselves and simply dismiss anyone who disagrees by calling them a name or placing them inside a well known extremist tribe.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of doing.

How often do we speak up for vulnerable people in a way that brings understanding?  Regularly we either remain silent in the face of passive racism or ignorant stereotyping, or we attack the speaker in a way that shames them and ends the conversation.  Have you ever tried the hard awkward work of firmly, with kindness, challenging passive racism in another?  Of helping someone see their privilege or subtle bigotry in a way that might help them never do it again?  Changing an unjust status quo is exhausting work, but societal reconciliation and economic equity will require all of us; we will never work together if we don't learn to speak to each other without accusation.  And yet this is what we accuse our leaders of not doing.

It is hard work, but the necessary path.  I am not arguing that we should ignore the macro until we get the micro right.  I am not arguing we have to be perfect in order to earn the right to speak up.  I am arguing, however, that many of us regularly contribute to the toxic and mean spirited environment that we now decry.  We have easily identified the guardrails here.  We know it is cowardly to stay silent and brash to publicly destroy people for their inappropriate views.  What about all the options in between?  Before you “stone” someone on Twitter or face to face for being close-minded, extreme or bigoted, explore all the options available to you in the way you interact. 

There are so many ways for us to be a part of the solution. The first is simply to acknowledge that we are part of the problem. It is not just out there. It’s in here. Let’s hold ourselves to the elusive standard we pretend is possible when we criticize our leaders. Could we inform ourselves, pursue collaborative conversations with people whose perspectives differ, and find ways to engage others with compassionate curiosity?  This, although perhaps not instinctive, is, especially in our given context, a bold rejection of the status quo and a major act of resistance. If we the people start acting like we the people, then maybe our leaders will begin to represent us well. Civil discourse doesn't happen on the public stage because it doesn't happen at our kitchen tables or social media feeds.  Right now I am afraid our leaders are the perfect representatives of our bad behavior. 

on privilege: reconciliation requires a look at white privilege

In Salman Rushdie’s story “A Prophet’s Hair”, the father, Hashim, is a greedy man consumed with delusions of his own generosity and sacrifice.  He behaves as if he is helping others, when he is, in fact, abusing them.  His pride in this projected self makes him a liability to everyone with whom he interacts.  Rushdie weaves a tale in which Hashim’s misplaced self-satisfaction destroys his life, damaging everyone around him in the process.

Rushdie’s story reminds me of our ability to delude ourselves.  Most of us are invested in maintaining a narrative of how we got to be who we are.  America’s obsession with bootstraps and linear growth trickles into each of our lives, convincing us that life is about independent advancement.  My toddler constantly says, “I do it. I big girl,” and my colleagues constantly say, “I built this/did this/achieved this.”  We love the myth of our independence so much that we fiercely defend ourselves against perceived threats to the notion that we earned every inch of our place in the world.

Because of this, when we talk about privilege in society, defenses and accusations fly. While we have been discussing privilege for a few weeks, this essay addresses racial privilege specifically.  Frances Kendall offers an expansive definition that orients the term white privilege in the context of today’s American cultural context:

An institutional (rather than personal) set of benefits granted to those of us who, by race, resemble the people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions.  One of the primary privileges is that of having greater access to power and resources than people of color do; in other words, purely on the basis of our skin color doors are open to us that are not open to other people.
— Frances Kendall

Kendall offers a logical analysis of the structural reality of America: Most power and financial resources are held in white hands.  Any cursory view of our society reveals America is racially stratified in nearly every arena.  Racial disparities are consistent in economics, education and therefore, in access to advancement. 

It takes nothing away from my experience as a white professional woman to recognize that most power and money are held in white hands, and because we live in segregated communities, this impacts access and equity.

Living in a world where you can access every industry, opportunity and service your family requires without going outside your race or area of town is itself an indicator that you benefit from white privilege.  As a result of centuries of systemic, procedural racism, we are mostly segregated in our neighborhoods, schools and churches.  A person unaware of their privilege might say, “I’m not racist.  I never even really talk about race and I certainly avoid racist people.” A person who is aware of their privilege might tweak that statement to acknowledge, “I don’t think about race or privilege as I move throughout my day.  I am starting to see that people with a different racial background from mine might not have the privilege of never having to negotiate racial differences in their everyday lives.  Maybe I could learn something from people who negotiate difference more gracefully (or at least more often) than I do.”

The concept of privilege does not imply unearned talent.  Rather, it is useful in recognizing that in our society, people with white skin are often given the benefit of the doubt, an assumption of belonging, and an earned seat at the table.  For people of color, however, there is an often unacknowledged wall to climb, a deservedness to demonstrate, an “I’m one of the good ones” to convey; simply, people of color are not given the benefit of the doubt, but the burden of doubt.   This reality can best be seen in the fact that when a black man commits a crime there is a level of expectation and confirmation bias felt by many people; however, when a white male commits a crime, most people don’t project the actions of that man onto his entire race.  If he is white, the crime is an abnormality, but if he is black, his actions confirm a criminal proclivity in poor, black people.  White privilege allows my mistakes to represent me, not my entire race.

We love the myth of our independence so much that we fiercely defend ourselves against perceived threats to the notion that we earned every inch of our place in the world.

I spend time with a lot of people who are becoming aware of the foundational racial tension that exists in our country.  While the way in which they are leaning in—pursuing others, exploring their own bias, awkwardly learning about experiences different than their own—inspires me, some of these dear friends rigorously clam up when “white privilege” is mentioned.  I have noticed two consistencies in these friends:

1)   They are incredibly compassionate and generous when they engage another person who is different from them or is in need.  The attitude of shut-your-mouth-and-calm-down only occurs when that individual need is contextualized within the realities of systemic racism and racial disparity.  Individuals inspire compassion; systems inspire rejection. 

2)   They derive a great deal of their value from their own stories of ascension.  Their narratives of learning to position themselves as subjects (not victims or objects) is deeply invested in the lore of their work ethic.  These friends react defensively to the idea of white privilege, immediately feeling attacked.

And yet, there is a palpable energy in our country to face our collective past trauma.  From our last national election, with its strategically divisive rhetoric, to white supremacists marching, to dozens of unarmed black men being killed by civil servants, our racial issues are obvious.  Most of us now admit we are a society deeply divided along racial lines; the conflict begins when we try to explain why. 

Rather than blame, might we benefit from simply encouraging continued curiosity and observation?  To my friends who feel that acknowledging white privilege is an unfair attack on their personhood, I ask them to shift from, “Don’t dare call it privilege; my family worked hard for every single thing we have,” to, “My family worked hard for everything we have, and I am starting to see that a family of a different race could work just as hard and not end up where we are.”  Could we recognize that we live in a society that allows what Michelle Higgins calls, “privilege [that] specifically applies value aside from talent?”

What if we worked to acknowledge these biases, bringing them into the conversation?  It takes nothing away from my experience as a white professional woman to recognize the reality that most power and money are held in white hands, and because we live in segregated communities, this impacts access and equity.  When a person mentions white privilege, they are not attacking me, calling me lazy, or suggesting I have not earned my place at the table.  Instead of being defensive, I now recognize that when I don’t invite people of color to my table/work/church, I am hoarding my privilege and, importantly, limiting my ability to relate to and know others.  If we are sincere in our desire to lessen these divides and move toward reconciliation, we must all learn to acknowledge and counteract the real impact of white privilege on our outlook, behaviors and understanding of America.