Northam, Flake and distracting ourselves with civility

A few weeks ago former Senator Jeff Flake, NPR producer/reporter Zoe Chase, and historian Jon Meacham spoke at Vanderbilt University. It was a packed house, and the conversation was well informed, if stilted at times. Flake, now known for his call to elevate our discourse in political arenas, has consistently lamented the lack of civility in the public sphere. He is seen by some as a brave maverick who stood up to forces in his party accustomed to demonizing voices of dissent, and he had to leave politics as a result.

For the past month I have explored the divide between who we hope to be and who we sometimes become. It has often been uncomfortable, as it’s hard to see our hypocrisies, to notice our lies and to trace the impact of our delusions on our selves and others. Such periods of reflection are necessary for people who believe everything matters, and yet, I am reminded of the words my mother often sends me when she reads my work: “Remember to notice the good! Don’t just highlight the bad, but celebrate the good.”

We have never more passionately celebrated calls for respectful disagreement and civil discussion. Hooray! Senator Flake issued such rhetorical admonitions, chastising those who demonized others. In teaching a course on composition and rhetoric this semester I have been delighted to remember that rhetoric is the study of how new information interacts with old information. How do we allow new ideas to impact the perspectives we already hold on an issue? A look at various media, the Senate floor, or a church hallway might reveal we are quite bad at reaching across lines of difference, at receiving the experience of another that seems to threaten the stability of an idea we espouse.

A scholar named Jim Corder argues that we are generally terrible at having our ideas challenged because we haven’t been honest about how we developed them in the first place. In other words, the narratives we tell ourselves about how the world works are deeply entwined in our own sense of self, and our positions are therefore not mere intellectual thought experiments, but rather reflections of us. We argue fiercely, easily feeling defensive or attacked, because we embody—we have become—what we believe. When a person undermines that belief or tries to toss it aside we feel as though they are tossing our very selves aside.

Can we find ways to evaluate how our core life experiences shape the ideas we esteem and the positions we hold? If we want to converse civilly, we must also examine ideas or positions that result from equally genuine and valuable life experiences, even if they are not our own. Seen in this light, Flake’s call is surely necessary, if not noble. I’m thankful he used his platform to name incivility when he saw it, but I am afraid our conversation on civility is a distraction from the policy issues that undergird it. Many of us, like a starving person offered a piece of bread, seize these critiques of how we speak to one another, consuming them with gratitude. Something in us resonates as we cry, “Finally! We’re better than this! We value character and good ideas, we don’t bully and rely on stereotypes!”

 The truth, of course, is that biases often impact our speech, assumptions and thinking without our recognizing them; however, I’m afraid that when we focus on speech, we miss the more important point. The biases that ooze out in our discourse, shocking us, heavily influence our ideas about fairness and justice. They impact the policies we support, and allow us to vote into law ideas that codify our incivility. Our discourse is surely problematic, but if we think our words are unkind, think about the policies those words produce. Our speech can be civil while our policies do violence to those with little power. I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse, while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

This week a photo depicting a white man in blackface next to a Klansmen was found on the Medical School yearbook page of Virginia’s Governor. He apologized for his poor taste and begged for the right to earn the trust of Virginians. Bafflingly, a day later he claimed he couldn’t recall if he was actually in the picture, so it should not reflect poorly on him, although he did recall using a bit of shoe polish to darken his skin on another occasion. As the mounting calls for his resignation clash with his refusal to do so, many people are consumed with labeling him racist or with arguing it was a long time ago and we all make mistakes.

Our past choices—the things we thought funny or appropriate—certainly reveal much about what we valued and to whom we listened. When they surface, it is customary to argue indefinitely about what those choices reveal about us then and now. However, such discussions distract us from a better question: Has he governed in a way that rejects stereotypes, racial hierarchies, and a preference for the powerful at the expense of the poor, or has he not? Who are his friends and advisors today? Rather than arguing about whether a picture makes one racist, what if we expanded our conversation so that we examine how the actions of a person demonstrate their values?

Let’s ask more of ourselves than Senator Flake or Governor Northam do, so that we don’t lose sight of the physical impact of our uncivil speech or past jokes. Yes, we need to clean up our rhetoric, and engage others with respect. How much more important is it for us to see the devastating impact of our choice to overlook the lives of others?

I’m afraid we have all taken up the banner of civil discourse,

while ignoring the necessity of civil policies.

 My hopeful conclusion is simply this: civil discourse and civil governance are not mutually exclusive. Let’s be people of word and deed. Let’s be people who don’t just point fingers at others, but who ask ourselves how we came to believe the things we believe. Whose experience did we value when we decided how the world worked and what solutions are needed? Please do call out incivility, or past racist acts, but it is foolish to then call it a day, stopping with our speech or personal behavior alone. We must take the next step and appeal to one another for ongoing civil governance. Let’s ask our leaders to behave and speak respectfully, but let’s demand that they support policies that treat all people civilly.

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.

on resolutions, bias and pooping dogs

We got a puppy about a year ago, and she is worth talking about for a couple of reasons during this season of reflection and resolution.  First, she is a constant reminder that I cannot, in fact, will things to be true that just aren’t.  For instance, I thought adding a puppy would not destroy our lives, give me old lady shingles, and trigger a depressive and exhausting year.  I was wrong.  Maybe she is not to blame for my year of hellishness, but she certainly did not help things.  It is as if our family bus was teetering on the edge of a cliff, and I thought that our new dog would help stabilize said bus.  Instead, she ran full throttle and pooped in the front half of the bus so many times that it plummeted to the depths below (I may or may not have some PTSD-like flashbacks of dog poop on my carpet.).  My misjudgment stems from the truth that we are dog people, and after grieving the death of our beloved first dog-child, I thought we were ready.  I was wrong. (Also helpful is the fact that my husband was adamantly opposed from the beginning.  That is a precious little gift that keeps on giving…).  The point is that choosing to care for others is difficult and does not always go as planned.  In 2018, do it anyway, and perhaps expect the messiness that loving others might require.

The clear presence of diversity among humanity should temper adherence to our own cultural norms. Is it fundamentally unfair for me to project my cultural norms onto you?

The second reason to talk about our dog is that people care a whole lot about gender coding.  One of our favorite mini-series (now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write AND one that exists with absolutely no context, given that I can’t name another mini-series) is Lonesome Dove.  It is Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in their prime, best friends, poignant, and funny as hell.  Their names are Augustus McCray and Woodrow F. Call.  Naturally, we wanted to name our next dog Augustus, but my sister beat us to it.  And so we have a dog named Woodrow.   A she-dog named Woodrow.  This name leads me often to refer to her mistakenly with a masculine 3rd person pronoun, and apparently that is a big deal (“This is Woodrow, he enjoys chewing on my couch and is a girl.”).  At first I thought the disapproval was a strange manifestation of trans-phobia, but having defended myself for 16 months, I think the angst at my mistaken gendered references comes from a loyalty to dogs.  The outrage seems to surface at the intersection of dog fans and gender binary adherents.  Their incredulity is credible, their passion sincere, and their assumption of righteousness solid: “Why did you give her a boy name? You have to stop calling her a he!!” My response is consistent: “She’s a dog.” 

Apparently our bias about the “right way” knows no bounds, and this should be considered as we reflect on the year behind and resolve for the year ahead.  Bias is a product of intersections among and between familial, socioeconomic, racial, gendered, ethnic, religious, geographical, cultural, linguistic and educational normativity.  Each of us was raised in a specific set of circumstances, and grew to engage in a specific set of circumstances, both of which help shape our assumptions about the world.  Sometimes these norms are codified in a clear way in a family or community setting.  Often though, they simply shape our thoughts, expectations and opinions of ourselves and others.  The perspective from which I view the world is distinctly shaped by these biases and norms.  We all have them and we all do it.  I am not arguing against bias, but pleading for us to examine and name our biases in this new year. 

Any glance to the right or left confirms that we are surrounded by people distinct from ourselves.  This is obvious to all.  And yet, we somehow take our own cultural norms, often utterly unexamined, and project them all over every person we encounter.  The clear presence of diversity among humanity should temper adherence to our own cultural norms.  Perhaps even that is too much to ask, though.  Could we at least agree that we each have biases, that these instinctively shape the way we rank and value the actions of others, and that perhaps it is fundamentally unfair (and a vast overreach) for me to project my cultural norms onto you? 

I am simply arguing that a modicum of self reflection might reveal that my bias shapes the way I view you, just as your bias shapes the way you see me, and perhaps naming those areas of bias could lead to productive conversations in which we explore our differences in the new year. 

Many of us are fabulous at navel gazing in the first month of the year, but we are shockingly ill-equipped to bring a metacognitive gaze to our sense of self possession.  That is to say, we cannot hope to truly see or understand the perspective of another if we have not first stopped to think about the way we think.  When we discover the origins of what we call “normal”, we become curious about what someone else might call normal.  Our postures change from those of accusation and judgment to observation and curiosity.  We begin to look for the origins of the norms that produce certain viewpoints or sets of actions, a crucial skill if we hope to appreciate others. 

This is not a call to abandon our norms as baseless and without merit.  Adherence to cultural norms and traditions can be very important in helping one position oneself as a subject, in identity formation and in the acquisition of agency.  I am simply arguing that a modicum of self reflection might reveal that my bias shapes the way I view you, just as your bias shapes the way you see me, and perhaps naming those areas of bias could lead to productive conversations in which we explore our differences in the new year. 

In Lonesome Dove, Woodrow and Augustus are set in their ways.  They are stubborn bastards who refuse to align their actions with the values of anyone else.  And yet, they both understand and respect the places from which the other comes.  Augustus is never going to work on purpose, and Woodrow is never going to squander the day away.  Their friendship works because they understand the perspective of the other, and this understanding becomes the foundation for establishing value and mutual respect in friendship. 

I took Woodrow on a hike last week, and as we were crossing the field to enter the trailhead, she squatted down to poop.  Is there anything more humiliating?  It is the worst.  I stood there, increasingly self-conscience, intentionally trying not to watch and feeling shame if I made eye contact with anyone.  Good Lord!  What must they think about this atrocious act of...humanity? dogmanity? And then I thought of bias, and was reminded that everybody has one, and nobody wants to admit it.  Every dog has to poop.  Every person carries assumptions around with her that hinder or expand her ability to care about someone else.  And yet, instead of finding camaraderie in the shared experience of exploring and naming our bias, we all stand awkwardly in the park, avoiding connections with others while we pretend like we can’t smell what is right in front of us.  If you resolve to notice and explore your bias, you might find that you become a more curious and compassionate friend in 2018.