Trying to drain my swamp, and have a cookie.

It has been a struggle to form coherent and meaningful ideas in my head these days. This is my swamp – filled with Twitter hashtags, Facebook feeds, editorials, vitriol, Trump’s transition team. Perhaps, with a president elect who communicates through disingenuous and poorly formed ideas in 140 characters or less, this will be okay – perhaps an inability to effectively communicate is part of the “new normal” I keep hearing about.

Fnding time and space to allow my thoughts to try to reassemble – to find the signal in the noise as Nate Silver has always, until the 2016 Election, been able to do, remains a challenge. I considered deleting all the “social” media, but like an accident one cannot look away from, I keep returning. I feel like I am still waiting for people to see how badly they got played – are still being played – by believing that SOCIAL media is NEWS media. I am waiting for people to see that when China warns you about bad environmental policies, Germany is leery of your understanding of human rights, and Netanyahu says be better to Muslims – to say nothing of Glenn Beck announcing that we have done our nation a terrible disservice electing the likes of Donald Trump – that we have crossed into uncharted territory. This is real. This is happening.

I want to drain my swamp.

I do not even know how to have the conversations that need to be had – the ability to have discourse is gone, one look at the comments on any given news item will make this clear. When presented with unfavorable opinions and ideas, there is always some “news” we can turn to that presents our feelings and opinions as facts. And as we have seen, they are shared and repeated over and over and over until, somehow, they become truisms.

I have likened this impossible kind of conversation to dealing with a small child:

*Toddler takes cookie from cookie jar*
“Stop. You are not allowed to have cookies before dinner.”
“You never told me I could not have cookies.”
“I did, and I am telling you again. Put the cookie down.”
“Put the cookie down, you cannot have a cookie before dinner.”
“I do not have a cookie.”
“You are holding a cookie in your hand. I see the cookie right there.”
“This is not a cookie.”
“It is a cookie, and you need to put it back.”
“My friend said this is not a cookie. It is fruit and cake.”
“You cannot eat that before dinner.”
“You never said I could not have fruit and cake, you said no cookies.”
“So you know I said ‘no cookies’.”
“It doesn’t matter, this is not a cookie.”
“You may not have that before dinner.”
“But I want it! You get cookies! You get everything!”
“I am not eating the cookie.”
“But you will! You will eat my cookie and then I will get nothing!”
“I will not eat the cookie.”
*toddler completely falls to pieces screaming about the non-cookie crushing it and rendering it non existent*
“YOU STOLE MY COOKIE!”

How do you have conversation with people who look at the exact same thing as you and see something totally different? How do you avoid being so totally patronizing – as might be appropriate with the toddler in certain instances? More importantly, now that we have made conversation impossible, and the basis for determining FACTUAL information has disappeared with the ability to always find something on the INTERNET that says what you feel is factual and what you do not believe is a LW or RW media conspiracy?

What do you do when feelings become more important that facts – or completely replace them?

I had my students read this article months ago. The premise is that “a democracy is in a post-factual state when truth and evidence are replaced by robust narratives, opportune political agendas, and impracticable political promises to maximize voter support.”

In class we talked about the impact of “fake” news long before the presidential election results made the rest of the country start getting serious about it. I asked my students if they shared political stories on social media, to which they generally said yes. I asked them is they fact checked the information. They said, no – unless it looked ‘outrageous’. On getting to the point of what in the world might be outrageous in these days, we concluded that things which brought out our negative disbelief were the only things we fact checked. [A couple of them said that they considered me their fact checker, which although mildly flattering is really pretty scary if you take that to any number of logical extensions.]

In spite of the declaration that “the global risk of massive digital misinformation sits at the centre of a constellation of technological and geopolitical risks ranging from terrorism to cyberattacks and the failure of global governance,” from the WEF, no one wants to talk about the cookie in their hand. They want to talk about how they feel about the cookie, or their right to the cookie, or how your criticism of the cookie is unfair/wrong/hurtful/a conspiracy against the truth.

When feelings become more important than realities facing the world [climate change, human rights, for example], we have lost the ability to communicate.

Sitting with this frustration I came across this article [yes, the author is a white male, no, that does not invalidate it], and it provided a clearly articulated (much more than 140 characters, I’m afraid) explanation of so much of what I have been witnessing in my community, my work, the world. If there is a place on the planet that embraces, condones, and validates identity politics, it is Berkeley, California. Interestingly (and many may find, counterintuitively), as many of my intimates know, I have consistently said that Berkeley is the most racist and sexist place I have worked in my entire career. I actually don’t think those labels really accurately express what I have meant. Basically my sense has been that Berkeley is one of the least tolerant places in which I have ever spent time.

This year I have been faced with an even more extreme version of all of this, a result, I would guess, of an incredibly charged political year, but also a consequence of the notion of identity politics. I have students with whom I cannot talk about a growing variety of subjects because the subjects are unsafe for them. While I am not opposed at all to the preservation of safe spaces and acknowledging that trigger warnings are real and must be respected, I find myself constantly stuck in a tough place when I ask a student to meet an academic responsibility and they do not because said responsibility is causing them anxiety/panic/stress/ideological discomfort.

The fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country.

I am so frustrated by this reality.

Last year on a field trip with some of my very favorite students, we ended up at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition was a retrospective on Bill Graham. There was a photo of the iconic SF Mime Troupe in the exhibit. One of the players was in blackface. My students were horrified by the photo. HOW COULD THEY HAVE THIS PHOTO ON THE WALL IT IS SO RACIST OF THEM!

In my efforts to explain several things to them [1. What the SF Mime Troupe was actually about; 2. What satire is; 3. That photos of racism/ists, while uncomfortable – and by the way not at all what this was – are not in themselves racist, they are historical artifacts which document our racist history and are therefore useful tools] I realized that their sense of self was preventing them from understanding what they were looking at. And these are good kids who want to learn things and understand things. Because they were never taught the historical context of the photo, and instead have been told to focus on their personal identity at every turn of their education, their feelings were impeding them from hearing the objective details and contextual history of the photo. These feelings are not inappropriate or something to bury, but they shouldn’t preclude the ability to take in information. In my work, feelings have become so paramount that if school work or historical information gets in their way, it must be set aside.

This is where the two articles intersect. Stories have power and the moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Our identities largely give rise to our stories, and the effort to acknowledge people’s stories is real work that should not stop. The trick is remembering that they, the stories and the identities, are not mutually exclusive realities, and that their coexistence requires understanding the real facts behind all of the stories. And yes, FACTS ACTUALLY DO EXIST.

In a country as actually diverse as we are, the stories are some of the best parts – but stories are not policy. They are not data. They are not that which mandates for everyone should be built upon. [Filed under one more reason I love Joe Biden.]

The articles could come together thusly:

Because these narratives typically involve a selective use of facts and lenient dealings with matters of truth, they have given rise to symptoms of a post-factual democracy. A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. 

Until there is a place where there are some baseline realities that can be agreed upon, I remain at a loss as to where I go from here.

Maybe the only thing to be done is to insist that a cookie may be a cookie – or it may be fruit and cake – but it is my responsibility to do the work of reading the boring details of the label and the background of the naming of things, regardless of not wanting to for whatever reason I might have… triggers or facts or bursting my bubble.

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