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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spillit Memphis: The Hilarious and Heartbreaking Beauty of Storytelling Animals

I had the very good fortune to attend my first Spillit event last night in (local photographer/visual anthropologist, Jamie Harmon's) Amurica studio space.  Spillit is one of the newer additions to what has become, over the last several years, an incredibly rich, astoundingly diverse, mostly DIY and impressively self-sustaining (for lack of a better descriptor) "cultural arts scene" in Memphis.  Created and curated by Josh Campbell and Leah Keys, Spillit invites people to step up to the mic and share a "true, unscripted story" related to some common theme determined in advance by the Spillit crew.  Past themes have included: "Love Hurts," "Lessons Learned," "Courage," "Stories of Travel," and last night's theme "Should've Known Better," among others.  (Subscribe to the Spillit podcast and listen to past Spillit stories for free on iTunes here!)  As Campbell and Keys explain in their Choose901 video, the Spillit experience is meant both to encourage and to foster the sorts of fundamentally human connections that fertilize a healthy community, and to make explicit the variety of existential triumphs and tragedies that we too often, and to our detriment, neglect to acknowledge as common.

There are, of course, many cultural products of Memphis, and of the American South more generally, that are worth their weight in gold.  (See: Food, Music, Literature, Dance, Whiskey, et al)   I've long held, and this longstanding suspicion was confirmed for me last night at Spillit, that straight-up, face-to-face, person-to-person storytelling, sans instrumentation or text, is one of the most underappreciated cultural contributions of our little corner of the universe.  In my own experience growing up in Memphis, the ability to tell a good story-- or rather "to tell a story good" as many of us are wont (grammar be damned) to say-- is definitely an acquired skill, someties an art, often a survival tactic, but in every instance a fundamental prerequisite for meaningfully stitching oneself into the patchwork of human community in Memphis and in the American South.  Especially in my own family, a clan whose members have never let "facts" get in the way of a good story, the manufacture and delivery of a judiciously-chosen anecdote is frequently the go-to instrument for moral instruction, other times the tie than binds, sometimes a weapon by which to deliver a coup de grĂ¢ce, but far more often the salve that heals   To its credit, Spillit really captures the multivalent powers of anecdotal narration, and it reminds us that taking the time to listen to the stories that others have to tell is every bit as essential to our communal stitch-work as telling our own stories is.  Periodically, Spillit events (like the one I attended) are structured as slams, but within minutes of the first storyteller's delivery last night, I found myself so utterly captivated by and immersed in the experience that I completely forgot it was a "competition."  Some of the "Should've Known Better" stories I heard were hilarious, some of them were enlightening, some of them were mundane, at least one of them was genuinely heartbreaking, but all of them-- and, more importantly, the experience of hearing them live and in the presence of others-- were, in a palpably real sense, nothing short of transcendent.  That is to say, they managed to effectively transcend whatever strangeness or difference existed between myself, the narrator and all of the otherwise-unfamiliar-to-me storytelling animals in the room who collectively constitute our particular variety of talking apes.

[Let me stop here and encourage you all to "like" Spillit on Facebook, "follow" Spillit on Twitter and, while you're at it, show the same love for Jamie Harmon's Amurica. I should also note that the pics in this post are all borrowed from Spillit's webpage and Facebook page.]

I really don't remember the last time I felt so captivated, motivated and deeply connected to other human beings by a start-up project.  (Shameless plug: my own American Values Project made me feel this way.)  Spillit is exactly the kind of project the world needs more of, in my view.  Attending one of these events demonstrates-- in the most rudimentary way and without even requiring in advance its attendees' assent to as much-- that, despite whatever objections we may want to level to the contrary, we are connected, we do hold a number of values in common, we regularly engage (an even greater) number of vices in common and, most importantly, that we ought endeavor to make space and time to experience the stories of both our virtuous and vicious connections. As regular readers of this blog know, for the last several years I've been working on a manuscript articulating a theory of what I've called "weak humanism." My core idea there, for those who haven't been following along, is this: what binds human beings together and distinguishes us qua "human," pace the standard philosophical story inherited (in the global North and West, anway) from theorists of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, is NOT chiefly our rationality, autonomy and freedom, but rather our finitude, our vulnerability, our dependence and interdependence, our capriciousness and unpredictability, our impotence in the face of pain and suffering, and our always-as-yet-undetermined possibility to perfect, as well as to pervert, the aims of our individually- and collectively-determined endeavors.  I trust I'm not only speaking for myself when I say that it's always nice to happen upon something in the world that confirms/validates one's own philosophical intuitions, and the stories I heard at Spillit did just that for me last night in re my still-unrefined theory of weak humanism. Maybe that's a consequence of the event's "Should've Known Better" theme, which admittedly invited stories of weakness, fault, imperfection and capriciousness, if not also (hilariously- or tragically-) outright bad judgment,  but my suspicion is that every other Spillit event, because it involves the "true, unscripted stories" of human beings, would confirm the same.

Part of the magic in the Spillit experience is found in listening to others' stories and discovering in them something that resonates with one's own experience, and that is a phenomenon as curious and mysterious as it is profound, to be sure.  But the real magic of the Spillit experience, what is really "transcendent" about it, is found in something else.  Namely, it is found in an undeniable, irresistible, equal parts comforting and disorienting realization that I suspect washes over each one, as it did me, at some point during the night. That realization arrives for the most part unbidden, for a moment perhaps cryptic and easily-misunderstood, but in the end it is a realization that I can only articulate in some strange formulation that is at once descriptive, declarative, imperative and normative:

I, too, am a storytelling animal


At the moment that realization is made thetic to oneself, it becomes also performative. Or, in non-philosophical terms, the moment one feels, knows and understands the "I, too" connection with another storytelling animal is the moment one begins to tell the most important part of his or her story.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"But Quiet, Be Quiet a Minute": On The Death of Fred Phelps

The news has just been released that Rev. Fred Phelps, founder and lifelong shepherd of the Westboro Baptist Church (in Topeka, Kansas) has died at the age of 84.  I find it difficult, I confess, to summon the normal human compassion that usually accompanies news of another's death in this case, largely because Phelps dedicated his life to broadcasting his rejection of-- not to mention enlisting others, including children, to stage carnival-like circuses around his rejection of-- what most people would consider even the most minimally-decent exhibitions of human compassion.  Fred Phelps was one of the most infamous, outrageous, dishonorable and genuinely despicable hatemongers of my generation.  And, what is more, Fred Phelps' hate was as ferocious and vicious as it was blind.  Through the prism of his delusional and evangelical abhorrence, the Westboro congregants en masse considered themselves justified in casting an unjustifiably wide net of Judgment.  Caught in that net were many: ranging from bona fide innocents against whom no reasonable person could or ought cast aspersions, like Matthew Shepard, to a whole host of other "collateral-damage" victims-of-Phelps quasi-political positions who found themselves the inadvertent and inauspicious targets of his his flock's detestation.

I say again: I find it very, very difficult to summon the normal human compassion that ought to accompany the news of Fred Phelps' passing.

Nevertheless, these are the moments when our inclination toward Schadenfreude, however deeply affirming and deeply satisfactory indulging that sentiment may feel, ought to be on principle squelched.  As a member of the LBGTQ community, I genuinely plead with my brothers and sisters in the trenches, and also with whatever allies mean to act on our behalf, to think carefully, to examine closely their own consciences, and to ask themselves whether or not anything is worth the cost of taking Phelps' low road.  Because, in the end, that road belongs to Phelps and his kin: they built it, they traveled it, they own it, they collect the tolls on it, and it leads nowhere else other than they want it to go.  One of the greatest among us (Audre Lorde) once said, and it is true in this case perhaps above any other, "the Masters tools will never dismantle the Masters house."   Please do not picket Phelps' funeral.  Please do not confuse a strategy that aids us with a strategy that has, and always will, defeat us.

Instead, I ask of the LGBTQ community that we "be quiet a minute."  That advice is from Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which Hamlet is speaking with his dear friend Horatio and is considering the fate that befalls us all.  Hamlet says (and I'm employing the Modern Translation here):
HAMLET: Just follow the logic: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returned to dust, the dust is dirt, and dirt makes mud we use to stop up holes. So why can’t someone plug a beer barrel with the dirt that used to be Alexander? The great emperor Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might plug up a hole to keep the wind away. Oh, to think that the same body that once ruled the world could now patch up a wall! But quiet, be quiet a minute.
Like all of us, Fred Phelps was made of dust, and to dust he has returned.  We will, of course, continue to have the disagreements we have had since time immemorial with regard to some conjectural "eternal life," to guesswork about the Final Judgment, to hypotheses about what (if anything) survives these mortal coils, none of which will ever be settled, definitively, in any way that is more resolutely known than what Hamlet articulates above.  We will all, everyone of us, even and/or in spite of our beliefs to the contrary, return to dust.

So, the only really important question is: which holes do those of us (who are the remaining among us) try to plug with the dust of those who have passed?  How do we make productive use of the loam we have now been given?

To wit, I think Hamlet's is good advice: "but quiet, be quiet a minute."  (Or, even better yet, as it is in the original translation: "but soft, but soft awhile.")  Let us be quiet, be soft, even and in spite of our otherwise inclinations at the moment. Or, rather, because of our otherwise inclinations at the moment.

Let us consider, instead of how we might get even, how me might get better.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

On "Solidarity"

Let's face it: exercising solidarity is tricky business, not the least of which is because "solidarity" itself is a tricky concept, which requires the subordination of real differences (across a whole host of important categorical domains) for the sake of some particular common interest that might prioritize similitude-- often for prudentially strategic reasons-- over, across or in spite of otherwise substantive differences.  Frequently, there are people with whose positions we find ourselves sympathetic or supportive, but whose tactics/strategies for advancing those consonant positions we also find problematic.  And so, inevitably, we find ourselves wanting to say something like "I'm on your side" with regard to the general argument, while at the same time (secretly) saying "but I'm not on your side" with regard to this particular argument.  In such cases, proponents of solidarity have to make a tough call: how much leverage ought I afford those with whom I want to express solidarity in their articulation of our common cause?

Here's my suggestion: there’s a point at which  "solidarity" doesn't necessarily require fighting (or even engaging in) any particular fight with or for one other. Rather, I propose, solidarity only requires fighting THE Fight for and with one other. 

To wit, I’ve stayed out of the particularly site-specific exchanges in the comment-thread on Edward Kazarian's and my NewAPPS post because I think my obligation (such that it is) is only to weigh in on discussions like those in a meta-commentary way.  That is to say, I want to  respect the degree to which Ed and I are *not* primary agents in the various particular disputes under discussion.  I think it's more than a little bit patronizing/infantilizing to presume that any participant needs, wants or deserves our (tbh, largely ineffective) "protection" more than what we have already offered, which is why I don’t feel the need to come to anyone's particular defense in re details of the particular disputes under discussion.  At some point, the individuals directly involved in those disputes need to, and are obligated to imho, fight it out themselves, if they so choose and in whatever way they so choose. As I see it, the obligation for the rest of us sharing the community in which this dispute is taking place is just to call "foul" when people throw dirty punches. 

The need to call foul on dirty punches is, after all, what the original post by Ed and I meant to highlight and is the substance of our insistence that we *not* institute a professional Code for tone-policing, which can and would only call foul on the already-disadvantaged.

Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone

As some of you already know, I am also one of the bloggers at NewAPPS.  I'm re-posting here a piece co-authored by Edward Kazaian and I that appeared this past Tuesday on NewAPPS.  It's generated a lot of conversation so far, and I'll have a post forthcoming soon on my take on that conversation.

What follows is the original post, exactly as it appeared on NewAPPS.  The responses by commenters were so immediate and overwhelming that NewAPPS had to open a second (supplemental) discussion thread here.  Both Ed and I, for the most part, were largely uninvolved in the original thread, though we've committed to participating in the supplemental thread. 

Please do NOT revise your tone
[Leigh M. Johnson and Edward Kazarian]


We trust it won’t come as a surprise to NewAPPS readers that the reputation of professional Philosophy has been taking a well-deserved beating in the public sphere.  The really bad press started two years ago with the Vincent Hendricks scandal, gained momentum a year later with the Colin McGinn scandal, and has unleashed its full fury this year with the triplet of scandals at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Northwestern University and Oxford University.  Given the severity—and, in some cases, alleged criminality—of the behaviors reported in these scandals, what IS surprising to us is the turn that recent intra-disciplinary conversations about them has taken.  As two non-tenured professional philosophers, we’re particularly concerned with the new enthusiasm for policing “collegiality” that seems to be emerging in and from these conversations, which in almost every case promotes a norm that we fear only serves to make the vulnerable among us even more vulnerable.

An exemplary instance of how “collegiality” standards can backfire is found in Brian Leiter’s quasi-authoritative “please revise your tone” comment (and more general attitudinal disposition) in this discussion on the Feminist Philosophers blog, followed by his longer a fortiori post  (which he removed from his blog within hours, but which has been preserved here) on the “increasingly ugly cyber-dynamics” of conversations about sexual harassment in the profession. (For the record, we want to note that the sexual harassment problems in our profession are far uglier than the conversational cyber-dynamics in our profession, though it’s really a lose-lose in that determination.)  It is important to take note of the dynamics on display in these threads, which demonstrate more than a little bit of our "climate" problem. Leiter invoked “tone” in reprimanding critics of his position on the issues under discussion and he directed his opprobrium at, among others, a graduate student speaking to the vulnerability she and many of her colleagues feel in a profession with an increasingly well-documented hostile climate for women. Many of the other commenters in the thread, including the post’s author, argued explicitly against attempts to police matters of tone (see comments 10 and 16).

To be precise, we're troubled that insistences on a certain set of normative standards for “collegiality” are regularly being forwarded on behalf of people like us—i.e., colleagues from underrepresented groups in the profession, those with provisional employment, and/or those whose status as stakeholders in the profession is undervalued—presumably in the interest of making the space of professional (philosophical) disagreement friendlier and “safer” for us.  What seems to go largely unacknowledged, if not intentionally ignored, is the manner in which the right to police norms of professional collegiality is a privilege that attends only those for whom running afoul of those standards has no real consequences.  And so, to those attempting to police these standards of collgiality, we want to say: Thanks, but no thanks.

We understand that our objections herein may seem counter-intuitive to many of our colleagues. Collegiality is, after all, widely perceived to be one of the core academic virtues, something to be valued and cultivated as a basic structuring element in our community, perhaps even one of the necessary conditions for the possibility of an academic community.  In order to make room for the intellectual space required for ‘dissent,’ the traditional understanding of collegiality goes, we’re obliged to be (or at the very least, behave like) ‘friends.’

Our contention, however, is that this requirement is excessively regulative in a way that almost inevitably leads to exclusionary results. The rule of ‘collegiality" qua smooth conforming social behavior, "fitting in" in a way that doesn't ruffle feathers, is the sort of requirement that only works, practically speaking, in very homogenous communities. If we may be permitted an analogy, collegiality is like ‘togetherness’ as analyzed by Jane Jacobs in Death and Life of Great American Cities.  There, Jacobs is concerned with how cities can work as communities of “strangers” (she emphasizes that frequently encountering strangers is an inevitable fact of city life, just as it is in our profession), and with how the largely anonymous interactions of sidewalk life might potentially perform a number of positive essential functions, e.g., providing for general safety and contact between people in a neighborhood.  Her discussion of togetherness arises with regard to how otherwise-rare ‘contact’ is handled in the absence of a constant circulation of people on the street, emphasizing that lack of contact is the most frequent outcome in cities.  (To wit, Jacobs’ concerns about the lack of “contact” in city-life reflect the very same concerns that plague professional Philosophy now, namely, that we “philosophers” are joined together in a community only by virtue of a minimal, almost-entirely “professional,”  and increasingly exclusively digital, that is to say, tangential and, at best, entirely impersonal connection.)  But it is Jacobs’ description of the consequences of opting for “togetherness,” in the absence of something that might genuinely constitute togetherness, that are of interest to us here.

Specifically, we’re concerned that Jacobs' claim that “where people do share much, they become exceedingly choosy as to who their neighbors are, or with whom they associate at all,” has come to unfortunately dominate the determination of collegiality within and among professional philosophers.  Jacobs’ analysis elucidates, saliently in our view, that this implicit and unavoidable “choosiness” among and between self-appointed protectors of a community’s “togetherness” makes real diversity not only unwelcome, but nearly impossible to support.  In a passage that is highly resonant with much of the agonizing about ‘fit’ that goes into hiring decisions, as well as the difficulty that many departments—not to mention our discipline as a whole—have with retaining a broadly diverse group of students and faculty, she writes:
People who do not fit happily into such colonies eventually get out, and in time managements become sophisticated in knowing who among applicants will fit in. Along with basic similarities of standards, values and backgrounds, the arrangement seems to demand a formidable amount of forbearance and tact...
City residential planning that depends, for contact among neighbors, on personal sharing of this sort, and    that cultivates it, often does work well socially, if rather narrowly, for self-selected upper-middle-class    people. It solves easy problems for an easy kind of population. So far as I have been able to discover, it    fails to work, however, even on its own terms, with any other kind of population (65).
As an ideal, what a certain formulation of “collegiality”—dominant in recent discussions and exemplified by Brian Leiter’s “please revise your tone” comment at FP—relies upon is an abstract notion of ‘collegiality" that, when implemented among real professional philosophers, requires a common manner, disposition or set of behaviors, even across many important social differences. As a regulative ideal, we do not object to that notion of collegiality.  What we do object to is the mandating of it—because we recognize that, in practice, what is being mandated can only be behaviors that mimic “togetherness” where such togetherness is manifestly not the case.  Members of traditionally privileged groups in academia (tenured, white, straight, cis men chief among them) might experience collegiality as the glue that allows them to “get into it” with one another at a paper presentation, in a department meeting, in print or in the various digital versions of print, and then subsequently wash away any potentially lingering disagreement over a few beers. But members of out-groups do not share in the easy sociality of ‘the guys,’ nor do they share in the personal or professional safety that makes that easy sociality possible. 

What is or is not permitted as acceptable speech or behavior, what is or is not viewed as “anti-social,” “un-professional” or “un-collegial”—that is to say, what strikes the ears of community members as resonating with an inappropriate “tone”—will always be defined and policed according to the norms of that group’s social interchange, norms that are determined by those to whom such norms are the most advantageous. Those for whom such norms of collegiality do not render benefits will find, as a matter of course, the professional insistence on “collegiality” exponentially more demanding. Indeed, as long as this particular formulation of collegiality remains a professional standard, underrepresented groups will find themselves locked into the false choice between ineffectively participating in hostile spaces (and being called out for their non-allegiance to the rules of collegiality) or, what is often worse, not participating (and consequently being seen as ‘aloof,’ ‘disengaged,’ ‘unprofessional’ or whatever other code for “antisocial” one wishes to cite). The predictable result of this dynamic is just what the comparison with Jacobs’ ‘togetherness’ would lead us to expect, namely, professional Philosophy will continue, as it has for millennia under the guise of good-faith efforts to prevent the same, to drive-out or force-out marginalized and underrepresented groups from the community/conversation in disproportionate numbers.

Some might object that collegiality, these days, is a far less robust standard than we are claiming, that it is really no more than an insistence on some variation of “civility,” a virtue with which it is grouped in the APA Committee for the Status of Women’s Report on the situation at UC-Boulder, for example.  That Site Visit Committee, regrettably charged with offering up an analysis of and practical fixes for what was an all-too-common and fundamentally structural problem, also opted to reinforce (in our view, unfortunately) the “collegiality” norms with which we want to take issue here.   Insisting on “family-friendly” conditions for the possibility of professional interaction, as the UC-Boulder Site Committee’s Report does, may be (at least in UC-Boulder’s case) a marginal improvement on the current conditions the Site Visit Committee was charged with diagnosing, but their diagnosis was not leveled without its own costs, not the least of which is that “family-friendly” is not the measure by which every professional philosopher does (or ought to) judge standards of collegiality.

What is more, even if “collegiality” is interpreted more narrowly and held to bear simply on norms of professional (real, print or digital) conversation, our professional norms of collegiality still tend to stack the deck against anyone expressing a dissenting view.  And, let’s all be honest, what professional Philosophy needs most now, ante omnia, is a norm that welcomes without prejudice the stranger.  Our professional norms for collegiality are typically much harder to satisfy in terms that everyone (especially the target of the “un-collegial” criticism) will agree are collegial. This is especially true, as evidenced in recent conversations by Leiter et al, given how likely it is that our colleagues will take claims that they are being insufficiently sensitive to diversity issues as personal attacks or claim that their critics aren’t being ‘collegial’ (or, as long as collegiality is around as a professional standard, ‘unprofessional’), thus neatly diverting responsibility away from themselves and back onto the person who objected in the first place.

Leiter threw his institutional weight and influence around to attack junior colleagues ("Current Student" and Rachel McKinnon, particularly) by suggesting that they were professionally unsuitable to engage in conversation; he employed the age-old rhetorical strategy of discounting women’s voices by appealing to female hysteria; he insisted that his critics “please revise [their] tone” when he was being called to account for his mendacity; he offered up a left-handed “apology” for his misbehavior by endorsing a bona fide race-baiting analogy to “lynch mobs,” and he did all of this under the guise of calling for justice, fairness and collegiality.  Taken together, this strikes us as a remarkable example of how the “problems” with collegiality, as it is currntly understood and enforcedd by the dominant colleagues in our field, are all too frequently manufactured by them.
To wit, we argue that the structural problems with collegiality standards (and other similar standards, like civility, friendliness, appropriateness, etc.) may be reason enough not to support the unreflective policing of such regulative criteria as those suggested in the Petition to the APA for a “Professional Code of Conduct for Philosophers.”

To summarize our objections, we worry that these standards will: 1) impose a disproportionate burden of changing their behavior to "fit in" on those who are members of out- (that is, underrepresented or minority) groups within the profession; 2) likely be applied disproportionately against those expressing dissenting views or criticizing colleagues for lapses in judgment or perception; and 3) tend to reinforce or provide opportunities to reiterate the structures of privilege and exclusion already operating within the profession.

No one wants to work in a climate of hostility or incivility, of course, least of all those of us for whom such a climate is the most disadvantageous.  We acknowledge that some behaviors can be, ought to be, and in fact are already legislated by extant (college, university and federal) codes of conduct.  Hearts and minds, on the other hand, ought not and cannot be legislated. It is at the level of hearts and minds that our (professional philosophers’) real problem lies.  Before we sign on to any program that mandates certain attitudinal dispositions, we ought to think seriously about the extent to which those initiatives in fact work to further discredit and marginalize the very voices they are intended to protect.

Professional philosophy has now found itself, and is being forced to reflect on itself, in the midst of crisis.  Let’s not opt for handing our problems over to (what Kimberle Crenshaw aptly called) the crisis-oriented, neoliberal mode of thinking.  Our objections are not about “personal responsibility”; we’re concerned, primarily, with leveling the playing field and what we hope has become apparent in the above is that the “collegiality” playing-field is not, and has never been, level.