Let’s face it. It’s scary out there.
We live in an era in which saying or doing the “wrong” thing means
social media can be instantly deployed to issue calls for mob justice. Lies and misinformation spread so quickly that strangers can come together within the space of an hour to launch bullying campaigns against individuals and their families, through the combination of reputation damaging smears, doxing (sharing private information with the public) and public demands for an apology and a pledge of fealty to ideologically pure dogmas, under the threat of physical violence or further humiliation.
It is an age, too, in which many of us unwittingly suffer from what can rightly be called Rapid Onset Radicalization. With immediate access to a relentless stream of propaganda in legacy media and social media, we are becoming radicalized at a high velocity. Much of the content we are exposed to is often presented in highly codified, rigid frameworks that encourage us to see all of social, economic and political reality through an extremely narrow, reductionist lens. This causes many of us who are exposed to only one side of the political and social spectrum to see and experience completely different realities from that of our friends, associates, and perceived adversaries. And the result has been disastrous for social cohesion.
Whether these frameworks are coming from the Radical Right (e.g. the belief that mass migration is an intentional “Globalist” plot to erase White identity through the implementation of “The Great Replacement”); from the Radical Left (e.g. the rapid spread of Critical Race Theory’s ideological position that all of reality is structured and controlled by an all-pervasive malevolent force of metaphysical power called “Whiteness”); or from fundamentalist religious movements (e.g. the belief among ISIS radicals that killing infidels is praiseworthy in the eyes of Allah), we can clearly see the emergence of a widespread pattern of belief, which political cult expert Dr. Robert Jay Lifton has called ideological totalism, and its impact on society’s increasing polarization.
In his book, Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism (1960) Lifton outlines eight criteria for the ideologically totalist environment, which can readily be seen in the echo chambers of adherents of far left social justice ideologies as well as the enclosed online environments of far right nationalist groups.
- Milieu control
- Mystical manipulation (or planned spontaneity)
- The demand for purity
- The cult of confession
- Sacred science
- Loading of the language
- Doctrine over person
- Dispensing of existence
Though Lifton’s book was published in 1960 and based on his research of Communist Chinese indoctrination programs of the 1950’s, his study’s findings on politcal cultism are as relevant as ever in the current era. When we consider the third criterion of demand for purity, for instance, we can surely see how relevant this demand has become in the wake of shame mobs and online bullying campaigns that have emerged in recent years to keep us all in line. We can also see the relevance of the eighth criterion of dispensing of existence, which is an exact parallel to the modern punishment of cancel culture, in which those who step into ideological trouble and run afoul of the mob can find themselves “cancelled,” or to use an older term, “un-personed.”
These two criteria of ideological totalism, along with the others, seem specifically adaptable to politicized online environments, educational programs and classrooms, and even political rallies. And these patterns can be found across the entire political spectrum.
In his April 2018 essay, Assault on Reality, for Dissent Magazine, Dr. Lifton describes the totalist mindset in the Trump movement, and goes on to offer additional insights into the way ideological totalism operates in all politcal cults:
The narrative was relentless: the “old society” in China was evil and corrupt because of the domination of the “exploiting classes” landowners, capitalists, and the bourgeoisie. The residual mental effects of that exploitation had to be removed not only from members of those exploiting classes, but from all who lived in the old society. As Chairman Mao put it, one had to “punish the past to warn the future” and “save men by curing their ills.”
The reformers were totalistic in their all-or-none assertions, including claims to absolute truth and virtue. To impose those claims they created what I called milieu control, the domination of all communication in the environment (including at times the inner environment of individual selves). They insisted on doctrine over person, so that any doubts experienced concerning ideological claims were considered a form of personal deficiency, of individual-psychological aberration. Overall there was a dispensing of existence, a line drawn between those who had a right to exist (in harmony with the official doctrine) and those who possessed no such right. That “dispensing” could range from discrimination in terms of jobs and status to imprisonment and even execution.
The coercive element that I’ve emphasized was always present but was accompanied by an appeal to high idealism: the promise of a utopian future and of individual and collective revitalization, even a sense of rebirth.
As we can see from these passages, the patterns that arise from ideological totalism transcend time, gender, country, race, and the specifics of political and religious beliefs. The demand for doctrinal purity over the intellectual and moral sovereignty of the individual, the disdain and contempt for the previously accepted way of life of “the enemy” and anyone associated with “the enemy,” the promise of a grand Utopian future of a collective rebirth for the followers of this new way of life, and the punishment of being cancelled (or, as in the case of State-led totalitarianism, killed) for non-compliance with the precious vision of that new way of life, are present in politcal cults across the whole politcal spectrum and across all time. We now find ourselves in a large-scale situation in which these patterns are well amplified in a world dominated by the 24-hour news cycle, an outrage culture, endless propaganda, and the endless gladiator spectacle of social media battles.
Given the complexity and the highly volatile situation confronting us, it’s understandable that many people will choose not to bother expressing any form of dissent on issues great and small, especially in public, whether in an online social media forum or in private conversations with friends who see themselves as defenders of the beliefs being questioned.
Today the consequences are harsh for dissenters who speak truths that do not align with the values and narratives of those who hold power over a narrative and are in a positon to hurt and punish them. This rightly scares people, especially if they have children or dependents who rely on them. By not conforming to the dictates of the powers that be, dissenters face the looming threat of retribution, which often includes social isolation and a damaged reputation. One of the greatest losses incurred in principled dissent is abandonment by friends, which may come because such friends are genuinely disappointed by the dissenter’s apparent betrayal of the causes and beliefs they once shared, or because they fear being fingered as heretics, too, if they remain “adjacent” or too close.
So what do we do with all of this? How do we navigate our way as active, engaged and conscious participants in building a workable society, when seemingly it has become over run by hyper-reactivity, misinformation, propaganda, tribalism, and extreme polarization? How do those of us in the exhausted majority [iii] survive in an environment that punishes deliberation and thoughtfulness and encourages extremism and enemy-ship? What can we actively, compassionately, wisely and efficiently do to create the kind of milieu in which difficult issues can be surfaced and addressed? What values can we promote that facilitate our ability to speak freely about what concerns us without fear of retaliation, and also enable fearless, sincere and robust dialogue with friends to help us correct any erroneous views we might hold?
Three Practices for Engagement
Regardless of our political or religious beliefs, many of us care about our world and strive to solve problems and relate to other people with an open mind and unjaundiced eye. Progress requires a strategy for getting the supermajority of reasonable, good faith people to re-establish our presence on the international scene, in the barroom, in the classroom, and on the social media circuit. And the only way we can do this is to reaffirm open inquiry and open-hearted engagement, which includes problem-solving that sets aside ideological commitments, grand narratives, and preconceived ideas about where others are coming from and what they are really up to. This requires adopting three main practices that make it easier for us to consider other perspectives and develop the ability to see the world and other people with more clarity, insight and empathy.
First, we can learn to develop a healthy skepticism towards ideological frameworks that promote an us-against-them way of seeing things, especially paradigms that reduce entire groups of people to one dimensional caricatures, such as dismissing others as “deplorable bigots” and “right wing nut jobs” or as “virtue signaling cry-bully SJWs.” This skepticism can extend to recognizing our tendencies to unmindfully adopt legitimate-sounding academic and political theories that use conceptual sleights of hand, data sets, and historical events to justify hatred and dehumanization of what we and our like-minded cohort think of as opposing groups.
Second, we can develop a healthy and robust relationship to pain and discomfort. This means that we can learn to lean into the sharp points of being around people we dislike and ideas that rub us the wrong way, so that we can develop at least some patience, perseverance and resiliency for engagement with perceived adversaries and ideological opponents. This is what Nassim Taleb has called “ant-fragile,” mode of relating to the outside world, and it’s well worth the effort if we are willing to put some time in to see how it works.
Third, we can develop the practice of venturing outside of our echo chambers and epistemic enclosures to engage perceived adversaries on their ideas and beliefs, and to offer insights that might benefit them, instead of treating them like enemies to be tossed aside. But, a richer aspect of this is that by stepping out to meet “the other,” we can reality test our own ideas against those with different experiences, perceptions, beliefs, data sets and areas of experts. Doing so could increase our capacity for navigating multiple perspectives, developing a deeper appreciation for the wisdom and humanity of others, and opening our minds to new or previously inaccessible information and understandings that we might not have considered before. Stepping outside of our in groups can help to loosen up our own ideological conditioning, which can open the way for us to experience the complex reality we share with others more directly, more freshly, and more charitably.
The Freedom to Air is the Freedom to Err
By developing these three practices, we can create an atmosphere on any scale in which there is freedom to air, the welcoming environment in which we can air our grievances, our concerns, our dissenting opinions, and the ideas we have for solving problems. And in this atmosphere, beyond the freedom to air, we also find the freedom to err.
The freedom to air is the freedom to openly present to an audience of both supporters and perceived adversaries what we think we know, what we think we understand, and what we think we see. By having the freedom to air, we are also free to make mistakes, to be wrong, to be in error, and even to be ignorant in front of others. Airing and erring in front of those of those who can offer us more accurate information, or a higher moral perspective, is an effective and efficient way to find meaningful correction.
Part of this process includes the humility to recognize out in the open that we might be wrong about some things, or that the belief system, paradigm, or framework we have been following may be incomplete or contain some moral errors, gaps in logic or misunderstandings that need to be cleared up. Making room for error and readjustment upon its discovery is one of the main reasons why we need to make room for dissent, for ourselves and for others.
If we are the ones who are the dissenters, then society, on the scale of our influence, will benefit from the free and open exchange of what we have to say. If we are right in our dissent, then obviously society benefits from having allowed the open expression of our dissent (and history has borne this out) . And if we our ideas are discovered to be wrong in such a free and open exchange, we stand the chance to not only be corrected, but to help society on whatever scale of influence we have to avoid the error that has been brought to light though that exchange
And if we are the ones who are tempted to quash the dissenting voices of others, it would be of great benefit to us and to the causes we care about if we could commit to hearing them out. It is always possible that it is we ourselves who hold the views that might be need to be corrected. And if we are the ones who are hold power in the context in which the discussion is taking place, much pain and suffering can be avoided, if we are fortunate enough to be shown our error.
We (and You) Are All the Defenders of ‘The Truth’
It is our hope—the dissenters contributing to this work—that the essays presented here, around a wide variety of issues, will be received in good faith and truly grappled with on the basis of reasoning, evidence, empathy, well-considered morality, and in the light of what is truly at stake for all of us.
At stake is always the truth. And the truth has many dimensions and as many defenders as it does enemies. To be sure, the truth also includes the impact of policies, rules, cultural practices, and ideologies on the lives of very real people. This means that “The Truth” is never simply an abstract ideal that inspires its champions, but a powerful and determining agent in the quality of life, safety, survival and potential happiness of those whose lives are impacted by the imposition of “The Truth”.
While the current debate around truth revolves around the split between those who believe in “objective truth” and those who adhere to the postmodernist conception that the only reliable truth is the subjective experience of “my truth,” a helpful way to see this is the invocation of “Miller’s Law.” Philosopher George Miller posited that, in the end, it isn’t really important to discover whether a statement or positon is true, when it comes to a disagreement between people about unscientific maters, but what the statement or position is true of.
If we could learn to discover what other people’s beliefs about reality are true of, we could find a way in and discover the deepest most cherished values that animate them, even if, in the end, we discover that what animates them is ultimately delusional and even harmful.
We Are All Mediators
If we could learn to step outside of our own epistemic enclosures with empathy and wisdom to understand what animates other groups and individuals, we might be able to become what authors Peter M. Limberg and Conor Barnes have called memetic mediators, in their essay, “The Memetic Tribes of Culture War 2.0”. Memetic Mediators are people who are able to get into the bones of the aesthetics and values of the cultural memes (mind viruses) of different tribes. These are the “pan-tribalist participants” who are able to communicate truths from one tribe to another in a way that acknowledges and respects the truths and experiences that different tribes come to know deeply as their very identity, in order to protect the rights of the largest number of people and advance civilization at any scale.
In the end, it all comes down to the commitment to giving ourselves and others the freedom to air. And, we might be surprised and delighted to discover that there is no error in that.
In June of 2020, Helen Pluckrose gave a talk on the evolution of Postmodernist thought, highlighting three distinct periods of this evolution, ending with the current period which she and James Lindsay, the co-author of Cynical Theories call Reified Post-modernism.
This talk offers a useful overview of the origins of words, phrases, beliefs about reality, activist strategies and behavioral practices of a very specific ideological framework called Critical Social Justice which draws much of its ideas from three different historical phases of Post-modernist thought.
Two of the most fundamental ideas in this framework is that there is no objective reality and that there are no universal human experiences.
Currently, I am working on a three-part essay, which includes my reflections on the themes in a book that Pluckrose collaboratively wrote with Dr. James A. Lindsay. The full title of the book is Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race and Gender and How It’s Hurting all of Us.
In many ways, this talk that Helen gave in the Spring of 2020 outlines the ideas and critiques presented in the book. I found it so useful that I spent three days transcribing it so that those who are more text-oriented would have access to the this relatively concise overview of the ideological commitments behind the mainstream pop morality of the current era.
FULL DISCLOSURE: I’ve known Helen for about four years now and am working with her on a new project. She is a colleague of sorts in a larger movement towards the re-introduction of reasoning, evidence, thoughtfulness, and compassion into the contemporary discourse around human rights, social justice, integrative peace-making and the evolution of society.
TRANSCRIPT OF HELEN’S TALK
Social Justice sounds like such a good idea. Who doesn’t want social justice? Nobody says, “do you know what society really needs? Less justice. Whatever our politics are, our ethics, our philosophies, our religions—or lack of all of the above—we generally all want to make the world a better place.
And yet we differ on how to achieve social justice and what it will look like. These differences can be productive. The conversations they engender between people with very different views helped us make our societies fairer and more accommodating of all kinds of people. Over the last 500 years and rapidly gaining in steam over the last 200 and particularly the last 50, we’ve set up secular liberal societies. Now I’m going to use the word liberal in this talk, but because I know we’ve got a lot of Americans here, I’m going to need to stress that I am using this in the general sense of freedom and openness and the opposite of illiberal. So, we’re not talking about left-wing as it’s sometimes used in America or right-wing as it’s sometimes used in Australia but an all-encompassing focus on individual liberty and the positive impact of the free exchange of ideas.
So, over the last 500 years—but really recently— this has with the civil rights movements, we’ve really sort of moved into a properly liberal age: freedom of religion and freedom from religion, equal opportunities for people regardless of gender, race or sexuality. Science and reason have become the dominant—or if not dominant, at least the most respected way— of establishing what is true, and this has been used to make remarkable advances in medicine and technology. The notion of the marketplace of ideas in which everybody could participate, everything could be said, and in principle, ideas are evaluated on their merits and hammered out. This has resulted in the most scientifically, medically, and technologically advanced societies humanity has ever known. It’s resulted in the most free and equal societies that have ever existed. Social justice has taken a leap forward.
And yet there is a movement that presumptuously labels itself Social Justice as though it alone holds the key to this, as though everybody else is actually seeking something different. This movement is not conservative, although it shares some values around segregation and purity with the far-right. It’s not liberal, although it speaks a liberal language of diversity, plurality, and inclusion. And it’s not Marxist, although it pays some lip service to anti-capitalism.
Social Justice is a highly counterintuitive movement which speaks its own language and has its own conceptions of the world. Accordingly, it is frequently misunderstood, miscategorized and attempts to counter it frequently fail. Conceptions of social justice that are rooted in Critical Theory don’t look much like the common understanding of social justice. People see the symptoms of the Social Justice movement quite clearly. They might refer to them as identity politics or political correctness, callout culture, or cancel culture.
It’s been hard to miss the demands to decolonize everything from curricula to hairstyles, and the tearing down of statues, defacing of paintings. Pronouns have become a matter of paramount political importance. They’ve also become much harder to navigate and use correctly in both their political sense and a grammatical one. It’s common now to hear that all men are sexist, and all white people are racist. If one protests at this, one is told it’s simply impossible not to be, due to the system of socialization that we’ve all been through. It seems that every day we hear news of a comedian being cancelled for a problematic joke, or a celebrity offering a groveling apology for the unintended misuse of a word, or that someone in the public eye has been found to have said something twenty years ago, which is now considered racist, sexist or homophobic. Artists of all kinds are frequently held up for criticism either because their work has not included a diverse range of people—in which case there’s a failure of representation—or because it has, in which case its cultural appropriation. Anyone who addresses political or cultural issues at all is likely to attract swarms of Social Justice activists to problematize, call out, distort, and misrepresent their arguments.
This is enabled largely by social media where activists can congregate and highlight the tweets or essays they have a problem with. Dog-piles are common, and it seems not to matter whether one is a prominent person or a private individual sharing their own experience on their own Twitter account. Even when speaking on your own account, you are likely to be accused of dictating to, or speaking over, marginalized people or you could just—we could just—go straight to white supremacist, misogynist, transphobic, fascist. It is becoming increasingly daunting, particularly for those with businesses or jobs they’d like to keep, to speak publicly at all. The approach of the social justice activists is uncharitable, unreasonable, frequently uninformed, unjust and unforgiving.
But what has caused this intense focus on identity, knowledge, language and the power structures? That’s what I’m here to talk about.
I’m going to look at where these ideas really coalesced and how they’ve developed over the last 50 years into what we see now. The problem underlying social justice activism has a long history and in various different ways, but we really saw it come together in the late 1960s—66, 68, by 1970 certainly. This was a time of great social change. Society was recovering from the world wars, Nazism, fascism, genocide and Communism, and they were still mourning their dead. Empire had fallen, the Jim Crow had ended, technology was advancing rapidly, and a vibrant youth culture was forming. Ideologically, liberal activism in the forms of the civil rights movements, Feminism, and gay pride were in full flow, at the same time, as an angry and radical New Left was mobilizing. All in all, the feeling at this time was one, not only of change, but of a radical break from what had gone before. Old certainties were being challenged. Certainties about the advance of moral progress had been shaken by the wars. A new recognition of the ways in which the rights of women, racial minorities, LGBT people had been denied was really being felt. Religion was declining, pop music and mass-produced art were challenging notions of what counts as culture.
There is a sense that things were moving too fast and becoming artificial and mass-produced. This caused many intellectuals to write about the loss of authenticity. This new era which was unfolding was understood to be as the era of Post-modernity. The modern period is understood as one in which reality was simple, graspable, orderly and cohesive: a satisfying story of steady progress and increased knowledge in the advance of human rights which could be told straightforwardly. None of that seemed right anymore, so the idea that an era of Post-modernity was beginning became a repeated refrain among leftist intelligentsia. Arguably the most profound influence on the academics was the loss of Marxism. This framework had long formed the basis for leftist intellectual thought on how to make a better society. Now, for many, it had become untenable. Following the atrocities of the communist regime, the main grand narrative for the left was in trouble. Many felt that Marxism, like everything else, was a simplistic narrative, which had failed. This revolt resulted in despair that anything could be trusted anymore. The bitter hopelessness and despair of meaning permeates the writings of the first Post-modernists.
This shift caused a great upheaval on the academic Left. Traditionally, the Leftist stance has been comprised of two elements. One was the Marxist or Socialists which focused on material conditions economics and class. It wanted to read revolutionize society to redistribute wealth. The other is in liberalism which has focused on enabling the individual to access universal rights and opportunities. Liberalism seeks to reform society rather than revolutionize. Both Marxists and liberals are Modernists. That is, they both believe in an objective reality and the importance of evidence and reason, although they’ve come to different conclusions about where to go from there. They both believe that a society in which everyone is able to thrive and put their skills to good use and be very naturally secure, regardless of their class race gender or sexuality, is a just society. A society where some people are prohibited from this is an unjust society.
Despite these shared aims, Marxist and liberals have argued incessantly. Marxists have accused liberals of being half-measure sellouts who might as well be conservatives. Liberals have accused Marxists of being delusional utopians who want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. These arguments have been acrimonious, but they’ve also been productive in forming a functional Left. This was all to change with the arrival of Post-modernism. In the late 1960s, there arose from—all at once from—different discipline, the intellectuals who’d come to be known as the Post-modernists. Some are best understood as commentators on the condition of Post-modernity. That is, they were observing the change and describing it. The American Marxist Fredric Jameson deplored the shallowness of Post-modernity, the lack of heart to anything, the constant recycling and repetition of art. He diagnosed the nostalgia for anything real and said the individual had been lost. Jean Baudrillard leaned heavily towards nihilistic despair, and his book Simulacra and Simulation argued that society had entirely lost the real and was now just endlessly churning out copies of copies. In the Modern period, he claimed, everything began to be standardized and organized, so uniqueness and authenticity were gone.
But in the Post-modern period of mass production and technological simulation, there is no original, he said. Everything is now hyper real. He called metaphorically for acts of bloody terrorism and claimed that death was the only thing that was real. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari argued that people’s drives were constrained by a capitalist consumerist society where the only thing that flowed was money. They saw humans as coded in different times to different demands: first family, then despotic rulers, then capitalism. Like Baudrillard, they argued that modernity had standardized and systemized everything and that it needed to be dismantled. For them, it was not death that was the epitome of reality but human desires, and they should be freed. Deleuze ultimately committed suicide.
This then was largely some hopeless despairing, yearning for anything authentic. It had no realistically attainable goals. These observations were almost impurely descriptive. However, there were some French theorists whose ideas had purpose, and they developed theories. They are best understood as the Post-structuralists and the Constructionists, and they went further in developing a theoretical practice.
In his groundbreaking book, The Post-modern Condition, Jean Francois Lyotard defined Post-modernism as a skepticism towards meta-narratives. By this, he meant that all the large overarching stories we told ourselves about how society worked, and the meaning of life were becoming less credible. Another description of meta-narratives is that they’re historically and culturally situated narratives which nevertheless are presented as universal. Lyotard included Christianity and Marxism in his understanding of them meta-narratives, but he also included science. As is typical of Post-modernists, his work focused intensely on the power of language. He saw this in terms of different kinds of games, which legitimated knowledge. He claimed that the language of science was inseparable from the language of power and governments. Rather than these big metal narratives, he argued, we need lots of mini narratives. Rather than authority of knowledge legitimized by scientific methods, we need a plurality of legitimation. That is, we need multiple knowledges with none prized over any other. This is moral and factual relativism.
For Jacques Derrida, the focus was even more intensely on language. He was radically skeptical of the possibility of ever conveying meaning by language. For him, words only referred to other words, so meaning is indefinitely deferred. House is understandable in relation to huts and mansion. Derrida also believed that words are used comparatively to give one term superiority to another. That is, men are defined as not being women and also as superior to women. He advocated ironically reversing these binaries to make them visible and challenge power hierarchies. This can be benign enough and quite poignant. I myself have been known to replace “the world and his wife” with “the world and her husband”. But, it can also go to quite a dark place if your conception of society is one in which women and racial and sexual minorities are constantly subjected to discrimination and abuse and then you want to reverse that binary. You are likely to end up with sexism against men, racism against white people, and for this to be morally justifiable as a kind of redressing the balance. This takes a step away from objectivity and towards subjectivity. It also undermines the reasonable person standard upon which much law and judicial decision is based.
Above all there was Michel Foucault. Of all the theorists, his ideas have most ingrained themselves in our culture. His key ideas echo both Lyotard’s skepticism of meta-narratives and Derrida’s suspicion of the reliability of language to convey stable meaning. The concepts of his, which have best survived and have had been adapted over the last 50 years, are episteme, powerknowledge discourses and biopower. In common usage, knowledge is defined as an accurate understanding of an objective reality. If we consider ourselves to know something rather than believe it, suspect it, hope it, or think it probable, we mean that we’ve been given sufficient reason to accept that it is true—that it matches reality. While cultural perceptions may vary, and ideas may change over time, something that is objectively true is true for everyone. It could be discovered that something was thought to be true, and actually it was false, but this doesn’t mean it was once true and then became false. It means that a mistake was made, and we are able to know this because of new evidence which shows it.
An example of this could be that the sun was thought to orbit the Earth, but it was later discovered that the earth orbits the sun. This was always the case and it doesn’t depend on humans believing it. This is a Modernist understanding of knowledge, and it was not how Michel Foucault understood it. His understanding of knowledge was as a cultural construct. That is, we decide what is true and what is known through categories and narratives created and enforced culturally. He referred to this as an episteme, a culturally devised system that provided the parameters for what could be considered true or false. Those in power set the episteme. Therefore, what is understood by society as knowledge is really just an exercise of power. It is powerknowledge. That’s one word, not two. With a similar relationship, the powerknowledge is both constructed and perpetuated by ways of talking about things—by discourses. Something becomes legitimized as knowledge by the way it is spoken about, and it then becomes the way to speak about things. Chief among these legitimizing discourses is science. Western societies largely accept the findings of science as the most substantiated sources of knowledge. This, to Foucault, was evidence that it was powerknowledge. He called this particular type of powerknowledge, biopower. This is now a dominant idea in Queer theory, disability studies and fat studies.
These ideas continue to plague us today, so it is worth taking the time to really try to get your head around them.
Imagine that there is no objective truth, humans are blank slates who get filled up with a story, the powerful groups in society get to decide what that story is. All the slates once written upon, tell the same story, but from a different perspective, depending on where they are in relation to power. So, if the story includes the claim that men are dominant, and women are submissive, both men and women will speak into this discourse, but from a dominant or a submissive position. The same goes for the claim that heterosexuality is natural and homosexuality unnatural, that white people are suited for some professional jobs, black people for manual jobs. The imperative, then, of Post-modern approaches, is to study the discourses of society to find the Foucauldian powerknowledge, invert the Derridean binaries and empower the Lyotardian mini narratives.
This is now a plan.
This is the broad picture, and it’s not easy to grasp immediately, so I will set up the essential ideas as a kind of list.
· There is no way of obtaining objective truth.
· Everything is culturally constructed.
· Society is dominated by systems of power and privilege that people just accept as common sense.
· These vary from culture to culture and subculture to subculture.
· None of them is right or superior to any other.
· The categories that we use to understand things like fact and fiction, reason and emotion, science and art, and male and female are false.
· They operate in the service of power, [and] need to be examined, broken down and complicated.· Language is immensely powerful, and it is used to construct oppressive social realities.
· Therefore, it must be regarded with suspicion and scrutinized to find the discourses of power.
· The intention of the speaker is no more authoritative than the interpretation of the hearer.
· The idea of the autonomous individual is a myth.
· The individual is also a construct of culture programmed by his or her place in relation to power.
· The idea of a universal human nature is also a myth. It is constructed by what powerful forces deemed to be the right way to be. Therefore, it is white western masculine and heterosexual.
These are some core ideas of post-modernism which have survived in the academic world. Post-modernism is largely claimed to have died out. But, most of you will recognize these ideas in the social justice scholarship and the activism that we see today. That’s because they didn’t die out; they evolved. Not everyone believes that post-modernism has survived into the present day or that Social Justice is fundamentally a Post-modern movement. But it has, and it is.
The first wave of post-modernism did die away by the middle of the 80s. It was too intense and also aimless—nihilistic really. We can think of this as the High Deconstructive Phase of Post-modernism. It was ironic and pessimistically playful and fairly hopeless. It took everything to pieces, but once they were in bits all over the floor, there wasn’t much more that could be done. There was no confidence in the possibility of reconstructing because that would just produce new oppressive power structures. However, by the late 1980s a new generation of leftist academics had emerged, and they were inclined to be neither so aimless nor pessimistic. By this time the civil rights movements had begun to show diminishing returns. Within 20 years, huge leap forwards in equality had been made. Ironically this was the same time the original Post-modernists were saying it was time to give up on the myth of progress. But women had gained control over their reproduction, equal pay laws had been passed, similar legislation decriminalized discrimination on the grounds of race, male homosexuality had been decriminalized with legal equality largely obtained. What remained was suppressed attitudes to be addressed. Of course, Post-modernism was perfect for this—or almost so.
Just as the first wave of Post-modernists had emerged all at once from different disciplines, so did the next wave in the late 1980s. Post-colonialism actually emerged a little before that as an offshoot of Post-modernism. It was headed by the Foucault d and Edward Said who argued that the West had constructed the East as its inferior in order to construct itself in noble terms. He said it was time for previously colonized peoples to reconstruct the East for themselves. Gayatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha followed in his footsteps, although they were more Derridean, having adopted his despair of the ability of language to convey meaning. They are largely incomprehensible.
However, the aim to reconstruct had begun. In 1989 over in Critical Legal Studies and Critical Race Theory, Kimberlé Crenshaw began developing her concept of Intersectionality. She described this as contemporary politics linked to Post-modern theory. The cultural constructivism of Post-modernism, Crenshaw felt was useful, in regarding gender and race as cultural constructs. But there had to be some objective reality if anyone was to achieve anything. The existence of oppressive cultural constructs around gender and race were decided to be what was objectively real. Furthermore, liberalism she claimed, was inadequate, despite the massive evidence that it was in fact very successful. Liberalism was too universal to be politically productive, and it was time for a more intense focus on identity politics.
In that same year, Mary Pavan was attempting to reconcile deconstructive approaches with feminism. Like Crenshaw, she argued that the methods were useful, but there did need to be a recognition of an objective reality. How can we advocate for women, for equality for women, unless women are a category of people that objectively exists? She advocated a toolbox approach in which Post-modern techniques would be used when helpful and not, when not.
Meanwhile, in expansion of gay and lesbian studies, Judith Butler was claiming that actually women don’t need to be a category of people that objectively exists. In fact, claiming categories to objectively exist is the problem. Queer Theory was born. It drew extensively on the work of Foucault and can be argued to be the purest form of Post-modernism currently in existence. However, Queer Theory avoided the fate of deconstructing itself into oblivion by making the deconstruction of categories a form of activism. Queer theory reifies queerness and a whole range of queer identities but deconstructs anything normative. In this way, it’s felt, people who don’t fit within masculine men attracted to women or feminine women attracted to men—don’t feel the pressure to do so. We can just deconstruct those categories altogether.
Just like that, post-modernism had become energized and politically actionable. We called this phase applied post-modernism.No longer was it aimlessly pulling reality apart and denying objective truth to exist, it was now objectively true that social reality was culturally constructed by specific systems of power. Post-modernism now had goals it acknowledged and justified its departure from the original post-modernists explicitly, often claiming that they were privileged white men who had little need to affect change in the world. This new form of Post-modernism was much more user-friendly. Consequently, it could break the bounds of the academy in the way the original Post-modernism could not. The dying radical Left adopted it for this reason. While much of Post-colonial Theory and Queer Theory remained largely incomprehensible to the layman, Critical Race Theory and Intersectional Feminism were written in clear language from the start. This is probably due to its foundation in legal theory rather than philosophy. Thus, activism for gender and racial equality was able to draw on its ideas. Critical race theory is rooted in some very strong scholarship by liberal humanist and Marxist scholars, which pointed out that white identity had been formed at the expense of Black identity. It is essential to note that Critical Race Theory is originally an American phenomenon, and the evidence that America was a racially divided society with Blacks as second-class citizens until very recently is indisputable.
However, with its recent descent into Post-modern discourse analysis, and conceptions of society as entirely underlain by systems of white supremacy operating in mysterious ways, Critical Race Theory has become quite unhinged. It threatens to undo much of the progress that has been made on racial equality. Using methods which assume racism to be present in any interaction between a white person and a person of racial minority, results in always finding it and further entrenching the belief in an ever-present white supremacy. Things that have been listed as racist microaggressions include complementing a black person on their eloquence, saying that you do not see people in terms of race, or that you believe the best person for a job should get it. It’s is clear what a minefield this is.
Of course, the people most affected by being trained to read everything in this way are racial minorities. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt described this entire method as a form of reverse Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT teaches people not to catastrophize and not to read negative meanings into everything. This decreases anxiety and improves one’s functioning in the world. Applied Post-modernism trains people to do precisely the opposite. It cannot help but increase anxiety and decrease ability to function. Lukianoff and Haidt provide much evidence that that is what’s happening. A similar pattern has emerged within feminism where again everything is seen in terms of a system of Patriarchy which hides beneath a benign surface. The job of the feminists is to detect it. Going through life in order to direct it detects ways in which men are belittling you is unlikely to lead to female empowerment. Teaching young women that society is hostile to them is probably not going to increase women’s engagement with the public sphere. One way in which the Post-modern understanding of hidden power structures works in society, is to see everything in terms of a scale. I’m sure some of you have seen some of those pictures of pyramids where at the bottom you’ve got asking a woman for coffee or complimenting her and at the top is rape and murder because this is understood as one big system of patriarchal rape culture—the manifestations of it of last and becoming increasingly torturous. This is largely to do with what’s been happening in scholarship over the last thirty years since the initiation and diversification of various types of theory.
When a system of scholarship is closed to external critique—as these theories generally have been—and when evidence and reason are not required in the first place, a body of work can quickly become quite deranged. What has happened over the last thirty years is that concepts have been built upon concepts leading to a towering mountain of theory, none of which has ever born much relation to reality.
One scholar writes a paper arguing for the existence of white privilege, Peggy McIntosh. She makes some good points, but she claims that simply being white confers great benefits on an individual without any consideration of class or wealth issues. This idea catches on in Critical Race Theory build on it until it’s well-established.
Then another scholar Barbara Applebaum takes it a step further. She argues that white privilege allows people to—white people—to sort of get away with racism because they can absolve themselves of their privilege by acknowledging it. So now we need another concept to put on top of that, which is white complicity,in which white people can never absolve themselves of their responsibility for racism, they are just implicit in it by dint of existing.
So, this idea is accepted and built upon, and then another scholar Robin D’Angelo takes this a step further still. White privilege and white complicity are still central concepts to her work, but there’s still a problem because some white people disagree with them. We now need white fragility to close that gap. White fragility is when white people respond to being told they’re privileged and complicit in racism by doing one of three things: disagreeing, being quiet, or going away. That is, the only way not to be fragile is stay right where you are and agree.
This is not scholarship. This is a Kafka Trap.
There is simply no valid way to disagree with this conception of society, to moderate it, to qualify it, to agree with some of it, to point out problems. You just have to agree. It is also notable that Robin D’Angelo’s language is so simple and clear that she could be read and understood by a ten-year-old. She also speaks in terms of absolute certainty. This has also happened over time in the other theories. Even in Queer theory and Postcolonial theory, the kind of writing which was famously incomprehensible decades ago has become much clearer and much more sure of itself. As the body of scholarship has grown, and scholars have been able to point anyone who disagrees with them, at a mounting body of work, the fields’ confidence in their own rightness has grown. Whereas the first Post-modernists spoke in terms of radical doubt, and the Applied Post-modernists retained some tentativeness and raised issues as questions to avoid making challengeable assertions, the current scholars are absolutely convinced of the objective truth of their worldview.
This new phase of absolute certainty, clarity, and refusal to accept disagreement as anything other than a wish to deny privilege began around 10 years ago and has been rapidly escalating since 2015. Those original ideas of the first Post-modernists are now sacred creeds, which cannot be doubted. Listen to these core tenets developed by a group of scholar activists, including Robin D’Angelo. It was read at the national race and pedagogy conference at the University of Puget Sound in 2015.
· Racism exists today in both traditional and modern forms.
· Racism is an institutionalized, multi-layered multi-level system that distributes unequal power and resources between white people and people of color as socially identified and disproportionately benefits whites.
· All members of society are socialized to participate in the system of racism albeit in various social locations. [Remember our slates with different versions of the story].
· All white people benefit from racism regardless of their intentions.
· No one chose to be socialized into racism, so no one is bad, but no one is neutral.
· To not act against racism is to support racism.
· Racism must be continually identified, analyzed and challenged. No one is ever done.
· The question is not, did racism take place but how did racism manifest in that situation.
· The racial status quo is uncomfortable for most whites. Therefore, anything that maintains white comfort is suspect.
· The racially oppressed have a more intimate insight via experiential knowledge into the system of race than their racial oppressors [but they’re not bad]. However, white professors will be seen as having more legitimacy. Thus, positionality must be intentionally engaged. [Then must always mention your race, gender, and sexuality and how it impacts what you’re saying.]
· Resistance is a predictable reaction to anti-racist education and must be explicitly and strategically addressed.
This is a creed. These are statements of absolute certainty and of objective knowledge. Therefore, we call this stage Reified Post-modernism.In one way, this latest development is highly alarming. It reads like a call to arms, it’s easily comprehensible to any idealistic young person who wants to fix the world, and its presence is strongest in the universities where they’re to be found.
In another way, this newfound clarity, confidence, and certainty is precisely what we need to have an effective push back. We can get at these ideas now. One doesn’t have to have a Ph.D. in the jargon to understand the claims and counter them.
For so long, this kind of scholarship has been enabled to build because the vast majority of people did not know what it was talking about. Even liberals did not know what it was talking about. Liberal academics in other fields did not know what it was talking about. The people pushing back at it have overwhelmingly been conservatives. Liberals mostly assumed that because it was in the service of social justice it must be a good thing and—a liberal thing—and if conservatives didn’t like it, it was probably both.
It’s now becoming increasingly clear that it’s not a good thing or a liberal thing. Liberals can now push back at it completely in keeping with their liberal principles. In my talk this afternoon I’m going to suggest that we can do that by looking at the core tenets of social justice by acknowledging how much of it is good, and how it’s then going wrong, how we can do it better.
This morning, when completeing an application for Heterodox Academy (which was just accepted by the Membership Committee), I was responding to this question:
“How are you fostering viewpoint diversity on your campus, in your classroom, or through your work? What challenges have you faced, and what is at stake? What is an example of constructive disagreement leading to a better outcome as part of a group or project? We want to hear your story.”
Pondering how I might answer this question, it occurred to me that now is the time for me to publish the working draft of an essay I began writing six years ago called “All Shine: How Collaborative Stewardship Built a Vision”. This essay describes the processes involved in collaborative projects and communities and explores the connections between openness to a variety of world views and communication styles, leadership theories, multi-perspectivalism, and the human elements involved in creating something in the world in concert with others.
The essay describes the process of making an album of original music I wrote. The album is called Eleventh Hour Shine. Although most of the project was largely self-funded from savings, our project’s main architects successfully launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 to bring the project to the finish line.
The writing of the essay was not easy for me, as it also describes the sudden death of a person dear to me in 2013. As that death involved the shooting of an unarmed person by a state trooper, and due to the heated national conversations around this topic, I’ve chosen to keep the event tucked away quietly for the past six years with only an occasional social media post shard only with friends. Somehow, though, the George Floyd protests and extreme polarization around the police brutality issue and other related issues have given rise to a culture of political extremism and an attitude of contempt towards nuance and thoughtfulness, which I have been finding alarming.
Though it’s clear that it’s best not to “lead” with the story of my loved one’s death at the hands of law enforcement, I think it’s important to provide an alternative model for communicating around this and other issues that doesn’t fall between the hardened positions and hatred towards entire groups that we are seeing on social media and in other arenas of civic like. And, whether I like it or not, this death and parts of this person’s (and my own) life is intimately connected with my work in the education field and cannot be separated from that work. Part of that work involves the advocacy of viewpoint diversity, ideological flexibility and the importance of promoting authentically open communication which requires, humility and empathy -two qualities that seem to have disappeared into the night.
The last few chapters of this essay are unfinished, as I was still reeling from this person’s death at the time and could not find the heart space to bring the essay to a satisfying (authentic and unforced) conclusion. It is likely that some of the ideas explored in the essay are over-stated or incomplete, as my thinking on some of the topics and frameworks I covered in this writing has evolved quite a bit over the past few years.
However, my principles have remained the same, even while the world around me and the people in it have seemingly been altered beyond recognition.
Eleventh Hour, indeed.
Below is the link, which can also be found in the menu heading, “Writings“.
Taking into consideration the rise in intergroup hatreds that has come about in recent years, an online discussion group I participated in adopted discussion norms. Though I created the first draft, the language and wording was vetted by others.
These norms are not meant to be taken as hard, rigid rules but as a guide for facilitating meaningful, fair dialogue and problem-solving in difficult conversations.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF NORMS
1. Inquiry Balances Advocacy means to practice being open about others’ perspectives and experiences and to hold back from advancing our own view without listening to others.
2. All Topics Discussable means that we won’t shut down any topics unless they advocate violence against individuals or groups of people. This also means we won’t ridicule or dismiss an idea or topic as unworthy of our consideration.
3. Evidence and Facts over Narratives means that we commit to backing up our claims and don’t rely on popular narratives, authority of certain authors and books or even ideologies to make our points.
4. Labels Stigmatize means that we commit to avoid name-calling in all its forms
5. People are Individuals means that even if the ideology we follow groups people together and assigns characteristics to entire identity groups, we try to experience individuals as themselves rather than as representatives of a group.
FULL DESCRIPTIONS OF NORMS
Inquiry Balances Advocacy
Open-minded inquiry is a challenging task in a community, whether it’s a social media group, a church, school, company or any other group in which people come together to talk or to get things done. We can set a reasonable standard for discussions by balancing the desire to advocate our own positions with the commitment to inquire into the positions of others. Demonstrating curiosity and interest in other views can help to build relationships with the people we are talking with, build mutual understanding, and foster new learning and growth for all parties. Engaging others with an inquiring attitude is not the same as relentlessly interrogating to find fault.
Patterns to Look For: Immediate shutdown when opposing viewpoints are expressed; Endless repetition of one’s own views without acknowledging other views; Not asking an opponent (or participant) to explain his/her/their/xir reasoning during discussion; Controlling the conversational space to advance one’s point of view; Refusing to offer one’s thinking or reasoning (e.g. Because it’s 2018, that’s why!);Relentless interrogating to find faulty logic or morals instead of genuinely inquiring into another’s view(s); Name calling; Justifying, rationalizing, defending, Ignoring proposed alternatives to existing frameworks, Not acknowledging the reasoning of opposing viewpoints; Using the tactic of stony silence to express disapproval (in person); Choosing not to respond as a tactic to leave opponents feeling “out in the cold”
All Topics Discussable
Welcoming all topics for consideration is important because undiscussed topics can have a potentially devastating impact on goals, relationships, and outcomes on all scales, including relationships, communities, neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, nations, and the world). As we have seen throughout the centuries and in our personal, professional and political lives, all issues will come to the surface somehow and in some way, no matter how much we have succeeded in suppressing them. Preventing, ameliorating, handling, or healing conflict in all its forms requires that a community actively works to place all views -even unsettling or uncomfortable views- on the table.
Patterns to Look For: How dare you bring that up; That is inappropriate; That’s bigotry! (without investigating the claim); You’re just playing the victim; We already figured this out, no more dialogue; You’re centering yourself [or your tribe] in this conversation!; Your issue is self-serving because you’re privileged!; This problem isn’t even a “thing”; This issue is not that serious; You have no right to mention this problem; Your feelings as an oppressor will not be discussed or even recognized; How dare you try to silence other voices by asking us to listen to yours?
Evidence and Facts Over Narrative
Narratives are important, but they are not sufficient as arguments unless they are backed up by evidence and facts. It is best to start with evidence and facts and to search for patterns based on additional evidence and facts to formulate a strong and credible narrative or theory (inductive) than to start with a narrative based perspective based on biases and desired outcomes and searching for evidence and facts to justify the narrative (deductive). In the age of “fake news”, propaganda and extremely adversarial one-sided narratives that are often unsupported by hard data, we need to maintain intellectual rigor in conversations and dialogues that aim to discover credible truths and workable solutions.
Patterns to Look For: Unwillingness to step out of one’s own experience or set of beliefs about the world to truly listen to what others are saying; Reluctance to hear questions or challenges to the narratives we have either read about, inherited or formulated in our own minds to explain the world; Refusal to change our mind’s about phenomena when we have been presented with new variables and compelling evidence or hard data that challenges our narrative; Staying committed to a narrative that is unsupported by hard evidence -especially when the narrative pushes a view that is adversarial against specific groups of people based on their socio-cultural characteristics (.e.g. Jewish Zionist conspiracy theories advanced through Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine)
Stigmatizing people with labels can be helpful when we know with certainty that the labels are accurate. However, when over-applied, stigmatizing labels cause the targets of labeling to either double down or leave the conversation or relationship altogether. Using labels (whether sincerely or manipulatively) effectively discredits people (usually with an opposing or simply different framework or set of beliefs) and serves to shame or frighten others into silence. If circumstances arise in which a person’s view can be reasonably assumed to be biased or bigoted, it is helpful to describe the real world impact of actions carried out in accordance with the offending views and the impact of the views themselves than to use name-calling.
Patterns to Look For:Unfounded accusations of some form of ”ism”, of holding immoral beliefs, or of having a disagreeable character or moral foundation instead of addressing the substance of the argument. Examples: Cuck! Bleeding heart! Oppressor! Racist!, Colonizer! White Supremacist!, Homophobe!, Transphobe!, Sexist!, Ableist!, Social Justice Warrior!, SJW!, Right Wing Nut Job!, Garbage person!, Libtard!, Lefty Fascist!, Race-baiter!, Feminazi, b****ch, Cis-het!, Cis!, White Male!, negative, divisive [if not actually divisive], crybully, bully, angry (discrediting the “tone” without acknowledging the message), troublemaker, self-righteous, opinionated; arrogant; liberal elite; stupid conservative; idiot; loser
People Are Individuals
This is very simple. In this highly polarized era in which identity and demographic groups are in continual conflict, the commitment to treat people as individuals is key. While many ideological frameworks across the political, social, philosophical, and religious spectrum suggest a homogeneous, one-dimensionality on the part of specific groups of people, many of the claims are not supported by scientific evidence. Though there are cultural meta-patterns and generally predictable belief systems and culturally-based behaviors in all groups, it is best to suspend judgment about individuals we are relating to and to keep an open mind
Patterns to Look For: Expecting others to speak for or to represent their demographic identity group, based on age, gender, skin color, race and ethnicity, religion, body type and size, physical ability, political affiliation or other factors; Relying on generalizations about individuals based on the socio-cultural groups they are perceived to (or actually) belong to; Discrediting statements and beliefs from individuals based on the demographic group they are perceived to (or actually) belong to
For one of my classes, I decided to write a “mentor text” that could demonstrate some of the elements of narrative writing, including the use of time phrases, sensory description, dialogue, and reflection.
At first, it felt like a chore I had to accomplish, but as I got deeper into the writing process, I realized I was reliving and bringing new life to a long-ago forgotten memory of a family I lived with during half of my third grade year.
Below is the draft I just wrote under the pen name, Albert S. Twirr.
The Blaise House and the Paper Route
By Albert S. Twirr
When I was ten years old in the summer of 1980, my Dad and I wound up living in Saco, Maine on an old farm that no longer operated as a farm but as just as a simple living space in a large, three-floor, faded white, run-down, patched up, pointed-roof home that still functioned with electricity, gas and running water for a working-class family of five. It was a family of five that had fallen on hard times for reasons that my young had no interest in learning about, as my only interests at the time involved improving my kickball kicking and catching techniques, waiting in joyful anticipation for the new NBC Saturday morning Godzilla cartoon that was about to air for the first time on my birthday (which happened to fall on a Saturday in September of 1980), and the mustard and egg sandwiches that Billy Blaise made for me and the other kids nearly every morning throughout the summer.
Who was Billy Blaise?
She was the matriarch of the house, the wife of her husband, Jerry, and the mother of their two little girls, Karen and Heidi, and their teenaged son, who everyone affectionately called Bobby. Billy is someone I will always remember. She was a loud, outgoing, beach ball of a woman with gigantic shoulders, a brown and grey bushy lock of hair, which she kept in a pony tail, thick large glasses, and an assortment of stretchy sweat pants that she wore just about every day. She was friendly, but strict. As many strict working-class parents did at the time, Billy insisted that her kids -and that included me now- play outside when there wasn’t school, whether it was summer, fall, winter or spring.
When it was warm outside, her daughters, Karen and Heidi would show me all these cool places in the woods out behind the back of the rackety, paint-peeling barn. These places included a no-longer-used junkyard for old Volkswagens, tons of massive holes that had been dug by rodents, long, endless fields of cattails, spurs, dried up dandelions, mica, and paper birch trees, and ponds that were filled with polliwogs in all their yellowish, dingy, fish-smelling glory. The best part of our playing together was when we played vampire tag. Once you were tagged, you became a vampire, and then you were joining what eventually became a club of all-against-one blood-sucking night crawlers.
These games were really fun for an eight-year-old kid like me, even though the girls were a couple of years older than me and couldn’t stop treating me like I was their own child. This was especially the case with Karen, who was thirteen at the time, and fancied herself as an adolescent -which she told me meant “becoming an adult” in Latin. Heidi, come to think of it, treated me less like her child and more like a doll, which didn’t really make sense because she was the one who was missing her two top front teeth, and as far as I was concerned, this made her look like she was five years old when she was actually ten years old. That means she was two years older than me!
But, as the weather grew colder, we began to lose interest in outside games, and, even though we had to spend some time outside -even if it was cold- we were able to come in after dark. In rural Maine, there isn’t much to worry about when it comes to crime, but there were plenty of coyotes out there, and it was also very, very dark outside with no streetlamps for at least a couple of miles in each direction, and a whole lot of holes and patches of hills that we could easily have fallen into or down from.
By the time Christmas season was upon us, Karen and Heidi were spending more of their time indoors, watching TV, listening to the radio, playing records, and doing girly things I wanted no part of. I was okay with this, though, because I was beginning to find Bobby more interesting, now that the frigid Maine weather was so cold that he found himself more and more home in the isolated attic bedroom he had created for himself ever since he turned 13 three years earlier.
I thought Bobby was the coolest kid around. He looked somewhat like Peter Tork, a member of the band, The Monkees, and he even had the exact same haircut. At 15, going on 16, Bobby was already taller than everyone else in the house, had a deep man-like voice, spoke like a commander when demanding his privacy in an argument with his sisters, and could be found at all times of the day playing air guitar to Black Sabbath, Areosmith, Bad Company, ELO, and Rush in a bedroom filled with smoke -the sweet, yet gamey pungent type of smoke that could only come from the drug he called weed.
For some reason, I thought Bobby was cool, even though I didn’t want to do the things that he did and even though I didn’t really like the music that he liked. It may have been the air of confidence that he carried with him as he stomped around the house, went about his business, did his laundry and chores, and talked to his friends on the phone. But, it took a long winter of going into business with Bobby for me to really get the full sense of his true greatness, or, as the late, great John Wayne would have put it, his “true grit”.
This is because in the small rural town of Saco Maine, in the harsh, deadly winter of 1980, long before the era of cell phones, and the greatly expanded population of new residents, the carving out of a large number of new roads and streets, the instalments of streetlamps, and the welcome explosion of warm, heated 24-hour chain variety stores that lit up the winter skies with their bright neon signs, Bobby was a paper boy. From Monday through Saturday in both the mornings and the early evenings, Bobby walked a seven-mile paper route that spanned from the far-apart farmlands of Southwest Saco to the woodsy, well-populated closely-settled neighborhoods of Northeast Saco. I had known about Bobby’s job for a while since I arrived in June of that year, just a few months after my Dad and I arrived at the Blaise house. But, I later learned that Bobby would often take the opportunity to hang out with his buddies and smoke week along that paper route and to chuck down some “Buds” before returning home with some cash in his pocket (neighbors would leave cash in an envelope, which he was to mail into the newspaper companies at the end of each week).
One night, not long after the animated Christmas specials began to air on TV, just a few days after Thanksgiving, Bobby asked me to join him on his paper route. Though, I later learned that his friends didn’t like to go with him during the winter months, he told me at the time that they had homework to do, which is why they couldn’t join him.
We were in his bedroom, which was also my bedroom for the time being, though his territory was clearly marked with his blacklight velvet AC/DC posters, dirty socks, opened record sleeves, and smell of weed. I was sitting Indian-legged on the floor, thumbing through the How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs when Bobby stepped up to me with his arms folded like a superhero and put the idea out there. “Listen,” he added after his initial offer, “I’ll give you two dollars each night and one dollar each morning that you work with me on the route, okay?” At that moment, I felt honored and lucky. I felt as though I was being invited into a world of business dealing, money-making, and the coolness of being an older boy who got to get out there into the world to make it on his very own. I can hear it now, the wind scraping up against the window and tapping onto the rooftop alongside the crinkly sounds of the dried, crusty leaves that made their way across the rooftop, as Bobby sold me on the idea of being his wingman. His number two. His sidekick. His co-pilot. His right hand man.
The very next afternoon, around 3:30, we headed out and made our way to the end of the long wide road we lived on. We passed by only one house, and we didn’t stop, so I assumed that Bobby didn’t deliver the Portland Daily Item there. Luckily, it wasn’t really that cold out when we started out, though we both knew that the temperature was going to drop at least fifteen degrees by the time 4:30 came about, as this part of Maine was far up North enough and close enough to the coast to bring in the kind of icy cold that only Mainers could possibly know how to prepare for.
As expected, we both were sweating, as we were slightly overdressed for the occasion -the occasion being the first hour of our two-and-a-half hour trip. The itchiness of my purple and green plaid, knit-yarn scarf annoyed me as much as its strangling over-warmth did during that first hour as we made our way from one house to another. It didn’t help matters that the houses were far apart, which means we didn’t get that kind of accomplishment feeling we were looking for, when hurling a folded-up newspaper onto a front porch or placing it gently on top of the hooks underneath the black tin mailboxes.
Another aggravating part of the first half of our route was the pain I felt on my left shoulder, having slung the canvas bag strap up over my neck, so that it clung to my right hip. Obviously, as we went further down our journey, both of our bags grew lighter as we got rid of the cargo one small newspaper at a time. This process of unloading became all the more exciting once we hit the Northeast section of Saco, where the rich folks lived with their big houses, two cars, dogs and cats, and pretty Christmas lights and plastic reindeer displays on their rooftops and front lawns. The thing is, these people’s houses were closer together, so we were unloading the Portland Daily Item at breakneck speed -which was kind of an awesome feeling. It got especially awesome once Bobby collected the envelopes with cash. A few times, he would take the cash, and chuck the envelope into his canvas bag and stretch the dollar bills out to me and wriggle his eyebrows.
“Some of these will be yours by the end of the week”, he chortled with a kind of braggartly pride that I remembered seeing on Captain Kirk from those Star Trek shows I watched on Fridays.
All in all, the first part of our trip was pretty cool, as we talked about a bunch of stuff to whittle the time away, like pretty girls on that Dance Fever show, the acid blood from the movie “Alien” and Bobby’s plans to join the Marines when he hits 18, even if he didn’t hit high school. But, the second part of the trip -most of which involved our trek back- was not nearly as fun. From around quarter to 5 all the way to just after 6, when we finally made it home, the temperature dropped nearly seventeen degrees. What made this so painful for us was that we didn’t wear gloves. Bobby demanded that we leave our gloves and mittens behind so that we took less time grabbing the slippery plastic-covered newspapers from our bags and delivering them. The faster and earlier the delivery, the sooner we get home before the air dropped into an almost arctic freeze. Plus, dinner was always ready at 6:30, and Billy Blaise -her friends, including my Dad always called her by her fall name- refused to serve anyone who was late for dinner, refusing to be “a man’s slave”, as she often put it.
Over that arduous hour of return, when we dropped off our newspapers to the other sides of the streets we had already visited, the wind picked up speed and added a whistle sound that made it scarier than the darkness that eeked into our experience… that kind of eerie, pitch black darkness that even a black crayon couldn’t capture. It was the kind of black sky that reminded me of the burnt oil that Billy Blaise’s frying pans collected after the fourth or fifth mustard and egg sandwich has been made. Though the sky was nearly all black, it wasn’t totally dark because of the stars. The stars were so luminous and clear that I could see the world around me, though not in the greatest detail. For example, I couldn’t actually see the colors of my hands -which I knew were bright red from the cold! – but I could see that they were clearly there.
So, during that hour of return, I was very, very cold. The sweat that had gathered on my scarf that annoyed me earlier with its itchiness was now icing over and rubbing up against my neck. This gave me the shivers in exactly the same way that pouring water down the front of my shirt would in the summer, only this was bitingly painful. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t want to do that in front of Bobby. For some reason, when I looked up to my right, he always seemed to be walking with a no-big-deal attitude, breathing steadily, huffing a little bit, but still breathing steadily and not all seeming like he was in pain or like he wanted to get this ordeal over with. Though I couldn’t see the expression on the face of this darkly silhouetted older boy I looked up to, I imagined that he didn’t have any emotion on his face at all. Looking back now, I guess I could almost say that Bobby had a harsh, Spartan way about him. His ability to withstand pain without complaint was something I admired. And, it’s something I was not able to do at that age, or at any age since, to be honest.
It was during the last twenty minutes or so that I began to feel the cold in my toes. By then, my hands and fingers were throbbing almost angrily, and I had grown used to it, though it still was painful. Only now, my toes were so cold that they began to feel like they were burning hot. This was the moment when I did that thing that only annoying little boys do… that thing that I quietly promised myself I wouldn’t do?
“Are we there yet?” I desperately asked, secretly imagining myself getting a smack upside the head for being such a little tag-along wimp. And to my wonder, my delight, I utter surprise, relief, and sense of rightness in the world, Bobby responded.
“I fucking hope so, little dude. I’m so fucking cold, I swear I wanna cry!” He then slapped me on the upper back in a kind-hearted older brotherly type of way and yelped, “Let’s get our asses moving!”
We then sprinted home at breakneck speed, as the wind punched up against our glassy red faces. I couldn’t see that they were red, of course, but I just knew that they were red. This was some angry, loud whistling wind smacking up against us under the icy sky and there was no way that we weren’t turning red from that! As we hobbled through the crinkly dry leaves of the now-forgotten autumn, I could almost smell the fresh mint of snowfall that was on its way in the days to come, and, though I didn’t like the agony of my hot toes and the pain of my shoulders, I was really looking forward to doing the paper route in the snow. Everyone knows that it can’t snow if it’s as cold as it was on this night. And as the Blaise house came into view, we cranked up the speed so fast, that our nearly empty canvas newspaper bags whapped against our hips and sounded like two people were frantically knocking at a neighbor’s door.
When we arrived home, Billy Blaise was making American Chop Suey in the kitchen. I could smell the ground beef and green peppers more than anything else, and as we both kicked off our shoes, the hot pain of my frozen toes began to thaw into an even more painful tingle that felt even colder than it had before it felt hotter. Bobby then tossed aside his boots and rubbed his hands together.
“Hey, do this,” he gently commanded with a mentor’s smile. “It will warm you up and take your attention away from the rest of the coldness.
“Let’s go,” Billy Blaise squawked, ushering us to the table. Karen and Heidi were already seated, eating from their slices of Wonder bread and Land O’ Lakes margarine. Jerry wasn’t there, and neither was my Dad. They both worked as bouncers at Ricky’s Tavern in downtown Saco after their long day in the shop.
I sat down at the end of the table and put my hands around the orange plastic bowl of American Chop Suey, feeling its warmth in the palms of my hands, and barely hearing Karen and Heidi talking about this or that. And when I looked up, I noticed that Bobby was giving me a “thumbs up”. Though he didn’t say anything in particular, it was clear to me that he was saying “you did good, kid.”
I thought to myself, I like Bobby, Billy Blaise and this whole place.
And I slept well that night.
*Albert S. Twirr is the pen name of Steven Lawrence
In 2009 I discovered a website called “The Guru’s Handbook”. For a good four years this site provided a nourishing influence for my teaching life, and I would drop in on the site from time to time to take in some of the insights on the deeper interpersonal (and perhaps transpersonal) dimensions of teaching practices.
After taking a sabbatical in 2012 to pursue creative writing and music projects, I fell out of touch with the website. When I returned to teaching full-time in 2015, I noticed with great disappointment that the original site was gone.
Though I searched for the author, Asher Bey, I could not find anything beyond 2013, even on the site’s Facebook page. I even searched for the URLs on the Internet Archive Wayback Machine but only came up with the defunct URLs for the individual blog posts -which appeared to be no longer available as actual posts.
By chance, I decided to follow a hunch and to comment with a question on the Guru Handbook Facebook page, expecting no answer, as the page had been inactive for a long time.
And I received an answer -presumably from Asher Bey. It turns out that the site had moved to a WordPress.com format, and, after spending some time with it, I can see that all of the original writings from the other site are included.
Over the years, I’ve come to see that it doesn’t matter how many people are reached. It only matters who. With this in mind, I am delighted to share the site with whomever comes across this blog post.
If even one person absorbs even the vague after-scent of the wisdom offered in these writings, so much the better for the students who come into contact with them.
And so much better for the world.
When I was 17, I got my first taste of the sectarian mindset when I read this book called “Why I am a Nazarene and Not a….”. The title of this book and its contents went on to bullet point why a Nazarene should not be a… Mormon, Roman Catholic, Jehova’s Witness, Seventh Day Adventist, Christian Scientist, and so on.
This was the beginning of a decades-long interest in studying different systems of belief and thought and a never-ending fascination with the question of how human beings could ever seriously consider that their own ideological framework -with its special language, concepts, practices, beliefs and unique package of enemies to fight against- could be the ONE true secular or spiritual path in history to offer liberation and harmony.
Curiously enough, many movements, including highly structured political movements and their powerful religious cousins, seem to always have a place for condemning heretics, dissidents or simply those who have found a different path or see a different perspective, which suggests a lack of real faith in the system that is being defended.
It is often said in wisdom traditions across the world that transformative change and its outward expression is intimately bound up with our own individual liberation from all forms -including the forms of personal narratives, political systems, socio-political identities, ideological beliefs and even justice work (whatever we take that to be) that we have attached ourselves to and have formed our identities around.
I make no claims here to be a liberated person (anyone who has experienced my hypomanic, passionate outbursts, knows I’m not). And I surely do get caught up in my own paradigms, beliefs, ideas, group loyalties, and unresolved personal narratives.
But, I can’t shake the idea that if we confine ourselves to working for the liberation (or simply for the interests) of only our own individual selves, our own tribes, or our own communities or even nations, we wind up trapping ourselves in a never-ending cycle of self-justification, hatred of an enemy, and the constant pressure of having to check back in with the values that have been handed to us, to make sure for ourselves and prove to others that we are on the right path.
I don’t think we can avoid living in the world without frameworks, communities, principles, beliefs, commitments and individual and collective actions against injustices.
But, I suspect that stepping out from these frameworks and looking at the raw data of our inner and outer experience might lead to a more invitational approach to the world, less hatred against one-dimensional enemies, and the discovery of a natural sense of kinship and harmony.
We live in a troubling time where racial strife and polarization between social movements and identity groups are combined with a belief among many of these groups that permanent anger and hatred against a one-dimensional enemy is the only authentic response available to us.
One need only log onto Facebook for ten minutes to learn that peace and love just aren’t cool any more.
In recent years the phrase “peacemaking” and the practice of nonviolence have become distorted in many circles -including social justice activist communities- to mean the acceptance of injustice and an attitude of wanting to stay comfortable and look the other way when people are getting hurt.
When defined in this way, most decent people would agree that peace is not a defensible aim.
Some believe that engaging with the enemy is giving the enemy legitimacy and power. They consider this engagement to be a form of “coddling” or a kind of appeasement of the sort that British Prime Minister Lord Neville Chamberlain is said to have pursued when he signed an agreement with Hitler allowing Nazi Germany to annex other lands.
Others insist that we be more militant and refer us to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” where he expressed disappointment in “white moderates” who were more interested in being comfortable and supporting the status quo than they were in pursuing social change at a pace that King felt was desperately needed.
These two historic examples and many more are frequently cited to justify the reigning culture of malice that we have come to see in both the discourse and protest tactics of the hard left and in the sociopathic cruelty of the hard right.
But, King was no Lord Chamberlain. When he spoke of militancy in that letter from his jail cell, he reminded us that when militancy becomes the only strategy left to us, it must still be grounded in love. In the words below that King spoke in another context, he makes this point very clear:
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
Power, love and justice are all connected and cannot be morally or logically separated from one another.
If any one of these elements are missing in our struggle, we are lost.
*NOTE: My friend gave me permission to re-post something he wrote onto my own social media page. At the time of this posting, I have not yet gotten his permission to post it here. But, I love this and it speaks for me, so I want to share it.
Our country was founded on the radical proposition that everyone is born equal, and should receive equal treatment under the law. Even from the very beginning we did not live up to that ideal in practice and actual governance, but our history has been one of slow, stepwise, painful movement toward it.
Too slow, and too many moments of backsliding, for far too many people who deserve better. But we cannot give up, unless we want to give up on what being America really means.
Certainly the founders had many notions of the limits of equality and citizenship that no longer apply, nor should they. They lived, as we all do, in a particular moment in time, and could no more escape history than a fish can escape the ocean. And the effects of those mental and political blinders were very, very real for the people left out of their limited concept of what equality should mean.
But there was, I think, an entelechy to the ideas worked out in the Constitution and other founding documents, that goes beyond that moment in time and its limitations. It was an idea too radical for a bunch of white, male, very well-to-do property owners, whose only model of governance was the divine rule of kings, and whose implicit idea of society was deeply hierarchical in nature, to bring to full fruition. But they wrote something down, and whatever it meant to them, it continued to resonate down through the generations and inspire not only the powerful but also the rest of us to do better.
(Equality is still a radical idea: each time we expand the circle of equality and fairness, we realize there is another circle beyond that. Our grandchildren will probably have difficulty understanding our own mental and societal limits on true equality.)
So, I understand [people’s] objection [to having pride in American heritage], and I think it’s well worth raising. I won’t try to convince [them that they’re] wrong and I’m right. I’ll just say that I believe it’s possible to be both critical of the history of our nation and at the same time see it as something worthy of inheriting and bettering in our own time.