Monthly Archives: July 2015

You Can’t Take the Sky From Me

I don’t know what to write today. I’ve been looking for inspiration. I’ve been hoping for the mundane.

But every time my mind starts to wander, all I can think is: My father would have been 73 today. 73 if it hadn’t been for that cancerous mass in his esophagus that metastasized throughout his throat and lungs before it was even discovered. My father would have been 73.

He passed away over three years ago, and you would think that would make such an ominous anniversary less troublesome. But each year it’s merely – different.

I’ve been writing every day for over two years,  meaning that two of my father’s birthdays and two of his deathdays have passed in that time. And every time such a date rolls around I think to myself: I should write about my father.

And then I think: I’m not ready yet.

Not that I haven’t written about my father at all – he and his sayings have made a few cameos on this blog. But I haven’t paid him homage, as I have for my grandmother or for others whom I’ve lost since I began blogging.

I haven’t praised his strengths or made light of his failings. I haven’t shared his stories or described his many personas. I haven’t found those moments of joy and sorrow which perfectly capture what I want to say. I haven’t written that post, though I want to someday.

But, I think, not today.

These things take time.

People are too complicated, relationships too complex. A series of black and white shapes hardly does a whole person justice. Words hardly seem enough.

I’ll not reduce him to a two-dimensional representation. I’ll not pretend there was nothing but good times. Life is hard and complicated and messy and beautiful, and it seems a disservice to remember any life as less than that.

So I don’t know what to write. No, not today.

Maybe next year.

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Feedback

People tend to be really bad with feedback. Both giving feedback and receiving feedback. And on really a wide range of topics.

Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister has written that “Bad emotions, bad parents and bad feedback have more impact than good ones. Bad impressions and bad stereotypes are quicker to form and more resistant to disconfirmation than good ones.”

This may be in part because of neurochemistry, as Judith E. Glaser and Richard D. Glaser explain in the Harvard Business Review: “When we face criticism, rejection or fear, when we feel marginalized or minimized, our bodies produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone that shuts down the thinking center of our brains and activates conflict aversion and protection behaviors. We become more reactive and sensitive. We often perceive even greater judgment and negativity than actually exists. And these effects can last for 26 hours or more, imprinting the interaction on our memories and magnifying the impact it has on our future behavior. Cortisol functions like a sustained-release tablet – the more we ruminate about our fear, the longer the impact.”

In addition to the severe implications for those who experienced trauma, this chemical reaction has an important role in our daily lives as well.

Coupled with the challenges many of us face in accepting compliments, it can seem nearly impossible to process critical feedback in a productive way. It’s easier to deny or discredit your accuser.

This is one of the challenges at the root of white fragility – that is, when white people shut down rather than acknowledge that something they did or said was experienced as racist by a person of color.

But the experience is more universal – it is a subtle, persistent reality of every day life.

Our smallest actions can have a profound impact – both positive and negative – on those around us. But too often, we are unaware of the experiences we are leaving in our wake. How could we unless someone told us?

Feedback is one of the most cherished gifts a person can give you. They may be thanking for your words, or explaining why your actions were harmful. It may be a compliment or it may be criticism. But either way, we should appreciate what a remarkable gift it is.

When someone gives you feedback, they share a moment of their world with you. A moment you could not have seen by yourself. That is amazing. It is beautiful.

I want more of that, not less.

I want everyone to share little moments of their world with me.

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Power Creates Power

I recently finished John Gaventa’s Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in an Appalachian Valley.

The book is an in depth case study of one coal mining community. Gaventa documents how people had their land taken out from under them over 100 years ago by a huge, multinational company. He details the development of power structures separating the working poor, the local elite, and the absentee Company.

He illustrates how the very institutions intended to protect and support “the people” were turned against them: how Company power over workers’ jobs, home, and welfare led to power over their private ballots. How the union became so corrupted its leaders turned to murder rather than suffer a challenger who was slightly more populist. How those in power took both significant and subtle actions to maintain power, while those without power learned better than to even think of questioning authority.

Gaventa, who for years led the Highlander Center, sums up his study eloquently in his conclusion:

Continual defeat gives rise not only to the conscious deferral of action but also to a sense of defeat, or a sense of powerlessness, that may affect the consciousness of potential challengers about grievances, strategies or possibilities for change. Participation denied over time may lead to acceptance of the role of non-participation, as well as to a failure to develop the political resources – skills, organization, consciousness – of political action. Power relationships may develop routines of non-challenge which require no particular action on the part of powerholders to be maintained…

From this perspective, the total impact of a power relationship is more than the sum of its parts. Power serves to create power. Powerlessness serves to re-enforce powerlessness. Power relationships, once established, are self-sustaining. Quiescence [inaction] in the face of inequalities may be understood only in terms of the inertia of the situation. For this reason, power in a given community can never be understood simply by observation at a given point in time. Historical investigation must occur to discover whether routines of non-conflict have been shaped, and, if so, how they are maintained.

This last point is particularly critical – too often we forget that the “impact of a power relationship is more than the sum of its parts.” We forget that these relationships are self-sustaining, with power creating power and powerlessness creating powerlessness.

The result is that we all find ourselves caught in a power structure not of our own making. We may consciously or unconsciously act in ways which reinforce or resist that structure. We may or may not even recognize a power structure is there.

Paulo Freire recognized this, too, arguing in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

As the oppressed, fighting to be human, take away the oppressors’ power to dominate and suppress, they restore to the oppressors the humanity they had lost in the exercise of oppression.

It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors. The latter, as an oppressive class, can free neither others nor themselves.

That is to say, we are all caught in this power structure, but it is only the oppressed who can save us.

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La Japonaise

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has recently come under fire for inviting patrons to “Channel your inner Camille Monet and try on a replica of the kimono she’s wearing in La Japonaise.”

It’s worth taking a moment to look at the image they used to promote the opportunity: A white American woman pretending to be a white French woman pretending to be Japanese. There’s a lot going on there.

After several complaints from Boston’s Asian American community, the MFA has decided to remove the dress up portion of the activity, instead inviting guests to “touch and engage with” the kimonos, but “not to try on.”

I’ve seen this story pop up on my newsfeed the last few days, but it really caught my attention with the morning news announced the change from the MFA.

The (white) news anchors said that the MFA received “a small number of complaints” from a “handful of activists.” They added that the MFA initially responded that it would continue with the demonstrations, but eventually shifted their position after the complaints “went viral.”

The news anchors expressed general confusion as to why anyone was offended by the exhibit, and appeared disheartened that the MFA had changed it’s policy in response what they saw as a small number of protestors. They called it a case of “political correctness going to far.”

That got my attention.

Now. I do appreciate a general concern about the dangers of political correctness. The last thing that serves a productive conversation about race is an atmosphere in which people feel shut down from expressing themselves – where they’d rather say nothing than run the risk of saying the wrong thing. This is the approach that led to the fallacy of a “color blind” society – as if denying our problems would make them go away.

But “political correctness gone to far” is also a conveniently safe out for people who don’t see – or don’t want to see – a problem.

Frankly, when you have a group of Asian Americans saying they find an exhibit of Kimono dress-up offensive, I think you have to stop and try to understand why they feel that way. It doesn’t matter whether you don’t find it offensive – it’s about not thoughtlessly discrediting someone with a different view from you.

Blogger Evan Smith has a great post explaining why the “be Camille Monet” activity is problematic:

The painting in question, a work from 1876, is a singular example of Orientalism, a tradition in Western art that broadly caricatures regions as disparate as North Africa and East Asia with the aim of cultivating a Romantic visual language around Western cultural imperialism. Japonisme, the particular subset of Orientalism that Monet’s canvas depicts, is a loose interpretation of Japanese culture by French aesthetes marked by ornamentation, hyper-femininity and a sense of escapism bordering on pure fantasy. In La Japonaise the artificiality of the genre is underscored by the blonde wig Camille donned when posing for the painting in order to emphasize her whiteness, contrasting her body to the Otherness of her garments and surroundings.

That’s not to say we need to dismiss the artwork all together, but neither should we celebrate the Orientalism it embodies.

The painting took place less than 30 years after Commodore Perry’s “opening of Japan.” It was a time when Europeans were fascinated by the “topsy turvey” world of Japanese culture – seen as both civilized and barbaric.

In fairness, the Japanese were equally intrigued by European culture – seen as both civilized and barbaric. And there is some great Japanese art that depicts the ape-ishness of Europeans, just as European art captured the beauty and brutality they saw in Japan.

Orientalism was an important movement in European culture, and it seems reasonable that Western society should study it, seek to understand it, and possibly even celebrate the art that came out of it.

But we shouldn’t seek to recreate it.

We should seek to appreciate and understand other cultures, not seek to appropriate them. We shouldn’t celebrate their seeming exoticism, but seek to truly understand them.

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Stuyvesant Town

I am just returning from a weekend in New York, where I spent part of my time at Stuyvesant Town, or Stuy Town as it is more colloquially known.

Stuy Town and the adjoining Peter Cooper Village are a large post-World War II development originally conceived as housing for returning veterans and their families.

Covering 80 acres, 110 buildings, and 11,250 apartments, the development is the largest apartment complex in Manhattan and feels somewhat out of place in the dense urban center. There are trees and fireflies. Water features and basketball courts.

Previously, the area had been the Gashouse District – full of large, leaking gas tanks and people whose poverty kept them from living anywhere else.

In the early 1940s, the land was taken by eminent domain – a controversial move since the land was then owned and developed by Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Supporters argued that the government needed to “induce insurance companies and savings banks to enter the field of large-scale slum clearance.”

To make room for the new development, 600 buildings, containing 3,100 families, 500 stores and small factories, three churches, three schools, and two theaters were razed. The New York Times called it “the greatest and most significant mass movement of families in New York’s history.”

And the controversy didn’t end there. After law makers declined to add a nondiscrimination clause to MetLife’s contract, the company barred blacks, with the company’s president Frederick H. Ecker arguing that “negroes and whites do not mix.”

The property has changed hands since then – and updated their applicant requirements – but it remains a private property with privately controlled rules. This felt particularly weird for a development that feels very much like a small town.

The development does have a very active tenants association, but I somehow expected more than that. I wanted there to be an egalitarian governing council that would oversee decisions about improvements and moderate tenant conflicts.

Stuyvesant Town is now Manhattan’s largest, and possibly last, “bastion of affordable housing,” having itself expelled poor people for a more refined, middle class community.

And there it stands, a monument to good intentions and the deep challenges of urban planning.

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Agency

Social psychologist Geert Hofstede is perhaps most well known for his construction of cultural dimensions. Hofstede considers culture as “the collective programming of the mind distinguishing the members of one group or category of people from others.”

Among his six dimensions of culture, Hofstede evaluates a society’s “Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV).” Hofstede explains:

The fundamental issue addressed by this dimension is the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members. It has to do with whether people´s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In Collectivist societies people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.

The United States, as conventional wisdom would indicate, is more individualistic than collectivist.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, because in some ways that finding seems at odds with the lack of agency experienced by so many Americans – particularly people of color, those living in poverty, and others who are marginalized in our society.

As Kelly Oliver argues in The Colonization of Psychic Space: “One’s sense of oneself as a subject with agency is profoundly affected by one’s social position.”

Being an individualistic society, then, puts oppressed people in a double-bind. While Hofstede finds that American society expects “that people look after themselves and their immediate families only and should not rely (too much) on authorities for support,” the message to oppressed people consistently undermines their own sense of agency and self-efficacy.

Frankly, I was always somewhat skeptical of Hofstede’s anaylsis, and not only because he also has a masculinity/femininity scale defined as “wanting to be the best (Masculine) or liking what you do (Feminine).”

But the idea of America as an individualistic place, where everyone’s expected to pull themselves up by their bootstraps…that just sounds like the line you’d get out of the ol’ boys network.

Surely, that has long been an element of our culture, and has often been a strongly expressed element of our culture, but it doesn’t speak for all of us and it doesn’t speak for me.

Oliver argues that “by resisting oppression, one regains a sense of oneself as an agent,” and that the process of resistance can be healing insofar as it can help build agency.

So let’s all, collectively, reject the narrative of an individualistic America. Let us collectively lift each other up and work together to change the dominant narrative. This is our country and we can shape it.

Happy Fourth of July.

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Mobilizing a Movement: A Pro-Life Case Study

I heard a statistic last week which blew my mind: half of all pro-life advocates start as neutral or even pro-choice. Brought into the movement through social networks, these people eventually convert their view points and become pro-life activists.

In a classic case of the backfire effect, I simply refused to believe the speaker. Pro-choice supporters don’t become pro-life advocates to fit in with a different social group. That’s crazy talk.

So I looked into it a little more.

In The Making of Pro-life Activists: How Social Movement Mobilization WorksZiad W. Munson documents the mobilization efforts of pro-life activists around the country. His initial goal was to understand the difference between mobilized activists and unmobilized supporters. But as he studied mobilization he found this question didn’t make sense: activists were mobilized from a broader pool than simply unmobilized supporters. As Munson explains:

One of the central arguments of this book is that individuals get involved in pro-life activism before they develop solid beliefs or firm ideas about abortion. Individuals mobilized into the pro-life movement in fact begin the mobilization process with a surprisingly diverse range of ideas about the issue. A quarter of those who are now activists were more sympathetic to the movement’s opponents when they first became involved, expressing beliefs that abortion should be a woman’s right or that abortion is (at least sometimes) morally acceptable. Only after they participated in pro-life movement activities did their views begin to change. Another quarter of all activists first became mobilized with an ambivalent attitude towards the issue. They saw valid arguments on both sides of the controversy and admit that they could have been persuaded either way about abortion.

…This argument does not claim that individuals have no ideas about abortion before they get involved in the movement, nor that everyone is equally likely to become mobilized regardless of his or her preexisting beliefs. Some individuals, because of their person biographies and beliefs, are more likely to know others who are involved in the movement and thus are more likely to come into personal contact with the movement – a key condition in the mobilization process. And although fully a quarter of the activists once held pro-choice views, none of them were strongly invested in this position or were active on the other side of the debate. The point is not that people are completely empty vessels, waiting to be filled with ideas from social movements, but only that our view of social movement activity as expressive behavior that presupposes commitment misses the mark.

That made me feel much better about the initial statistic – which had sounded like liberal activists suddenly become conservative ones. The number started to make a lot more sense: when people with generally ambivalent views become engaged in the work, they develop stronger views.

Munson adds that the half of pro-life activists who started with pro-life beliefs held only “thin beliefs” on the topic: their views were “poorly thought out, often contradictory, and seldom related to a larger moral vision.”

This way of understanding social movement mobilization raises important questions about socialization and group interactions. It emphasizes the importance of social and collaborative relationships, of engaging together in working to make change. And it highlights the importance of dissension, of creating spaces where all ideas are robustly considered.

And perhaps most fundamentally, it demonstrates the critical role of civic education: people can form their views on issues later, but we need to educate them to think coherently and critically, to learn from others but to form their own opinions, to be skeptical of popular opinions. And we need to teach them to explore all sides of an issue as they begin to get involved, to seek out ideas and opinions which differ from the ones the are forming.

Otherwise…they may just find themselves as activists on the wrong side of an issue!

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