It’s Time to Write Better Stories

We are not who we have pretended to be. Over the past year, many of us have been appalled as more and more of us simply stopped pretending. This morning, many of us are in disbelief that a presidency has been won on the hostility harbored by those of us who have been compelled to pretend for so long.

As a queer, black woman I cannot deny that I have been a long time beneficiary of the pretense. It has allowed me to navigate my world with illusions of belonging, safety, and inclusion. But it has always, to some degree, felt counterfeit.

Many of us have long struggled against the fact that the pretense that affords so many a measure of safety and comfort has also produced a climate in which the existence of the phobias and -isms that roil beneath the surface can be denied. Let this struggle end today, because we have voted and the result sent the resounding message, “I should not have to pretend, especially not for you.”

The veil has been lifted and the mirror awaits us this morning. In it, the cult of American individualism that feeds and nourishes xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and religious intolerance so efficiently is daring us to avert our gaze, daring us to keep pretending. We are a nation that prioritizes individual gain over collective dignity, profit-making over equality, fear over compassion, protectionism over diversity. There is no sense in pretending we are not, not this morning, not ever again.

To those of us inclined to feel that we have taken a step backward, look hard. I think we have to admit we have not stepped anywhere, we were just pretending to be somewhere else. And, frankly, that fiction was wearing thin–its plots riddled with yawning holes and inconsistencies, its characters utterly unconvincing. We were telling ourselves bad stories.

Today, we start writing new stories. Mine begins, “I held my wife in my arms this morning and we cried in the dark, mourning the passing of the pretense because though it was not real, it was good.” This, I think, is a challenging first sentence, but an excellent prompt–world of potential to write what comes next is hidden in that line. And anyway, the old story is dead.

I Thought it was Hate, but it might be Laziness that’s Tearing Us Apart

I will come right out and admit it.

I have been hiding, shielding myself from current events, only spoon-feeding myself the barest facts about the horrors that have gripped our nation for the past week.  I have almost entirely closed my eyes to social media, not wanting to slog through the mire of knee-jerk responses, hateful trolling, and outright stupidity.  This is, for those who know me, a nearly total reversal of course.

It will be temporary, but right now, for my own reasons…I just can’t.

I acknowledge that this ability, to turn down and tune out, is one born of my conditions of privilege.  There are many who do not have this option.  I do not feel guilty for taking advantage of this privilege in order to attend to my heath right now  (mental and physical), but I am a firm believer that my privilege confers responsibility.  I am responsible for paying forward the wellbeing my privilege affords me today and I feel this responsibility even more acutely when I am unable to meet the bar.  Soon, efforts will be redoubled, risk taken, sh*t kicked, but for now I am resting and healing.

One of the few pieces of media that I have managed to consume over the past few days was this tweet from former congressman and nationally syndicated radio host Joe Walsh.  (Yes, this is the same Joe Walsh who garnered hours of media attention for his tweet declaring war against POTUS and the Black Lives Matter movement).

walsh_tweet

However, I want to set aside the generally heinousness nature of Mr. Walsh’s rhetoric.  It is exhausting and thoroughly unoriginal.  Rather, I want to draw attention to a number of “formal” elements of this tweet in particular, because they seem–depressingly enough–to be emblematic of a set of emerging genre conventions.

The Importance of Genre

Some of you are rolling your eyes.  You are thinking, “leave it to an academic to undertake something as esoteric as a genre analysis of a tweet in response to some really heavy, really real f*ckery going on in the world. Enjoy the ivory tower a**hole!”  It’s okay.  I think this way a lot of the time.  It happens to be one of my most frequent modes of self-critique.  But I am giving myself some leeway on this one and I hope the eye-rollers among you will give me a moment to explain.

Merriam-Webster defines a genre as “a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content.” I think most of us have the intellectual flexibility to extend the concept of genre beyond texts and artifacts that are traditionally understood as artistic, musical, or literary compositions to elements of popular culture–even to tweets.  But genre isn’t just about classification.  Genre does more than simply group things that are alike.  Genre establishes expectations, contextualizes our perceptions, and serves as criteria for making subjective judgments.  In short, genre is a technology for shaping meaning and in this way it can shape the way we experience and understand the world around us.

Take a banal example: the rom-com.  The romantic comedy’s genre conventions are so ubiquitous and so firmly codified that most adults of my age could draft a screenplay for a Meg Ryan flick in a couple of hours.  Now, imagine staring at a blank screen. You are going to watch a rom-com. The opening credits have not yet begun, but you already know some things.  You know that if circumstances conspire to keep the protagonist and their love interest apart, this is not occasion to mourn–things will eventually work out.  You know that frequent acts of stalking and codependent obsessiveness should be understood as “romantic devotion.”  You know, almost precisely, the contours of the unthreatening, nostalgia-tinged bemusement you will feel when the closing credits roll.  In knowing the genre, you know what to expect, you know how to understand the actions that unfold, and you will make judgements about the quality of this particular rom-com based on a set of largely-unspoken “rules” for this kind of film.

I used a thoroughly Hollywood example for a reason.  Hollywood recognized something in the power of genre that is often taken for granted. That is, genre provides a set of shortcuts.  Recycling sets, plots, characters archetypes, and methods of developing conflict makes filmmaking simpler (and more importantly, cheaper).  It makes film-watching efficient and satisfying for viewers in the way that wearing a threadbare T-shirt you’ve owned for 20 years can be.  And most pursuant to the argument I am making in this blog post, it cultivates a particular kind of laziness.

Genres in (t)ruth-Telling

What happens when we aren’t talking about films, or literature, or music, etc?  What happens when we are talking about politicians and influential media personalities?  What happens when we aren’t talking about the fine arts, but the art of persuasion–the art of telling the (t)ruth?  More importantly, what are the consequences of making shortcuts in (t)ruth-telling?  What happens when genre cultivates laziness among the producers and consumers of the (t)ruth?  We can use Mr. Walsh’s tweet above to delve into this question.

Let’s name this emerging genre. Betty Friedan taught us long ago that problems that go unnamed can be particularly insidious.  I’ll call it the Twitter Factish (Yes, this is nod to Bruno Latour. You’ll just have to come to terms with my Latourian ways).  In spite of copious amounts of evidence that it may be unrealistic, there still exists an expectation that information shared and spread by politicians and influential media personalities should be, at least on some level, true.  Thus the Twitter Factish, being pseudo-journalistic as a consequence of its authorship, is a (t)ruth-telling genre.  Specifically, it establishes the expectation that the content of the tweet has a degree of veracity than can be taken for granted,  it prompts consumers to contextualize the information communicated by these tweets as accurate summaries of complex issues, and it provides consumers with criteria with which to make “justifiable” value judgments.

Three observable genre conventions in particular facilitate these functions.

The Slight

The slight is generally a thinly-veiled negative assessment of an opposing person, group, and/or discourse. In this case, the tweet above came in the middle of Mr. Walsh’s twitter-storm, railing against social justice activists and POTUS (because, you know, it’s always Obama’s fault), both of whom expressed outrage over the shooting death of Alton Sterling.  Mr. Walsh’s statement that “Facts are stubborn things” accomplishes two things.  First, it establishes he and his followers as “users of facts” and by suggestion those with whom he disagrees with as “ignorers of facts,” allowing consumers of this tweet to make a negative value judgment of the opposition (they are ignorant, mislead, or delusional, etc.).  Second, it reinforces the expectation that tweets from Mr. Walsh are acts of (t)ruth-telling–as “facts” are (allegedly) deployed in the interest of (t)ruth.  (Yes, this is a little bit of cynicism.  Forgive me.)

The Reduction

The reduction involves a distillation of complex information to a single “takeaway.”  Twitter’s 140 character limit provides an excellent excuse for egregious generalizations and omissions.  In our example, Mr. Walsh states, “More white people die from cops than blacks” and provides completely unexplained “statistics” from 2015.  Immediately, we are to understand that this “fact” is the evidence that fact-users like Mr. Walsh and his supporters are presenting to undermine the legitimacy of  Black Lives Matter activists and anyone suggesting that the use of deadly force on the part of police might be influenced by race.

First, it’s worth noting that Mr. Walsh chose to use an oddly clunky phrasing when he might have used the more grammatically clear statement, “more white people killed by cops than blacks” for the same number of characters.  The differences between the verbs “die” (speculative and without specific culpability) and “killed” (concrete in the past tense and with very specific culpability)  shouldn’t go unnoticed.

But the more significant aspect of this reduction is how it strips this issue of complexity and thus distorts it enormously.  Mr. Walsh extracted two pieces of numerical information from a link (discussed below) that in turn extracted slightly more information from a Washington Post article detailing demographics about the number of people fatally shot by police in 2105.  From what was originally a wealth of information, Mr. Walsh reduced the “facts” to one–494 white individuals were fatally shot by police and 258 black individuals were fatally shot by police in 2015.  With this he made his argument…one is more than the other.

This is astonishing.

Let’s put aside for moment that the original source data reports  that 990 people were shot and killed by police in 2015 (an alarming number in itself).  What should be obvious here is that if race were not a significant factor in police fatalities, these fatalities should be occurring at a rate that is relatively consistent with the racial distribution of the general population. Some very quick math reveals that this is not the case. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 population estimates, white Americans make up 77.5% of the population and black Americans make up 13.2% of the population.  The data that Mr. Walsh (sort of but not really) cited reveals that in 2015, white Americans accounted for just 50% of fatal police shooting deaths and black Americans for 26%.  Thus, independent of reasons, it’s abundantly clear that black Americans are fatally shot by police at a much higher rate than white Americans.

But I don’t think we should stop investigating here.  It’s worthwhile to ask what the causes of these disproportional uses of fatal force might be.  The article that Mr. Walsh linked to in his tweet uses a spurious correlation to black-on-black homicide (which for the record occurs at only slightly higher rates than white-on-white homicide) to suggest that disproportionally high rates of fatal shootings by police among blacks are explained by unusually high rates of criminality in black communities.

Again, this is a reductive deployment of “facts.”  There are, in fact, higher documented rates of certain types of criminality in black communities.  However, it is important to consider two very important pieces of contextualizing information.  First, high rates of criminality in black communities are not a product of the race of the residents.  Rather, high rates of criminality in these communities is correlated with poverty.  For example, recent research published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics has uncovered some interesting trends about the correlation between violent crime and poverty.  Three of the most interesting findings are:

  • “Persons in poor households at or below the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) had more than double the rate of violent victimization as persons in high-income households.”
  • “Poor persons living in urban areas had violent victimization rates similar to poor persons living in rural areas”
  • “Poor urban blacks had rates of violence similar to poor urban whites.”

These data suggest that poverty, not race or neighborhood character, is the strongest predictor of violent victimization (being the victim of a violent crime)–and I think it’s reasonable to assume that the rates of falling victim to a violent crime in any given location are strongly correlated with the rates of commission of violent crimes in the same area.  Thus, the underlying issue is not that blacks (and thus black neighborhoods) are inherently more criminal, but that disproportionality more blacks live in poverty.  And while poverty has its own set of complex causes, we are a nation that is only half a century removed from a time when it was commonplace and perfectly legal to deny people housing (1968), jobs (1965), and educational opportunities (1954) based on their skin color.  When you consider that countless academic studies have determined that the strongest predictors of economic success are 1) parent income and 2) educational attainment (and that a recent Pell Institute study has determined that household income is the strongest predictor of college completion), it is very easy contextualize disproportionately high rates of poverty among blacks within a very recent history of systemic disadvantage.

The second piece of information has to do with the self-fulfilling nature of policing.  If impoverished black communities are understood to be more criminal, they are more actively policed.  More active policing results in more convictions.  More convictions provide justification for more policing.  The cycle continues.  But it’s important to understand that comparatively more documented criminal activity is at least in part a product of more active policing rather than more criminality.  Take for example recreational marijuana usage, still considered a criminal activity in most states, and something of a central focus of criminality among young urban black people.  Numerous peer-reviewed studies like this one and this one (not to mention the anecdotal information of anyone who has set foot on a residential college campus), suggest that marijuana usage is significantly higher among suburban (mostly white) young people than it is among young urban (mostly black) young people.  I think it’s worth asking, what if there was more active policing in these suburban communities?  Would this result in more documented arrests for possession and distribution?

I could go on digging into this information, speculating about causes, making connections and interpreting correlations.  The process of doing so wouldn’t lead me to simpler answers, rather it would lead me to assemble a more complex, and in its complexity a more accurate, picture of contemporary American society.  I happen to believe that this is how it should be–that (t)ruth-seeking should be a movement toward complexity and detail, that questions not statements should drive this process, that provisionality rather than certainly is the only ethical way to consider issues that are so obviously multifaceted.

The Link

The link is generally an explicit reference to external source material, whether it is an explicit hyperlink or simply an allusion to some colluding “authority.”  Interestingly, the link often does little more than provide a headline and featured image.  The fact of its existence, within the Twitter Factish genre, testifies for its legitimacy.  That is, we are not supposed to question the credibility or rigor of the source–blogs, fringe political websites, listicles, and memes created by neo-nazi sympathizers are all rendered credible source material by the Twitter Factish.  Even more unbelievably, politicians and media personalities no longer seem to think it necessary to vet the quality of the source material they use.

Symptom of a Trend toward Dangerous Laziness

When the Twitter Factish is put to work, much like Hollywood film genres, it cultivates a certain kind of laziness.  But instead of the result being bad formulaic movies, the result is dangerous reactionary thought.  It lulls social media audiences into accepting that tweets like Mr. Walsh’s above are the (t)ruth, when just a small amount of intellectual effort would uncover that the numbers he presented raise important questions at best and totally contradict his own argument through an act of racially-biased omission at worst.  When deployed as a genre of (t)ruth-telling, Twitter Factishes serve as the basis for people to make wildly unfair judgements about their fellow Americans.  They encourage people to reduce complex issues to ahistorical talking points with no consideration of context or history.

Of course the Twitter Factish is not itself the problem, but a symptom of what I personally (yes, I am owning this) believe might be a bigger problem than hate–or rather I believe that we might have the order of operations all wrong.  I have always believed that hate and fear makes people lazy thinkers, that hate motivates people to uncritically believe anything that justifies these emotions.  But I am starting to believe that it is just as likely that laziness makes people hateful and afraid.

I also want to be clear that while I used an example from a prominent (or at least loud) voice on the right, this kind of laziness is common in all camps.  The laziness that allows Mr. Walsh to reduce Black Lives Matter to an unjustified anti-police movement is matched by an equally dangerous laziness on the part of some activists who have arrived at the ridiculous conclusion that all police are malicious racists.  I, for one, am proof that it is more than possible to simultaneously support the goals of the Black Lives Matter movement and be extremely supportive of and sympathetic toward our police.   The laziness that empowers some people to loudly pronounce that rape culture does not exist is matched by the laziness that behind the assertion that if college football and fraternities were outlawed the problem would go somehow go away.  The laziness behind the mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is matched by the laziness in assuming that the underlying causes of violence would be completely resolved if firearms were banned.

Things…particularly important things…are just not that easy. Courting nuance is hard and often frustrating work.  There are rarely satisfying answers to be had in such an approach to looking at the world.  But there are rewards–immeasuably awesome rewards–for undertaking this hard work.  I happen to think increases in compassion, reductions in hatred and fear, more effective perspective-taking, and more solution-orienated thinking are chief among them.

Guns don’t Kill People; People kill People….And as a PEOPLE, Americans can’t handle Laissez Faire Gun Control

This post has been a “draft” in my WordPress dashboard for more than six months.  I have started and stopped writing it more times than I can count .  Before today, I’ve always decided that the can of worms this may open up (not to mention the tiresome social media trolls who generally rally to call me names when I put an argument that they find unpopular out there) is more than enough reason to shelve the draft for another day.

Today is another day.

Let me start out by making clear my position on gun ownership in the United States.  I am not a fan of guns.  Guns are not and will never be welcome in my home.  I work hard to teach my kid the dangers of the “shoot first, think later” mentality that is spreading across our nation like a cancer–and particularly what that means for him as a little brown-skinned boy.

However, I am not an advocate of gun bans.  If for no other reason, the toothpaste is already out of the proverbial tube and I genuinely believe it would be folly (and I suspect very dangerous) to try to put it back in.  Moreover, I count a number of responsible gun enthusiasts among my friends.  My people come from parts of the rural south where a gun is as practical and necessary a tool as an axe.  I have family (some immediate) who have served in the military and in law enforcement, and (however sad it makes me), I recognize the necessity of carrying firearms in their jobs.

Map of civilian guns per capita by country according to the “Small Arms Survey 2007”

 

 

I am, however, a strong advocate of gun control.  If we are going to boast the highest rates of civilian gun ownership in the world, we need make sure we can do so reasonably and safely.  And as it stands, we are nowhere close to this state.  Perhaps we can get there in time, but currently Americans can’t handle laissez faire gun control.

This assessment has little to do with “bad people” or “bad intentions,” but rather broad social and ideological trends that when mixed with lax firearm control make for an environment that is more dangerous for all of us.  Specifically, our practice of vulgar constitutionalism, propensity toward a-historicism, willingness to accept social injustice as the status quo, and profound lack of human compassion are critically important reasons why private gun ownership should be (at least for the time being) heavily regulated.

Realizing that I will have a lot to say on these matters, I have decided to break this post into four parts, exploring each of these trends in a separate post.  First up…

Vulgar Constitutionalism

I use the term “vulgar constitutionalism” to refer to the literal, uncomplicated reading of the Constitution of the United States, without nuance, contemplation, and with no attempt or willingness to consider context as a necessary part of contemporary constitutional interpretation.  It should be no surprise that vulgar constitutionalism often comes hand-in-hand with “convenient constitutionalism.”  That is, fanatical purism with regard to limited parts of the Constitution, coupled with total ignorance or ambivalence about the rest.  Vulgar constitutionalism is on display everywhere, loudly proclaimed by presidential hopefuls, flags, t-shirts, tattoos, and bumperstickers that worship the right to bear arms. And these are painfully often the trappings of individuals who have no clue what rights and protections are ensured by say…the 8th, 13th, 15th, 19th, or 21st Amendments (these happen to be my favorites).

Vulgar constitutionalism has progressed to the point where the assertion, “it’s in the Constitution” has become a substitute for serious thought, open discourse, and consideration of the nation’s welfare as a whole.  Far from being a rallying cry of a well-minded patriotism, it has become a slogan of rabid self-interest.

I happen to believe that the founding fathers of this nation accomplished something remarkable when they composed the Constitution of the United States.  Contrary to the “vulgar” point of view, history tells us that they did not simply sit down and prosthelytize, chiseling into stone a set of “Truths” that would be applicable in perpetuity.  They drafted, re-drafted, debated, compromised, and through sustained acts of diplomacy were able to produce a profoundly adaptable document.  They were men of incredible foresight, imbuing this document with sensitivity to change by providing provisions for its amendment (and admirably designing the process so that minority opinions are not automatically overrun). Our founding fathers knew then that the context in which they drafted the Constitution would not endure and that with the change of context, the document and our interpretations of it would need to change as well.

Vulgar constitutionalism encourages us to ignore this, one of the more brilliant features of our founding document, and take the 2nd Amendment wildly out of context.  

The 2nd Amendment was drafted in the context of a revolutionary war.  It was drafted by a young, politically and economically piecemeal nation that had just seized control of the colonies of a very old, actively aggressive, imperial power.  The “right to bear arms” was not merely matter of principle, but a necessity for a young country with a nascent (and at the time quite controversial) Continental Army. Citizen militias were necessary, both to populate and (perhaps more importantly) to pay for the war in which they were actively fighting. They were also ideologically consistent with the times.  The 2nd Amendment was a carryover from English law, where distaste for standing armies (particularly in the context of feudal society) was both common and extreme.

Thus, this context shines through when we read,  “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  It is noteworthy that haphazard private ownership was clearly not the subject of this Amendment, but the ability of citizens to be equipped to constitute with a “well-regulated” (aka centrally-led and monitored) military force.

Needless to say, the context has changed.  We are not underdogs, engaged in a improbable revolutionary war with an oppressive colonial power.  Winning or losing our wars  is no longer dependent upon farmers subsidizing the army with their bodies and equipment (we take taxes for that).  We have forgone the need for citizen militias and grown comfortable with a massive standing military–one that utilizes roughly 20 percent of the United States federal budget and consumes a 30 percent of our tax revenues.  Our military budget alone accounts for 40 percent of global arms spending.

On the other hand, it is also clear that the founding fathers intended to protect citizens from their own government.  Empowering Americans to organize citizen militias in the extreme case that our central government becomes fundamentally oppressive.  (For example, if the government does something whacky like declare that we can’t own slaves anymore, we have the freedom to get together and kill a lot of people in attempt to protect the right to treat human beings like livestock…just an example).  Again, I will point out that the context in which this document was created both explains and mitigates such a concern.  And through it all, the original language is measured and provisional, stipulating that an armed citizenry is not purely a matter of contextless fancy, but is valuable insofar as it is “necessary to the security of a free State.”

In the bombastic rhetorical environment of the day, there are an alarming number of people who equate “free state” with “doing whatever the hell I want without having to pay taxes or acknowledge the humanity or legal standing of people who are different than me,” and thus feel justified in taking up arms.  We have become entitled and whiny in our incredible condition of privilege here in the U.S., the wealthiest, most excessive, and most wasteful society on the planet.  This assessment of “lost freedom” is an embarrassment.

Moreover, the context of public safety was vastly different when the Constitution was penned. Semi- and fully-automatic weaponry, high powered ammunition, and high-capacity magazines where not realities in that world.  In fact, simple multi-shot revolving handguns weren’t mass produced until 1835.  The notion of all citizens (and please recall this essentially meant land-owning white men at the time) owning guns presents a vastly different and exponentially safer picture when we are talking about slow-loading, single charge, relatively short range firearms.

I believe it is more than reasonable to consider if our founding fathers (men smart enough to draft a Constitution that can adapt to change) might have thought differently about the 2nd Amendment if they had to draft it in our contemporary context.  I doubt they could have imagined that the citizens of a powerful, wealthy, free nation with a massive standing army would be in need of the kind of firepower modern firearms afford us.  I doubt they would have fathomed our current ability and propensity to kill in their wildest dreams.  And I doubt they would have respected our reasons for wanting to preserve this remarkable deadly force, as gun ownership now has very little to do with defending a politically and economically “free state” from would-be colonizers.

This is all speculation of course.  And the good thing is that we do not have to speculate.  The Constitution encourages us to think about our “now” and to differentiate it from “then,” to evaluate our “now,” and make choices that preserve individual liberties and ensure the public welfare.  We are empowered to make decisions about what INFRINGE means in reference to our current social, political, and economic context. We are empowered to understand that the 2nd Amendment protects our right two own and use guns, but that the conditions of that ownership and use are (and have always been) subject to the dictates of criminal law as decided upon and enforced by States.

Until we are able to engage our Constitution intelligently, we have no business using it to justify preserving the ability to commit horrendous acts of mass destruction with impunity.  And as I will argue in the upcoming parts of this blog, I believe a vulgar interpretation of the 2nd Amendment achieves neither of central aims of the Constitution–it does not preserve the liberty of ALL citizens and certainly is doing little for the public good that could not also be achieved with common sense gun control.