Pundits eager to push specific areas of concern ahead on the back of Saturday’s news from UC Santa Barbara represent a varied range: pro- and anti-gun reliance; feminism and humanism; mental health and criminal justice. More to the point, the pundit audience–willing as well as passive, seems in want of having this one story be “theirs,” the essential take away from the event.
While Michael Moore declared himself unable to “respond”, the rain of assertions and opinions about which specific detail of the event requires “everyone’s” attention is playing out as a cultural battle bigger than any of the specified issues. The non-witness news-fed focus on their own reflection of the important, the urgent, and thereby miss the fact that culture is, like life, a web of interdependencies:
- Firearms intrinsically relate to mental health and to crime
- Feminism intrinsically attaches to societal expressions of humanity
- Nothing is alone in its primacy
We can broach societal problems in order–sometimes and some problems–but does that really recognize that the ordering is an artifice contrived to comfort and help us to believe in our power to change others as well as ourselves? Where does a healthy society start? How can we move beyond finding reflections of a cause with which we feel connected to connecting to a reality that is the basis of cause-identification?
This has become the season for big news sites to announce the alterations of their editorial policies, shelving public comment capacity (a defining characteristic of online news reporting, essentially a blogging actvity, over paper publication). The arguments put forth are all of a theme:
- Regret at the loss of access for democratic discussion, as well as some factual correction
- Announcing that trolls’ egregious expressions–racist virulence, ad hominem arguments, threats against other commenters as well as the original writer(s)–can most effectively be silenced by silencing all
I see another trend as related: the stories this graduation season of controversial public figures, having been invited to provide university commencement addresses then having the invitation retracted when the graduands vote against listening to whatever they might have to offer on this (future) occasion.
Demonstrative actions, including protesting public policy and political stands, and arguing against expression with responding expression are valuable and essential to a healthy society. Instead, we have evidence of our culture lurching toward censoring interchange because we seem to be over valuing the modulation of all behavior over correcting bad behavior, and closing off potential articulation lest it sound disagreeable.
Is civil discourse so all or nothing that we can’t engage in practice, in allowing good and bad models to exist, stand–or fall–to critique, open minds to possibilities each of us alone is too limited to imagine? How can we re-engage in the practice of debate?
Islands don’t choose their stream.
Back in 1985, I was lucky enough to take up now Harvard literature Professor Elaine Scarry’s first book, The Body in Pain: The making and unmaking of the world (Oxford University Press). It’s just the type of book I would not pick up planfully and am grateful, instead, to the Review Assignment gods for delivering it to me. Scarry’s asserts that the individual experiencing pain–whether as the result of intentional infliction or as a symptom of another condition–undergoes a revocation of the personal construct s/he recognizes as reality. It is not that the subject’s context undergoes objective change and yet, pain unmakes our contextual basis.
Ten years later, my house seemed to be breeding volumes by a very different Scarry: Richard Scarry, an American picture book author and artist, created a deep catalog of books in which animals of every species, anthropomorphically costumed, engage in every aspect of busyness the conscious body can express. There are books about occupations and books about vehicle use, books set in densely built cityscapes and others at sea. Scarry’s explorations of cheerful, colorful, overlapping busyness give the beholder pause: in fact, to explore Scarry’s busy world, one’s own busyness needs to be paused.
Together, these two Scarry’s taught, and reteach me when I can remember their articulations, that what I call “world”–that is, my reality–calls on me to construct insights that pain alters, and to take pauses to see that world in its busy details. Neither of these activities–recognition and pause–come readily to me as a matter of habit. Another damn good reason to read widely and catch the advisings of so many other constructivists.
“Do you ever really know when your philosophy assignment is due?” the parked car asks me. It’s a question that I’ve outgrown: there haven’t been philosophy assignments in my life for 35 years…although certainly I continue to have a related task to consider: “Do I know when my philosophy is as complete as this life–for me, the only life I get–allows?” It’s a question about acknowledging limits, about keeping Self from overgrowing into a selfish life.
“Take time to smell the roses,” which I can’t remember seeing on a bumper in decades, is the text my friend Issukee (her nom de web) adopted as her personal summation six or eight car bumpers ago. “Well behaved women never made history,” another assertion rather than a question, still floats on Subarus and Toyotas in this proto-feminist town, and is the self satisfied mantra of other friends who want the mantle of history maker more than the challenge of finding ways to make the present habitable to as many as their pairs of arms can reach (Tip: arms joined with other arms hold more of the world; when Self is subordinated to Sorge, history no longer leads as raison d’etre).
Questions move me to become more. Statements, in the manner of bumper sticker proclamation formulations, suggest the Outside Evaluator holds an upper hand that will be qick to sweep me off the map.
And so it is in my relationships as well. Assumptions are walls; questions invite the use of windows that open outside and in–showing more than already is, shedding light. To ask is to continue to live, to discover the boundaries where history hasn’t yet been “made” and the scent of roses calls as a possibility.
Four weeks ago, I had an accident that has left me with multiple broken and dislocated fingers, as well as a couple of hand sprains, affecting my dominant paw. Such events necessarily come with a quantity of learning opportunities and lessons delivered uninvited. Some are painful, others rays of sunlight through the storm clouds, the condition that gives rise to the magic of rainbows. And, like rainbows, these phenomena are facts, stripped of supposition. While the storm centers can be analysed to reveal how limited my friendships are–a broken toy is readily abandoned–the beams invite celebration:
- The London cabbie who offered nothing other than patience as we counted through what remained of my coins to make up the fare from Marleybone road to Paddington Station
- The Heathrow Express employee who came to the rescue with a magnetic strip enabled ticket device when the Tube strike’s removal of staffed ticketing booths had left me unable to purchase a ticket in the chip-and-pin only dispensers
- The barmaid at Heathrow who insisted on carrying my pint of cider and second of water to a table for me
Back home, an acquaintance who has long eschewed both me and her partner’s friendship with me willingly stepped up to cut my now-progious toe nails. A week later, another casual acquaintance responded graciously to the need for ten fingers with which to squeeze open the battery-chirping smoke alarm and insert a new battery.
In a larger view, getting along one-handed has been eased by years of observing how a variety of local folks with permanent physical challenges have managed opening jars, closing long zippers, and other seemingly small and daily chores that most of us typically bring either two mobile hands or more than six digits to resolve. Their modeling has been invaluable as I go about keeping house and self in my enforced solitude.
Another cadre of spectral glimmers are the shopkeepers in my daily life: the barista who asks about my pain level everyday, reminding me to check and contrast it with previous days, both post-injury and when I was whole; the haircutter who overcame her initial panic–what-would-I-do-if-this-happens-to-me–to joke with me; the staff at my place-of-resort who put my dinner together so that no knife is required; the postman who stacks arriving boxes of books inside my apartment, a suggestion I would never have thought to ask of anyone.
Four weeks. Lost friends. Flaming depression as well as physical pain. And, shot through all that, the wonder of the kindness of strangers. Thank you.