When a man shows us how cowardly, ignorant, and petty he is, we should believe him. We should not expect him to change. We should not expect him to become better. We should not expect him to stop being a bully when he is given power in addition to a bully pulpit. This man has shown us who he is, and he will be exactly the same for the next four years—but with power to remake the country with his actions and not just his words.
He has muzzled scientists and set in motion actions that, without exaggeration, will drive climate change from manageable disaster to runaway cataclysm. And he denies it exists. He has taken action to attack Americans, to strip us of our rights, and to expel us from the country. And he denies we deserve otherwise. He has decreed the building of an edifice of exclusion, and denied that we will pay the price.
And he has whined and complained about the depth of opposition to his dictatorial ambitions. Like any coward, he only knows how to silence those who critique him. A leader would strive to be better; this man strives for nothing.
Has it only been a week? There are so many more to come. The temptation to look away is strong—but despair, especially, we must resist.
And here we are, marking the passing of one era into another. I want to be optimistic, but I can’t. I can see how some people are, because for them, this was the last chance. They’ve been watching their jobs and communities withering away, and they blame regulation and government and outsiders. For them, this seems like a hopeful moment, when maybe something will change and the days will return when all you needed to get a good job was a high school degree and determination.
Those days will not return. It wasn’t government that took them, nor regulation, nor outsiders: the world has just changed, and it changed as a direct consequence of those days. America, as much as any nation, has insisted on a global role, and yet being an economic “leader” in the world doesn’t mean good jobs anymore—it means cheap jobs, and money concentrated in the hands of the powerful, and the rest of us are just grist.
Trump can’t fix this world any more than Obama could. Obama said “yes we can,” but his best wasn’t good enough. Trump says a bunch of vague things about how he will, and people believe him. They believe him because they want to. As a consequence of that deep and understandable yearning, an entire section of the country is embracing a great fiction. Here is the fiction:
Simplicity is an enduringly attractive ideal. The clarification of mind and idea brings with it a singularity of focus and purpose, a drive to act, and a knowledge of what is right. To boil down a problem to its essence gives us confidence that we understand, and the ability the reason, we think, more adroitly. Nodding our heads, we proclaim that we understand—yes, now, finally, we do.
We do not.
Simplicity is a great boon when problems are complicated by our own confusion and misperception. But simplicity is a dangerous canard when the problems we face are complex, multi-faceted, and refuse to yield to silver bullets.
There is no one solution. In acknowledging that, we bring down upon ourselves a deep despair, a feeling of something so large as to be intractable, and a fear that we will never gain its measure. Yet that is the true state of things, and as we look upon destruction (that we did not stop) born of ignorance (our own), the allure of simple answers can and must be resisted.
There are things you can say in polite company, and things you can say in private; we all know this, and yet we profess shock upon hearing publically those things we deem for limited specific company only. But it isn’t the sentiment we reject, it’s the form: we have an entire structure of polite register that allows us to express private sentiments publically, but less directly. That is, after all, the structure of formal English—to say with euphemism and evasion those things we could say bluntly with a more limited audience.
So there are really two kinds of shock to pick from when someone breaks these rules. One kind is shock at whatever private thing has been laid bare, no matter how it was said. The other kind is shock at the breaking of convention, and cares very little about the sentiment involved. For politicians, masters of gaming the rules, it is the breaking of those rules that requires response. For the rest of us, as decent human beings, it is the sentiment that requires response.
Thus we have now two kinds of shock that occur in concert, and thus also we have the strange discord inspired by dissonance: these two notes seem to ring together, and yet they ring false. Continue reading →
People lie. People lie pretty much all the time—but most of those lies aren’t the sort of lies that matter. They are untruths that we expect and reinforce socially. They are lies that are, in a sense, required.
“How are you today?”
“Fine, how are you?”
I have trouble with things like that because I always want to answer truthfully. It took me a while to accept that it’s not a real question so much as a script, and that the answer is part of the script, and that because the answer doesn’t convey real information, it isn’t really untrue. It’s not really a lie. I may not be fine, but if I say that I am, that’s fine.
That’s a lie that isn’t really a lie, repeated for the benefit of a social script. We like social scripts, and they make us feel better. They make us feel like we understand the world. But there are lies we tell ourselves, too. There are social scripts we repeat to ourselves, and others, that are deeply, fundamentally, untrue. And while most of us know that “fine” doesn’t really cover it when the lie is about ourselves, it’s easy to forget that the scripts don’t really cover it about anyone else, either.
Especially if they have a different experience. And especially if the script is a script for those of us with social privileges. Like, say, if you’re white.
As usual, the debate about academic freedom spills over into public discussion. And, as usual, it loses nuance. On one side, arguments in favor of trigger warnings and safe spaces, in the service of giving voice and power the traditionally voiceless and powerless. On the other side, arguments against coddling and censoring, with the goal of protecting free academic speech.
I’ve struggledbefore with understanding the deeper currents in this debate. I don’t claim to have finished. I hope, like so many students and academics of late, I will continue to wrestle with this and continue to grow. And I hope equally that wrestling will be productive. There is a temptation, by some, to treat every exploration as representative, to pretend that some students forcing the cancellation of a speaker or asking for the punishment of their fellows represents a demand for coddling. I don’t agree—I think it shows people wrestling with where to redraw the lines of discourse.
Because those lines are being redrawn, and I think that’s what the whole argument is about. I am beginning to think, at the base of it, this is an argument about silence.
Political correctness is one of those things that conservatives love to hate. Understandably; there are few areas where people can indulge in righteous disdain and still maintain broad support (instead of just looking like jerks). And why not? There aren’t many people, I think, who enjoy being on the receiving end of the language police. It’s understandably infuriating to be told that you said whatever you said the wrong way, even though your meaning was obviously clear.
Liberals tend to dislike the label “political correctness.” But that doesn’t stop them from patrolling the boundaries of acceptable language and bending over backwards to avoid including offensive words in everyday life. And why not? There are histories of oppression baked into our language, just as they are baked into every other part of our society. Language often contains fossilized prejudice, and we do well to root it out.
Where these two views conflict, I think, is in their understanding of what we’re supposed to be fixing. For liberals, changing language isn’t the ostensible goal—it’s a marker for change in attitudes. But for conservatives, the narrative of political correctness is the opposite—that changing language is just about framing your attitude in a different way. Continue reading →