Make Trouble From the Inside

It’s time to get busy. It’s your turn to cause trouble – but this time in the real world, and this time from the inside (John Waters).

Wow! I just watched John Waters’ awesome commencement speech (via Open Culture).

(check out the transcript)

What great advice for kids! Here are few ideas that I found particularly compelling:

1. Maturity = honing your skills as a troublemaker, not stopping troublemaking

Today may be the end of your juvenile delinquency, but it should also be the first day of your new adult disobedience.

2. Resist/disobey through sneak attacks.

You need to prepare sneak attacks on society. Hairspray is the only really devious movie I ever made. The musical based on it is now being performed in practically every high school in America – and nobody seems to notice it’s a show with two men singing a love song to each other that also encourages white teen girls to date black guys. Pink Flamingos was preaching to the converted. But Hairspray is a Trojan horse: It snuck into Middle America and never got caught. You can do the same thing.

3. Success/fulfillment = avoiding assholes.

I have figured out how to never be around assholes at any time in my personal and professional life. That’s rich. And not being around assholes should be the goal of every graduate here today.

4. Create in ways that challenge, outrage, terrify and beautifully fuck up the world.

I love how he elaborates in this section:

  • Design clothes so hideous that they can’t be worn ironically.
  • Horrify us with new ideas.
  • Outrage outdated critics. Use technology for transgression, not lazy social living.
  • Make me nervous!

Google on Questions

I saw a commercial about the google app last night. Since it was about asking questions, something I really like, I thought I’d post about it here.

A question is a powerful force in the world.
A question can start you on an adventure.
A question can spark a connection.
A question can change how you see the world.
A question can take you anywhere.

Search on. The Google app.

I agree with the underlying logic that Google presents here on the value of questions. A question is powerful. It can lead us on exciting explorations, help us to connect with others, transform our perspectives and take us to many different places. But, beyond this vague (and romanticized) vision of the question, what does the Google app do with these questions? How does it help us to ask them? How does it answer them and do those answers diminish/increase/maintain the transformative power of our questions?

My questions sparked my curiosity so I decided to visit the Google app site to find out what this app actually does. According to Google, in their “Things You Can Do” section, you can use the app to:

1. Talk instead of type by speaking your questions. You can also speak follow-up questions. Here’s the example that they give:

original question: How spicy is a ghost pepper?
follow-up request 1: I’m looking for Curra’s Grill (Mexican Restaurant)
follow-up reqeust 2: Show me the menu
follow-up request 3: How do you say my mouth is on fire in Spanish?
follow-up request 4: Play “Gonna Make you Sweat”

Fun. But (how) does this function tap into the power of asking and exploring questions?

2. Find things around you, “discover great restaurants, cool things to do, and the best ways to get there.”

3. Let Google pose the questions for you by sending email or text questions to friends.

4. Find your stuff: plane tickets, packages, etc.

5. Let Google anticipate your needs and provide you with the information before you ask using Now cards.

Wait. Google’s anticipation of our needs seems to be encouraging us to not ask questions. Who needs to even think about what we need and ask for it when Google will just figure it out for us?

This last function is troubling to me and undercuts the power of using questions to explore new places, new perspectives and new ideas. Much has been written about Google algorithms and the filter bubble or echo chamber that can be created when we rely only on sources that we find through google (or Facebook or twitter, etc). I briefly wrote about it on this blog a few years ago. I don’t want to rehearse those arguments here. Instead, I’ll conclude this post with a rewriting of Google’s commercial to reflect some possible hidden motivations and meanings behind their app and what it does to our questions:

Undisciplined’s Intervention

While a question is a powerful force in the world, its force is severely weakened when the answers that it yields are controlled by an algorithm and motivated by market interests.

A question can start you on an adventure to a place that Google has predetermined that you might should like.

A question can spark a connection to businesses that want to sell you things.

A question can change how you see the world but the answers often dictate and restrict how you interpret and understand that new vision.

A question can take you anywhere if you scroll through enough google search pages.

Not pushing my limits, just my buttons

I started working on this entry yesterday morning. At that point, I planned to title it, “Pushing my limits or just my buttons?”. As I tried to write, I struggled with whether or not to keep reading David Brooks’ book The Road to Character and how to respond to his claims. I wanted to take his ideas seriously because he’s talking about character and virtue (my areas of interest) and he has a lot of power over how these topics, and morality in general, are being discussed by many people in this country. I first became aware of his book when several of my Facebook friends shared a link to his NY Times op-ed column, “The Moral Bucket List.” But, I kept encountering cringe-worthy sentences and arrogant claims about what “WE” need or how “YOU” (as in, the reader) feel. And I couldn’t get past the contradiction between his call for humility (and the recognition of our limits) and his tone of all-knowingness about what’s wrong with our “moral ecology” and what we can do to fix it.

Even as I was bothered by the book, I kept reading. I wanted to engage with his ideas and to think through how they might enable me to be critical and reflective about my views on character and morality.

Yesterday, I skimmed the entire book, reading through the chapters on his different role models, and then taking a closer look at one of his concluding chapters on “The Big Me.” And I had a realization. This book is not worth my critical and creative energy. When Brooks invokes “WE” and “YOU,” he’s not talking to, about or with me or a lot of folks. As I suggested in my first post on his book, his role models are not the ones that I’m looking for…or need. His “moral road map” isn’t instructive or helpful. In fact, some of the values he promotes and the logic that underlies them, is toxic to folks who are struggling to be counted as selves worthy of respect and dignity.

So, I have concluded that his book is not pushing me to the limits of what I know and believe, provoking me into thinking critically. His book is pushing my buttons, discouraging any critical or creative thinking I might have about how to work on moral selfhood and cultivate a soul. This button pushing is a distraction from important conversations about how to develop—OR, how to recognize already existing—moral languages and landscapes that respond to current moral/political crises.

Other, more important, conversations

I think I finally gave up on Brooks when he linked “women, minorities and the poor” (which is, in itself, a problematic lumping of categories that ignores intersections between gender, race, class and more) to the cultural shift from the humble, “little me” to the bragging, self-promoting, “Big Me.” This shift, he claims, resulted in the loss of the important language and ecology of “moral realism” and the valuing of and adherence to Norms and institutional values.

The shift in the 1950s and 1960s to a culture that put more emphasis on pride and self-esteem had many positive effects; it helped correct some deep social injustices. Up until those years, many social groups, notably women, minorities, and the poor, had received messages of inferiority and humiliation. They were taught to think lowly of themselves. The culture of self-esteem encouraged members of these oppressed groups to believe in themselves, to raise their sights and aspirations (247).

Huh? I don’t know what to make of this statement…and maybe I don’t want to think about it too hard because it might melt my brain (or get me really cranked up), trying to understand Brooks’ problematic or sloppy logic in using social justice movements as examples for the loss of moral language. If Brooks isn’t condemning social justice movements of the 50s and 60s, then why use them, without further explanation, to illustrate our turn to the Self?

I don’t completely disagree with Brooks’ arguments for the value of character or the need for moral language (and maybe that’s why I spent so much time thinking about his claims), but I do believe that he gets social justice movements like feminism and their focus on dignity and claiming the value of oneself, wrong here.  At its best, feminist movement is not merely about building up self-esteem or making individuals feel good about themselves. It is about ensuring that all folks (not just women as autonomous individuals) are recognized as inherently valuable and worthy of dignity, respect, attention, material resources, protection and care.  The social justice focus on the self is not about self-actualization; it is about self-preservation. It concerns more than the fate of an individual soul, or whether or not one cultivates good “eulogy virtues.” It concerns the fate of communities, whole groups of people, who are systematically devalued, ignored, destroyed.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my day thinking through this post and now I’ve run out of time. 5 minutes until I leave to pick up my daughter from school. I guess I don’t have much to show for it. Yet, I’ve finally arrived at the conversation that I want to have about character, morality and the self. It’s about self-care. When I have more time, I don’t plan to talk, instead I want to listen to and think deeply about the insightful words of Audre Lorde and Sara Ahmed in Ahmed’s post, “Self-care as Warfare.”

Here’s her conclusion:

Self-care: that can be an act of political warfare. In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; looking after each other. This is why when we have to insist, I matter, we matter, we are transforming what matters. Women’s lives matter; black lives matter; queer lives matter; disabled lives matter; trans lives matter; the poor; the elderly; the incarcerated, matter.

For those who have to insist they matter to matter:

selfcare is warfare.