Are troublemakers truth-tellers or bullshit detectors or both?

Whenever I listen to the song “Cavern” off of Phish’s album, A Picture of Nectar, I add the following line which seems so fitting to me that I am incredulous every time I realize that it is my own invention and not in the song (the lyrics in bold caps are mine):

In summing up, the moral seems
A little bit obscure…

Give the director a serpent deflector
a BULLSHIT detector, a ribbon reflector
a cushion convector, a pitcher of nectar
a virile dissector, a hormone collector

frankfurt475So, what does this little anecdote have to do with troublemaking and truth-telling? Not much except for being my way of (not so) cleverly introducing the topic of this entry: Harry G. Frankfurt’s pithy treatise On Bullshit. This book came out in 2005 and I got it for my birthday shortly thereafter. Every year I sit down to read it and then, in the midst of Frankfurt’s philoso-speak, my brain starts to melt, so I move onto something else. Well, today was the day–I finally finished the whole thing–all 67 extremely small pages of it! And, you know what? I liked it.

In addition to the fact that Frankfurt does a philosophical analysis of a *fun* term like bullshit, this book is great for a couple of reasons. First, Frankfurt’s main aim is to give serious critical and intellectual attention to a term (and a phenomenon) that pervades our lives–one might say we are often knee-deep in it–but that we don’t know much about. He writes:

We have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory. I propose to begin the development of a theoretical understanding of bullshit…(1-2).

Frankfurt’s description here reminds me of my own thinking about troublemaking. It is a term that gets bandied about all of the time, but we don’t spend enough time on what it exactly means or how it is actually done. Giving serious attention to troublemaking (much like Frankfurt’s serious attention to bullshit) is what I am aiming to do in this blog.

Second, one of Frankfurt’s key arguments in this book involves distinguishing lying from bullshitting. According to him, liars are aware of and pay attention to the truth, they just don’t want to tell it. In contrast, bullshitters, who seem to be far worse than liars who at least demonstrate some engagement with the truth, aren’t concerned with what is true or false. They are indifferent to all of it.

Bullshitting is not about deliberately eschewing truth and embracing falsity; it is about fakery (“For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony,” 47.) And it is about not CARING. Ah ha! A connection to my own thinking about taking care as being a form of staying in trouble (see here or here for more). Consider the following statements by Frankfurt:

For the bullshitter, however, all bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not CARE whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose (57).

So, the bullshitter is more concerned with his own self-interest than the truth…

Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts as he understands them, although the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it all. By virtue of this, bullshit is the greater enemy of the truth than lies are (61).

The bullshitter doesn’t play by our rules and is therefore free to not follow them. Is it true? False? Who cares is her answer.

The greater enemy of truth (we will have to leave an exploration of what truth means for another entry) is bullshit not lying because not caring about the truth is far worse than merely distorting it in order to reject it. Frankfurt is arguing for the importance of caring about ideas/things by being attentive to them. Hmmm….that sounds like the goal of troublemaking: to care by giving serious attention and by critically engaging.  So, does that mean that one of the important tasks of the troublemaker/troublestayer and of making trouble/staying in trouble is identifying and challenging bullshit? That’s right–the troublemaker is a BULLSHIT DETECTOR.

Now that doesn’t mean making trouble isn’t also about truth-telling. But, it indicates that troublemakers/troublestayers are more concerned with bullshit than lies. What is truth? What is a lie? How do we determine these and on what basis of “fact” do we authenticate ideas/stories/events? Much more to come on this topic…

Whistleblowers as Troublemakers?

The other day, I came across the following article online: Whistleblowers: Troublemakers or Virtuous Nurses? My first thought was, can’t they be both? If you have been following my blog, you already know my answer to this question. Yes! Troublemaking is a virtue. My second thought was, what exactly is whistleblowing? Are whistleblowers troublemakers? If so, what kind of troublemakers? How and why do they make trouble? And what is it about their practice of making/being in/staying in trouble that is virtuous or not virtuous?

Here is how the author of the above article defines whistleblowing:

Whistleblowing is an attempt by a member or former member of an organization to issue a warning to the public about a serious wrongdoing or danger created or concealed by the organization.

So whistleblowing is truth-telling; telling people truths that they don’t want to hear. Whistle-blowing is about holding people and organizations accountable to the larger ethical principles that the society espouses and demonstrating how organizations are failing to honor those principles or are claiming to honor those principles but are secretly (or not so secretly) violating them for their own gain. In this way, whistleblowing is not about disrespecting the status quo, but trying to make sure that everyone follows the rules that have been established. Far from violating rules, the whistleblower wants to honor them. Is that what distinguishes a whistleblower from a troublemaker? Can a troublemaker make trouble by honoring the rules? Hmm….was Socrates-as-gadfly an early whisteblower (let me think about that one some more…)?

Addendum as of 6.27.09: I just found the following passage in “Whistleblowers: Moral Principles in Action” from The Art of Moral Protest which reinforces my idea about whistleblowers honoring the rules:

Scholars have found that employees are more likely to go public with damaging information if they “are committed to the formal goals of their organization or to the successful completion of their project; identify with the organization; and have a strong sense of professional responsibility. In other words, they are more committed to the rules than others (138).

The whistleblower is not merely an appointed or self-proclaimed enforcer of the rules/principles (like a hall monitor or a tattle-telling kid). Her truth-telling is aimed at those who benefit most from the system-as-it-is (this is called the hegemony in academese): large scale organizations, institutions, or privileged public figures. Not those who benefit less (that is, those with less privilege and less access to that mythical norm).

I found several articles online about the virtue of whistleblowing. I hope to read them in the next few days and write more about the specific ways that whistleblowing could be considered a form of virtuous troublemaking. In thinking more about the whistleblower, I will NOT be watching The Insider, however. The movie is fine. I saw it when it first came out. But, sorry, Russell-who-throws-phones-at-hotel-clerks-Crowe is not my kind of troublemaker.

Addendum as of 6.26.09: Reading through another essay on whistleblowing (Whistleblowers: Saints of Secular Culture by Colin Grant), I came across a reference to Silkwood with Cher and Meryl Streep. I definitely want to re-watch this movie–I saw it about 15 years ago. Must put this on Netflix queue! Too bad I can’t watch it instantly.

What is your image of a troublemaker?

Here’s to the Crazy Ones, the Misfits, the Rebels, the Troublemakers, the Round Pegs in the square holes, the Ones who see things Differently.

So, when STA told me about the Think Different commercial (which I just wrote about in this entry, he pointed out something curious (and troubling): the different descriptions of “think different” correspond with particular images of individuals who embody them. For example, the Crazy One is Einstein while the Rebel is Bob Dylan. Now, here comes the troubling part: when Richard Dreyfuss says “Troublemaker” this is the image that we get:
Martin Luther King, Jr. (at 10 seconds).

Now, they could have easily used his image when Dreyfuss says: the Ones who See Things Differently or, even, the Rebels. So, why use this image with that word? Reflecting on this question, I was reminded of a kid’s book that I discussed at length earlier this summer (here and here and here): The Book of Timeouts. In this book, the author offers 14 different examples of troublemakers who behaved improperly and were punished with a timeout. In my earlier entries, I argued that these examples are meant to serve as moral lessons for kids on how not to behave and why they should try to stay out of trouble. As I was doing a close reading of the author’s examples, I remember being troubled by the one about Louis Armstrong.

Entitled, “The Horn Player That Nearly Blew It,” Lucke describes Louis Armstrong’s stint as a troublemaker:

One upon a time Louis Armstrong was just a poor boy looking for trouble. It found him, on New Year’s Even in 1912 in the city of New Orleans. A short while after that, the police showed up. He was hauled away in a paddy wagon and put in a ‘home’ for wayward children [juvenile hall aka prison for minors]. He thought it was the end of the world. But it turned out it wasn’t. His time out changed everything. While he was there he learned how to play the cornet.

Among all of the examples, which I have listed here, this story about Louis Armstrong is the only one about an African American man (And, why is it the only one? What about Martin Luther King Jr or Malcom X, for example?). The only one about a juvenile delinquent/criminal/street thug–who by nature (at least according to the author) seems to up to no good. And the only one that doesn’t offer any specifics about what exactly Armstrong did wrong. Instead, the description, “a poor boy looking for trouble” seems to be all that is needed (along with the illustration of a black boy) for the reader to understand that Armstrong was a troublemaker and criminal who really deserved a time out. Why didn’t the author provide any more specifics as to why Armstrong was in trouble? What exactly did he do that made him deserve a time out? In all of the other examples the author offers some witty connection between the behavior of the troublemaker and the misbehavior of a child (Cleopatra couldn’t share, Richard the Lionhearted cut through people’s yards, Napoleon took other people’s things). As I mentioned above, these connections are meant to reinforce moral lessons: Don’t be like Cleopatra, learn to share with others. Then you won’t get a time out. What moral lesson are we meant to learn from Armstrong? Don’t be born black or poor because then the police will find you and put you in jail?

The author’s (perhaps unwitting) linkage of poor, Black and young with criminal, deserving of prison, and troublemaker is very disturbing. It invokes a very problematic equation that influences a lot of thinking about and visualizing of troublemaker as someone who disobeys/breaks the rules: troublemaker = criminal/delinquent = black male. For more on this equation and why it is a big problem, see here or here.

This equation is also present in the Think Different ad when the image of MLK Jr pops up on the screen as Dreyfuss is saying, “troublemaker.” The image of Martin Luther King, Jr. as troublemaker should be empowering and inspiring and another example of the virtue of troublemaking. But it could also be seen as just one more image reinforcing the ideas (1) that troublemaking is bad, (2) that it is a form of criminal activity, and (3) that black male troublemakers are all criminals.

Thinking about this problematic link between black men, criminal activity and troublemaking reminds me that any revaluing of troublemaking, as something good and virtuous, also requires a deracializing of the troublemaker and a decriminalizing of the troublemaking activities of breaking the rules and disrespecting the status quo.

Think Different. Just Don’t Stop Buying (what we’re selling).

About 10 years ago, when I was living in California and getting my masters in ethics, APPLE had an advertising campaign entitled Think Different. I had (almost) completely forgotten about it until STA reminded me yesterday (thanks STA). As part of the campaign, APPLE produced the following commercial:

Here’s to the Crazy Ones, the Misfits, the Rebels, the Troublemakers, the Round Pegs in the square holes, the Ones who see things Differently.

They’re not fond of Rules and they have No Respect for the status quo. You can quote them, Disagree with them, Glorify or Villify them. About the only thing you can‘t do is Ignore them.

Because they Change things. They Push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the Crazy ones, we see Genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world are the ones who do.

Watching this commercial again this morning, I got really excited. Yes! Troublemaking as virtuous! Troublemaking as changing the world…as thinking different and differently…as refusing to accept the status quo or to follow the rules…as genius! Cool, huh? For the most part, yes. I really like this ad and it makes me happy to watch (and know that others are watching) virtuous troublemaking on television during primetime. (and, I really like APPLE–I am writing this entry on a MacBook). Uh oh. Here comes the…But, what do we make of this campaign as an advertisement for a product? And what is the product? It doesn’t seem to be computers since there is no mention of them–in words, images, or voiceover–in the ad. No, the product that they are selling is the image of APPLE as Rebel, as Misfit, as Crazy, as Troublemaker and, by extension, the image of you-the-consumer as rebellious troublemaking genius. This is a tactic that they have employed for quite some time. Just ask any good APPLE follower (like STA): Microsoft is the MAN (as in working for the…) while APPLE is the nerdy, crazy, cool dude (what exactly is the opposite of the MAN anyway?).

So, want to think different/ly? All you have to do is buy an APPLE product. After all, it is the American way. Ah, America, whose founding truths (that are held to be self-evident) are not so much “we the people” as “we the consumers.” Just ask George W. Bush, who offered the following words of encouragement to the American people after 9/11: Go Shopping!

Of course, there is more going on with the Think Different advertisement than the selling of an image and there is much to praise about its linking of rebellion, rule-breaking, troublemaking with innovation, change and genius. But, why does troublemaking (as an attitude or approach to life) have to be made into a commodity? Aren’t there other (and better) ways to access it than by patronizing your local APPLE Store?

Union Activists as Troublemakers

Did you know that many union activists/activist organizations proudly embrace the label of troublemaker? Labor Notes sponsors troublemakers schools and they even have a handbook. Check out what they say about the schools (which were held this spring in New York, Chicago, the Bay Area and Kansas City):

Are you angry that bankers get bailed out and workers get sold out?

Labor Notes readers across the country are stirring up trouble and connecting with grassroots groups to think through big-picture responses to big-picture problems—positive action on jobs, contracts, health care, and the environment. Learn tactics, skills, and strategies you can use right away. Join with other activists to figure out what this economic crisis means for everyone.

And, here is how they define troublemaker in The Troublemaker’s Handbook:

By “troublemaker” we mean someone who dares to defend her or his rights and those of fellow workers. That often means making waves and making management uncomfortable—so management tends to call such brave souls “troublemakers.”

I have not read the handbook yet, but I have been wanting to order it ever since I found it on the web last fall. The handbook focuses on tactics and strategies (as told by worker-activists) for claiming and defending one’s rights while on the job. Central to their mission (Labor Notes, troublemakers schools, and The Troublemaker’s Handbook) is the importance (1) of real stories from workers-on-the-floor and (2) of linkng resistance to education and to social justice.

Here’s another online article, Savvy Troublemaking that describes (and in positive terms) union activism as troublemaking. I particularly appreciate the author’s (Amy Carroll’s) explanation of savvy:

The AFL-CIO tends to stress that skills, as an organizer or staffer, are what young activists need most of all. And while such skills are imperative, they are better derived from experience than through a pamphlet. Rather, the best tool of the activist is political savvy. Such understanding is derived from knowing the relevant questions to ask, both of ourselves and of the movement. Towards the end of developing sophisticated politics, we tell here the stories of union reform caucuses, activist newsletters, community groups, and strikes that embody the best of vision and struggle, and are helping to rebuild the labor movement from the bottom up into the militant fighting force that it has the potential to be.

So, much like Labor Notes with their handbook, Amy Carroll emphasizes the importance of real stories and experience; for her, savvy is akin to being streetsmart. And, savvy is about developing the skills and tactics (a real world education?) for how to resist/transform and survive on the floor.

Savvy as streetwise…tactics…skills…real stories…I love the language they use. In my work on virtue ethics, I have long been interested in comparing virtues with skills and tactics. When is something virtuous and when is it skillful or tactical? Also, what are the differences between being streetwise and being intellectual (or theoretical)? This last question makes me want to revisit María Lugones and her fabulous chapter in Pilgrimages/Peregrinages entitled “Tactical Strategies of the Streetwalker/Estragias Tácticas de la Callejera.”  More on this later…

Incidentally, in the process of googling troublemaker for this entry I came across this little gem. Sweet. I have already netflixed it. Look for an entry on Laura Ingalls Wilder as the troublemaking schoolgirl soon. Ahh the interwebs how I love you so.