These are not the Exemplars You’re Looking for

Disclosure: STA, FWA, RJP and I have been watching a lot of Star Wars lately. And last night, we went to the Twins, “May the 4th be with You” baseball game. Therefore, when I read the line, “these are the people we are looking for” in David Brooks latest book, The Road to Character, I couldn’t resist giving this entry the above title, “These are not the Exemplars You’re Looking For.” I guess I’m even tempted to edit the date on this entry so that it’s from yesterday (May 4th) instead of today. Sigh. But I won’t.

Simmering in the back of my brain has been my feminist/queer virtue project. I’ve been writing about it for years. Is it finally time to do something more substantial about it? Possibly. For today, I’ll just keep thinking and writing about virtue ethics on my blog.

I’m inspired to re-visit my thoughts on virtue ethics today. Partly because I recently re-designed my Undisciplined site (and this TROUBLE site too) and created a space for my research on virtues. But mainly because I want to write about David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character. I checked it out of the library and am reading it because I’m interested in critically analyzing how moral character gets represented in pop culture. (note: I begin my reading with a skepticism towards Brook’s project, but also with a desire to be capacious in my reading of his ideas).

So far, I’ve made it through the introduction, which includes a discussion of the differences between “résumé virtues” (the skills that you put on your resume that symbolize external success) and “eulogy virtues” (the virtues that people talk about at your funeral that demonstrate inner strength of character). I want to say more about this distinction at some point, especially how it compares and contrasts to practical and moral wisdom in Aristotelean virtue ethics. But quickly: Brooks’ framing of this distinction still seems to be about how others view you as a successful person, whether it be in achieving an impressive career or an impressive soul. This framing seems to stay within the logic of the résumé virtues. 

I wasn’t planning to write about this book yet, since I barely started it and I only have 10 minutes before I pick up my daughter from school, but…I had to post something when I read Brooks’ description of the moral exemplars that WE (consistently he speaks for us in this introduction, invoking “we” and “You” constantly) need and want. Here’s what he writes:

Occasionally, even today, you come across certain people who seem to possess an impressive inner cohesion. They are not leading fragmented, scattershot lives. They have achieved inner integration. They are calm, settled, and rooted. They are not blown off course by storms. They don’t crumble in adversity. Their minds are consistent and their hearts are dependable….Sometimes you don’t even notice these people, because while they seem kind and cheerful, they are also reserved. They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, reticence, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline….They radiate a sort of moral joy. They answer softly when challenged harshly. They are silent when unfairly abused. They are dignified when others try to humiliate them, restrained when others try to provoke them.

He concludes:

These are the people who have built a strong inner character, who have achieved a certain depth…These are the people we are looking for (xvi-xvii).

While I don’t disagree entirely with his ideas here, I feel compelled to state that the people Brooks’ describes, these examples of how to build a deep character, are not the moral exemplars that I’m looking for. They might be the ones he’s looking for, but he shouldn’t presume to speak for everyone else and what examples they need in their lives. Not only does his vision for US leave a lot of exemplary people out of the mix, but it leaves a lot of moral practices out of the vision of what it means to be moral.

A few random, and perhaps disjointed, responses to Brooks’ claim:

  • What about moral rage?
  • How does social injustice fit into Brooks’ vision of moral character?
  • Does sacrifice and humility ever prevent folks from developing their moral characters? (Implied answer: YES!)
  • What is “soft self-discipline”?

Before offering one more response to Brooks’ vision of moral exemplars, I want to add that this is only Brooks’ introduction to these individuals who exemplify good character. The bulk of the book is about discussing these different people. So, I’m open (and eager) to see how he describes his qualities of character (virtues) and the people who exemplify them (role models).

Okay, here’s a final thought (at least for this post) on Brooks’ praising of the kind, humble, polite, restrained and cheerful exemplar of the “eulogy virtues.” I originally posted the following on my blog a few years ago:

This image is inspired by some theories/ideas that aim to resist the demand to have a positive attitude and just be happy. Here are a few passages from these theories that might enable you to engage with and make sense of the image and my motivations.


This phrase is a reference to Barbara Ehrenreich’s talk for RSA Animate (see transcript here). In this talk, she critiques “the ideology of positive thinking,” in which people are encouraged expected to have a positive attitude, act as if “there’s nothing wrong” and “just put a smiley face and get on with it.” The problem with this “delusion of positivity” is that it conceals or suppresses any dissent to or questioning of the larger structures that create conditions for our unhappiness. She says:

What could be cleverer as a way of quelling dissent than to tell people who are in some kind of trouble – poverty, unemployment etc – that it’s all their attitude, you know that that’s all that has to change, that they should just get with the programme, smile and no complaining. It’s a brilliant form of social control

So, the command to “smile or die!” is also a demand to not question, not worry and not think about why it might sometimes be good to not be happy. Now, Ehrenreich is not against joy or expressing/experiencing happiness. Instead, she’s against the larger ideology of positive thinking that demands that we suck it up, don’t complain, be cheerful and spread our good feelings to others.


This idea of spreading good feelings and the ideology of positivity is one of the central themes in Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness. This book and Ahmed’s critique of the “happiness industry” are big inspirations for my image. I’ve written about the feminist killjoy in past posts. Here’s one of my favorite passages from Ahmed about the feminist killjoy:

Say, we are seated at the dinner table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you find problematic. You respond carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,”recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. Let us take seriously the figure of the feminist killjoy. Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy?

The killjoy is someone who refuses to just smile and be happy. Who is willing to be angry or worried or unhappy. Or who will always necessarily fail at being happy in the ways that are demanded of them (ways that usually include a narrow heteronormative/capitalist future and that require living within and therefore reinforcing certain norms).


Throughout the book, Ahmed reflects on a phrase that she repeatedly heard as a child: “I just want you to be happy.” She’s particularly interested in the “just want” of this phrase and its implications for thinking through how we understand our own happiness to be tied to others and their willingness to go along with what we imagine to be the right kind of happiness. In describing how this phrase gets uttered, she writes:

We can imagine the speaker giving up, stepping back, flinging up her arms, sighing. I just. The “just” is a qualifier of the want and announces a disagreement with what the other wants without making the disagreement explicit.

To exclaim that you “just want” someone to be happy is not simply to disagree with their approach; it is to claim that their approach will only lead to unhappiness and is therefore bad or not the “right” way to live. And it is to ignore or actively suppress their vision of happiness and joy all for the sake of their “true” happiness.

In my lecture notes from a Queering Desire course that I taught in 2010, I discuss what it means to be happy in the “right” way:

the very hope for happiness means we get directed in specific ways, as happiness is assumed to follow from some life choices and not others” (54).

What life choices are supposed to lead to happiness and which are not? Who gets to decide what leads to happiness and how are those decisions made?

The face of happiness, at least in this description, looks rather like the face of privilege. Rather than assuming happiness is simply found in “happy persons,” we can consider how claims to happiness make certain forms of personhood valuable (11).

Promoting happiness promotes certain ways of living (over others) and certain types of families (11).

“Ideas of happiness involve social as well as moral distinctions insofar as they rest on ideas of who is worthy as well as capable of being happy ‘in the right way'” (13).


In May, I wrote about the problems with being a “good girl” in my post, On assholes, douche bags and bullshitters:

In “A Response to Lesbian Ethics,” Marilyn Frye (rightly) asks, “Why should one want to be good? Why, in particular, would a woman want to be good? (56). Her short answer: you shouldn’t. Her longer answer: The demand to be a good girl is intended to keep women in line, to pit them against each other–the “good girls/ladies” vs. “the bad/rebellious women,” and to prevent them from challenging dominant systems of power and privilege.

Troubling (with) Writing Prompt #472

Over on my staying in trouble tumblr, I’m following writing prompts. They frequently post images, quick stories or questions in order to get students (in middle school, I think?) to think creatively and to write. I was struck by #472, which was just posted (of course, I reblogged it):

My first reaction was: Making and Staying in Trouble! That’s what I’d like in a can! Almost immediately I questioned by own response. Virtues are not something you are just given to consume, like tuna. Or maybe bamboo shoots? Even though the can in the picture looks like tuna, I never want to consume tuna; I really don’t like it. Virtues require deliberate and repeated practices that get built up over time into habits which help shape/produce character. They aren’t things we have, but practices we do.

I do still like this question. It inspires me to want to think and write more about which virtue (actually, I would want to write about virtues) that I think are most important. Learning how to stay in trouble is at the top of the list. I would also include patience/persistence, curiosity, and attentiveness. I’d love to read what others think are important virtues…I might have to ask.

It has also provoked me into thinking critically (and curiously) about different understandings of how virtues are built up. If virtue isn’t something that we are given, where do our understanding of virtue come from? I’m attempting to answer that for myself by collecting my troublemaking role models over at Pinterest. So far, I’ve put a lot of my theoretical/academic models for troublemaking. I’d like to add some earlier influences…like Dr. Seuss and Free to be…you and me.

what are some key “tools for living” and where should they be taught?

This morning, while scrolling through my twitter feed, I came across the following tweet:

Of course I was immediately struck by the title of Simmon’s series of seminars: Leadership Rebels. Pretty sweet. After I briefly skimmed the NY Times article about the leadership series and the larger program at Smith for teaching students practical skills, Passport to Life at Smith and Passport to Life After Smith, I was intrigued, but not compelled to tweet or post anything about the academy (I thought about archiving their use of “rebels” and its dis/connection to troublemaking, but wasn’t sure how I fit the practical skills of “self-awareness, clear communication and conflict negotiation” in relation to troublemaking and troublestaying). Then I came across another article about teaching students life skills over on the front page of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Tools for Living: The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands. All of this discussion reminded me of a few other articles that I had read last week on students and their lack of “life” skills: What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind and What’s Wrong with Teenagers? (They Don’t Have Any Moral Virtue). In contrast to the NY Times article on Smith College and the Chronicle article on various institutions teaching tools for living, What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind?” and “What’s Wrong with Teenagers?” focused not on how higher education could help students to develop more skills, but how higher education and “book learning” were the problem and the reason why students aren’t able to cook or run a household or manage a career. Suddenly I realized that the universe must be trying to tell me something; I need to write about (or at least archive in a “beside/s” post) these various articles on education/training and life skills. And who am I to argue with the Universe? Umm…perhaps that question should be taken up in a different post.

Again, here are the articles that I want to put BESIDE/S each other:
Teaching Smith Students About Life Beyond the Course Book
Tools for Living: The Future of American Colleges May Lie, Literally, in Students’ Hands
What’s Wrong with the Teenage Mind
What’s Wrong with Teenagers? (They Don’t Have Any Moral Virtue)

I want to put these articles beside each other because I am struck by the different approaches that they take to the issue of practical education and “life” skills. I don’t necessarily see their different visions of what skills should be taught as in complete conflict, but I do see them, when taken together, as opening up critical and creative discussions about what  counts as skills and how and where those skills should be taught. On another note, this issue of skills/tools makes me very curious. For a long time now, I’ve been wondering about whether or not to describe troublemaking as a skill or a virtue (maybe it’s both). 

on developing good reading/ consuming/ engaging habits

If you’ve spent some time reading through my blog, you know that I’m very interested in virtue ethics and the value of breaking some harmful habits (undisciplining ourselves) and cultivating other, helpful habits (like learning how to make and stay in trouble in ways that challenge or dismantle oppressive systems and practices). I’m not just interested in writing about virtue ethics on my blog, however. I’m also interested in exploring how writing/engaging on blogs can enable us to become more virtuous in general and how we might use virtue ethics to engage in blogging practices, approaches and attitudes that enable us to be more virtuous online. This latter goal of engaging in more effective, virtuous blogging practices involves thinking through how we blog and how we can develop habits that are more helpful (I’m particularly interested in habits that enable us to care–for others and for ourselves) and less harmful. What does this look like? Why are good habits important? Here’s one source that might provide some answers to these questions:

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption I found out about this book via Brain Pickings (which I seem to be reading a lot lately). Check out this video for it:

Clay Johnson’s book looks intriguing; he’s interested in addressing how to deal with the increased amount of information we have access to in the era of online media and social networks by understanding it not as a problem of information overload, but one of unhealthy consumption habits. While I haven’t had a chance to spend much time thinking about his approach (or reading it; I downloaded a sample chapter to my iPad that I’ll hopefully look at tonight), I look forward to critically assessing it. I’m especially interested in exploring his suggestions for developing effective/helpful/healthy consumption habits online. One of his big focuses seems to be on thinking about healthy internet consumption habits in relation to healthy eating/dieting habits. I wonder, does he draw upon strategies employed by “the diet industry” and dieting/nutrition experts? What are the limits of this comparison?I should mention that while I appreciate the emphasis on health, I’m a little dubious about his approach. 

Here’s what I want to put BESIDE/S The Information Diet:

Why Jay Smooth is awesome

I’ve been following Jay Smooth and Ill Doctrine for a couple of years now. His work is amazing…to watch and to teach. I’ve used his video, “How to Tell People They Sound Racist” in at least one of my classes (see here for the lecture). Yesterday morning, while reading my twitter feed (I follow him @jsmooth995), I came across his most recent video, “My Personal Pledge for the ‘Until Abortion Ends’ Movement.” After watching it, I noticed another recent video: “My TEDx Talk, ‘How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Discussing Race‘.” This video, from a talk given last month, is a follow-up to the wildly popular “how to tell people…” video (which is from way back in 2008). Check it out:

This brief speech is packed with great things to talk about. For now, I want to briefly highlight a few key parts of the speech (read the entire transcript at Ill Doctrine):

1. Race is a social construct that was designed not to make sense, but to rationalize and justify indefensible acts:

The first thing is that anytime we’re dealing with race issues, we are dealing with a social construct that was not born out of any science or reason or logic, we are grappling with a social construct that was not designed to make sense. And to the extent that it is the product of design, the race constructs that we live in in America were shaped specifically by a desire to avoid making sense. They were shaped for centuries by a need to rationalize and justify indefensible acts. So when we grapple with race issues, we’re grappling with something that was designed for centuries to make us circumvent our best instincts. It’s a dance partner that’s designed to trip us up. So just based on that alone we should be able to keep in mind that you will never bat a thousand when it comes to dealing with race issues.

2. We need to shift away from the tonsils paradigm of race discourse…

These are things that will just naturally develop in our day-to-day lives, so the problem with that all or nothing binary is it causes us to look at racism and prejudice as if they are akin to having tonsils. Like you either have tonsils, or you don’t, and if you’ve had your prejudice removed, you never need to consider it again. If someone says “I think you may have a little unconscious prejudice,” you say “No–my prejudice was removed in 2005! [Audience laughter] I went to see that movie Crash, it’s all good!”

…and toward the dental hygiene paradigm of race discourse.

But that’s not how these things work; when you go through your day to day lives there are all of these mass media and social stimuli as well as processes that we all have inside our brains that we’re not aware of, that cause us to build up little pockets of prejudice every day, just like plaque develops on our teeth. [Audience laughter] So we need to move away from the tonsils paradigm of race discourse toward the dental hygeine paradigm of race discourse. Basically, if I might just offer one piece of advice.

3. We also need to move away from the idea that being a good person is just what we are and shift toward the recognition that being good is a practice, one that we must work at everyday [note: hmm….see some connections to virtue ethics here; I really like the idea of repeated practices]

And in general I think we need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed, immutable characteristic, and shift towards seeing being good as a practice, and it is a practice that we carry out by engaging with our imperfections. We need to shift from, we need to shift toward thinking of being a good person the same way we think of being a clean person. Being a clean person is something that you maintain and work on every day. We don’t assume that I’m a clean person therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth. And when someone suggests to us that we’ve got something stuck in our teeth, we don’t say “Wh-what do you mean? I have something stuck in my teeth? I’m a clean person! Why would you–” [Audience laughter]

4. Being good does not being perfect, but being willing to engage with our own and each other’s imperfections.

The belief that you must be perfect in order to be good is an obstacle to being as good as you can be. It would make our conversations with each other a lot smoother, and it would make us better at being good, if we could recognize that we’re not perfect and embrace that….So I hope that we can–if I could have one wish it would be that we would reconsider how we conceptualize being a good person, and keep in mind that we are not good despite our imperfections. It is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allows us to be good. Our connection with our personal and common imperfections, being mindful of those personal and common imperfections is what allows us to be good to each other and be good to ourselves.

5. Having conversations about race isn’t enough to address bigger issues…

So I know that this is no small task, but if we could shift a little bit closer, toward viewing these race conversations the same way we view a conversation about something stuck in our teeth, it would go a long way toward making our conversations a bit smoother and allow us to work together on bigger issues around race.

Because there are a lot of–beyond the persistent conversational awkwardness of race, there are persistent systemic and institutional issues around race that are not caused by conversation, and they can’t be entirely solved by conversation. You can’t talk them away, but we need people to work together and coordinate and communicate to find strategies to work on those systemic issues. Because despite all of the barriers that we’ve broken, all of the apparent markers of progress there are still so many disparities.

…but it is a helpful way to bring us closer so we can work together.

If you look at unemployment rate, infant mortality rate, incarceration rates, median household income, there are so many disparities on the various sides of the color lines in this country that it is worthwhile for us to iron out these conversational issues if for nothing else so that we can get a little closer to working together on those big issues.

So many important themes here–willingness to be wrong/imperfect + emphasis on building connections/community + recognition that being good involves repeated practices–and delivered in a way that encourages us to laugh, think and act. Jay Smooth is awesome.

One other reason (among many) that Jay Smooth is awesome: He’s fostered a great community on his blog; the comments on his Ted Talk post are really impressive (full of love and support). With so much talk about how pointless comments usually are (with trolls and blowhard d-bags derailing or hating on important discussions), it’s always great to see spaces where comments work to build community.