A BLOG

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.

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.

SMILE OR DIE!

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.

KILLJOY

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).

I JUST WANT YOU TO BE HAPPY

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).

A GOOD GIRL?

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.

On Being Cranky and Snarky

Yesterday I updated the design of this blog. I like the new colors so much that I want to write in it more, just so I can look at it. 

Since leaving the academy, and reducing the amount of time that I write on this blog, I have become increasingly cranky. My entire family is cranky. So much so that we use “crank” as a verb. “Stop cranking!” is my repeated refrain as we drive around Minneapolis, complaining about drivers, bikers, pedestrians.

I often don’t mind this cranking. It feels like a useful way to handle everyday annoyances. But, sometimes I wonder, is cranking a good thing? Am I just getting older and becoming a crank, someone who is cynical and has lost the ability to playfully make and stay in trouble? And, is this crankiness something that I want to model for my kids, who are already, at the ages of 9 and 12, well-versed in the art of crank?

All of these questions make me curious: What is crankiness? Could it be a form of making or staying in trouble OR is it what happens to you when you become an adult and outgrow your troublemaking (or a bit of both)? And, what are the similarities and differences between being cranky and being snarky? Does crank = cynical and snark = sarcastic? In what ways could we consider “cranking” and “snarking” as forms of resistance? And, what are their relationships to anger/rage and critique/problematizing, which are important forms of troublemaking resistance?

What if we thought about crankiness and snarkiness in terms of a system of queer feminist virtues?

Are they excessive (or deficient?) forms of virtuous rage and/or fault-finding? Hmmm….need to ruminate on that one for a bit. While I do, I want to archive this link to put beside my discussion of snarking and cranking as forms of critique/critical thinking:

On Smarm