Saturday, February 18, 2006

What I Didn't Say

  • That Allison and p'tit boo are capitalists, not "radicals." Perish the thought. I said that an attitude of "scarcity" underlies a capitalist viewpoint, and that an attitude of emotional scarcity -- that there is only so much understanding and sympathy to go around -- reflects this orientation. Nevertheless, p'tit boo has it exactly right: "how can we not come from a capitalist perspective ? That would be like you telling us we are coming from a human perspective.... Can we help it ?" Exactly. And exactly what I have been saying about the middle class as well, by the way. Of course, George might respond to you as he did to me: you are "refusing responsibility for the world in which [you] move [saying:] "we are victims, therefore our situation is beyond our control." This is a key quality of anyone who describes himself as a victim of forces outside his self." I don't think that is what you are saying, and it certainly is not what I am saying (see below). I think it is hard to argue that human beings are not affected by the environment in which they live -- not controlled by them, but affected by them. You can't be condemned for speaking English if you grew up in an English-speaking environment, but you can go out and learn Chinese if you want to. Which brings me to the next thing I did not say...
  • That the middle class should be absolved of responsibility for the world's injustices. Creating straw men and then heroically knocking them down is one of George's favorite tactics lately, and I'm not certain what that is about. In this case, he shifts the focus from what I was writing about (the pain and frustration felt by the middle class, which deserves understanding, even respect) to what he is interested in: judgment and condemnation of unethical actions by members of the middle class. I am not an apologist for unethical behavior, crime, exploitation, and dishonesty by anyone. Those actions must be judged and condemned harshly. But unless you believe that millions and millions of people who make over a certain amount of money (and just what is that amount -- just more than what you make?) are all active criminals -- that the middle class is comprised of variations on the image of a "mid-level New York corporate lawyer who is finding a way around an FDA restriction for his drug-company client" (another Hunka straw man), this argument doesn't hold water. The fact is that most middle class people are working schlubs who push paper 40 hours a week, not Snidely Whiplashes exploiting the poor and the sick. They also run non-profits, teach young people, counsel the poor, lead churches, heal the sick, and run restaurants. They are being lumped together. I also did not say:
  • That the theatre should be used as "a hankie for the well-intentioned tears of the rich." In fact, I said nothing about how plays should be written or performed, what they should be about, or anything about production at all. I was discussing the attitude of hostility and disdain toward the middle-class as human beings. This is about more than artists, this is about the world as a whole. The tendency to dehumanize groups of people in order to feel better about attacking them currently permeates every corner of the globe. The terrorists do it so they can blow themselves up killing innocent people, and the anti-terrorists do it so they can fire missiles into cities and bulldoze homes; the anarchists do it so they can smash windows and burn cars, the concervatives do it so they can exploit foreign workers and ruin the environment; the rich do it so they can feel good about their obscene incomes, the poor do it so they can feel good about robbing their neighbors; the white do it, the black do it; men do it, and women do it. If there was a global religion, it could be based on the creation and dehumanization of Others. It isn't any prettier when it is artists dehumanizing the middle class. We justify it on the basis on reciprocity: I did it to them, because they did it to me. p'tit boo denies hating and disrespecting anyone"purposely," but then says "And even if I did, well I am being disrespected and disregarded on a daily basis silently and passive agressively through the sexism," which I guess makes it alright. Goose-gander. There's another variation that leads to the same result. Allison writes, "Yes, of course all people, on an individual level, ought to be treated with respect for who they are, not whom they represent." [ital mine] But once there is more than one, apparently they are fair game for dehumanization and demonization. Or is there some point at which we reach critical mass for demonization? Under ten? Under 100 -- say, the capacity of an Off-Off Broadway theatre? Once it's Off-Broadway theatre, feel free to bash away? I don't understand how you can respect people one at a time, but disrespect them in groups. Seems hypocritical to me. Seems like it leads to comments like, "Some of my best friends are black" while simultaneously talking about "them damn niggers." And the final thing I did not say:
  • That all pain is equal, that all victims are equally damaged. Obviously. In fact, I said this explicity, even giving it its own paragraph for emphasis: "I am not pleading for moral equivalence: the pain of the middle class is not the moral equivalent of the pain of the oppressed." But we are back to the first point: understanding and sympathy are not scarce resources -- they can be produced at will. p'tit boo agrees: "I don't believe there aren't resources to go around or that the pain of one person can be compared or takes away from the pain of another person." George also agrees: "Nowhere do [Allison and p'tit boo] suggest that the pain of individuals, whoever they are, of whatever class, is unworthy of assuagement." [Again, note the reference to "individuals."] But then there is this from Allison: "I wasn't saying that one should not feel empathy for the dilemmas of young people: I was saying that it is somewhat obscene, in this world where there are people who are unambiguously suffering, and especially when much of that suffering is caused by the economic structures that create our own privilege, to posit these privileged kids as "victims." Are we arguing about a word? Victim means: "One who is harmed by or made to suffer from an act, circumstance, agency, or condition." Not good enough? Pick another. They have been programmed, tested, categorized, and controlled. They have been tested in 8th grade and "tracked" for college, college tech, or labor -- in 8th grade!!! So pick your word. What would you call them? Privileged? And let's examine the word "obscene"? It is "obscene" to extend your sympathy widely? You'll have to explain how MORE understanding is better than LESS. Unless you think it runs out, and then we're back to the beginning.


Alison Croggon said...

Scott - now, instead of my (and others) complaining that you are misrepresenting me, you are complaining that I am mispresenting you, in the process grossly misrepresenting other things that have been said by me, P'tit Boo, George and others. This argument is getting somewhat circular, and I hate having to repeat myself, so I might give it up after this. For the record, my name is spelt "Alison".

(The thing about "radical" was, btw, a joke...still, you didn't pick up on the line of thought I was suggesting with Adorno, or Baumann, or anything I actually said.)

Who is "dehumanising" the middle classes? You make it sound like a progrom is happening, and soon heads with be stuck on pikes, which couldn't be further from the truth. Critique, however trenchant, of social or artistic phenomena is not the same as a Nazi edict, which is what you seem to be suggesting here. For example, you must have forgotten, Scott, or neglected to read the stuff I said about Baumann's analysis of the middle classes, which is not so far from what you're saying here.

I do not hate (your word) the "middle classes"; I am critical of certain middle brow art that confirms the comforts of the privileged, the kind of work that comes pretty neatly under Brecht's definition of "bourgeois theatre" (it's in his theory somewhere, but it's early, I can't be bothered to look it up). This art and the social discourse that surrounds it is actively damaging to art that I love, and in wider terms to many other things I love; I would be failing my own moral duty if I didn't criticise it, and did not defend the things that I value (which include, btw, love and the possibility of human understanding as well as aesthetic value). I will always attack that blindness, because it denies so many aspects of human reality, and has a vested interest in doing so; it has privilege to protect.

Your (I think somewhat wilful) mistake is in confusing that criticism with hate speech. It's parallel to that line of thought that claims feminists are ball-breaking man haters. I'm proudly feminist, and I love men. I have two sons, a husband, many male friends. But I still hate misogyny when I strike it, I hate what the enforcement of gender roles does to both men and women, and I will always attack the violence that ensues from that. That is by no means the same as "hating" men.

Scott: I don't understand how you can respect people one at a time, but disrespect them in groups. Seems hypocritical to me. Seems like it leads to comments like, "Some of my best friends are black" while simultaneously talking about "them damn niggers."

I personally totally resent the claim that I am "dehumanising" the middle classes and that, by extension, I am culpable of racism, sexism and other kinds of bigotries. Perhaps you could read my posts again. I said, very precisely, that people at an individual level should not be regarded as representative of a group, but met on their own terms, as human beings. This seems to me to be the total opposite of racism, classism or sexism, where a person is met as representative first - Woman, Black, Muslim, underprivileged, Middle Class. I, personally, refuse to patronise people like that, since I loathe being patronised myself; it is often easier dealing with an out-and-out misogynist than a closet sexist. Those who see others primarily in terms of social labels and who do not wish themselves to appear prejudiced (since it is socially unacceptable) often entertain that parody of "tolerance", the other face of bigotry, where one assures oneself that one is "tolerant" of Blacks, women, Arabs, the disabled, whoever, because one sees what victims they are and has compassion for them, and is primarily anxious to demonstrate to any representative of said "minority" (I have a lot of problems with thinking of women as "minority") one's credentials as a liberal human being. Thus, once again, erasing them as people.

Perhaps Scott, if you had demonstrated in your earlier posts some real awareness of a larger context and perspective which included the hidden majority of those dispossessed by our privilege, rather than (as is the case in the media and everyone else) focusing on the suffering of the middle classes with no reference to anyone else, you might not have got the reactions that you did. I stand by my word "obscene" here; the obscenity lies in the erasures implicit in your argument, not in the people themselves. Once again, I do not indulge in hate speech, and can't see anyone else doing so. That is the real straw man: and it is a straw man that seems designed to hobble any kind of critical thought about the place of social and economic privilege in our society.

All right, I'm outta here.

George Hunka said...

In no way, Scott, do I "demonize" the middle class (turning them something into they're not, characterizing them as evil); nor do I call all of them active criminals. Even when I say that a fraction of them might be "spiritually or conceitedly dead," I don't dismiss the possibility of their spiritual
rebirth, but yes: I doubt this sort of theater has the capacity for being the inspiration for this rebirth.

Anybody who has read even a fraction of what I've written on "Superfluities" is aware that I would never, ever, have the simplistic audacity to hurl hatred at a group of people regardless of a shared class, race, religious faith or anything else. But each individual must accept his culpability for the suffering of the world, and real compassion is impossible until one has accepted that responsibility. Those who wield economic and political power are less likely to do so, for their social and economic positions are those very positions that would be under threat if they did.

What you have done is essentially seized upon five or six words ("middle-class suburban or suburban-minded community") in my longer, nearly 1000 word post and by doing so attempt to discredit whatever "ideas" (remember those?) that I may have expressed. And, for whatever reason, you have decided to mark me personally as a "classist." What you don't take up at all is "complacency," a word that occurs much more frequently in my original post, instead taking me personally to task and, in a way, demonizing me, as a hater, a bigot, a narrow-minded ideologue.

That's just bullshit, Scott. And you know it.

P'tit Boo said...

Hi all...

I just wrote a really long response and the internet decided to not post it and lost it. So ... I'll attempt to write it again soon but that's that for now.

Joshua said...

Goodness, I take a few days away to work on a couple projects and a whole shitstorm explodes . . .

P'tit Boo said...

Ha ha... it's not a shitstorm. It's just a storm !!!!
Stay tuned for more...

P'tit Boo said...

Allright… Here I go.
It’s not as fresh as it was so it might not have the fire it originally had, but nonetheless.

First of all, I have to say that Alison said a lot of the things I wanted to say and better than I could have so I won’t repeat them.

Scott, I feel that with this addendum/ response/ disclaimer … you are now “exploding” the whole previous post and really straying away from the original argument. Which is what you accused us of doing. So how many times can we go around?
I would have appreciated your response more had you taken the time to perhaps carefully look at the buttons that Alison and I pushed in you instead of shifting the discussion to the personal. Because my feeling is that our responses just pushed a lot of buttons and provoked you on a deep level. You‘d not have spent that much time responding otherwise.
I don’t know you (except for having read your words) and perhaps that’s incredibly self righteous of me to say that. But if we aren’t honest at this point, then the conversation is pointless. And at least I am not trying to tell you what the buttons are and where they are leading you…

I feel that now we have to spend time setting the record straight and clarifying what we did and did not say instead of discussing the issue at hand. This is too bad. But at the same time, I really can’t let you call me a racist. And even though it’s not what you said, the metaphor is inappropriate.
FYI, I grew up on a sailboat around the world from age 6 to 16 and most of my friends growing up were not of the same skin color, race or culture as me. Not to say that that doesn’t make me incredibly privileged still, but just to show you how assumptions are just bad in some cases. I don’t usually flaunt that around but saying that my arguments equated or potentially led to racism or radicalism is just down right offensive. And uncalled for.

I also feel that I need to respond to your interpretation of my sentence about not offending “purposefully”. You just flew with that and once again reduced me to the stereotype of “an eye for an eye man hater type.” WOW.
I only said that I don’t offend purposefully because who can assume they never offend. If you are human you are going to offend *somebody* at some point. And that‘s what I meant. I meant that I always come from love and respect and I can’t assume that everyone is going to see that. Obviously, you proved me right. As you’re tagging me with all kinds of radical positions that are just not me.
I wasn’t saying: "there aren’t many female playwrights so I don’t read male playwrights!" I wasn’t saying " I am being ignored so I’ll ignore them!" I was simply stating a truth and saying that If I inadvertently offend it’s really not such a big deal in a world that *purposefully* offends *me* on a daily basis!!!

Now back to the issue at hand.
Of course I believe that everyone deserves to be loved, listened to, cared for and much much more.
I also believe that everyone should have food, shelter and access to basic needs.
I know this is old news ( unfortunately) but you know as well as me that most of the world does not have these basic needs met. You know as well as me that the only reason why you and I (and yes your students!!!) can even have these conversations is because we have the luxury of thought. And yes it is a luxury in this world to not have whole days occupied by basic survival and safety. And not a small one.
And that is exactly why the word victim not only does not apply in the case of the kids you are talking about but it is plainly indecent. It is obscene.
In the same way that TV shows that waste food on TV by playing with it are indecent and obscene. These people could say they are aware and caring of the starving children but that throwing this food around isn't taking anything away since they can't send it there anyway... It's still obscene.

Now, you’ll tell me again that calling them victims isn’t you trying to draw comparisons. That it isn’t taking away the pain of others. True .It isn’t.
But let me tell you Scott, the people who cry with me over my pain aren’t the ones who teach me anything. It has been my experience (as a middle class white girl that I am) that even though I have had some hard times in my life and even though it is hard to find yourself in this want/buy/have capitalist world as a generation X kid, I cannot, I do not have the right to feel like a victim.
Because no one living in a country that has 40 percent of the world’s resources can call themselves a victim. That’s just ludicrous!
And yes, that is a capitalist perspective, because like I said, that’s what I’ve got.
So you should call it realistic instead.

The teachers, who have taught me the most in my training, have been the ones who have empowered me rather than victimized me. It is your duty as a teacher to hear these kids yes. It is your duty to make them feel listened to. And to acknowledge the pain and struggles that they have. But by calling them victims, you weaken them. You do not teach them that their privileges are enormous and that they must be shared and in some cases even renounced for the world to become a more balanced place. Using sexism again ( because that is really the only capacity in which I can even experience minority) , I do believe that a man who speaks to other men about producing more women plays is always going to be way more powerful than me or any other woman playwright saying that.
So yes, a middle class man talking to middle class kids is also going to have more leverage. But your duty is to provoke them. To hear their pain and not give it too much weight. So that they might be able to see that they are not victims in any way.

Are we arguing over one word?
But you are the first one to know that words are power. And you are the first one to chose yours carefully so don’t get mad and petty with us when we actually give your words weight and consequences.

There have been wars fought on the basis of one word. And words are what you use in the classrooms.
It matters.
And you know it does.