Sunday, 20 May 2018

Saint John, New Brunswick

Neptune sighs
With the breath of a god who’s lived too long
And the fog descends 
Over the living and the dead of Saint John.

Centuries of Protestant pride
And Catholic shame
Loyalist blood
And famine-starved bone
Crunching together 
Like continental plates colliding 
Ploughing up mountains 
Resembling steeples.
Providing the habitat 
For that singular species 
The Old Saint John family.

They’ve created their own gods
Thick-featured statues with broad shoulders
Squatting outside Market Square
Appearing again 
In the paintings of Miller Brittain.
But these thick people are only aspirational. 

The Saint Johner 
Is as thin-skinned 
as the Pinot grapes
That also thrive 
under cover of fog.

The bricks of their ancient buildings
Mortared together
With centuries of insults 
both real and imagined 
(Seven parts of the latter 
to every one of the former).

They know their prayers.
But the one they know best
Is the one they'd never dare say
Before their neighbours.

A prayer the people in their Sunday finest
know better than the Lord’s
Than the Hail Mary.

We are afraid. 
We feel alone.
We want to be wanted.

A prayer that still echoes
Against the stone walls
Of their family chapels.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

What if Students Want to Write Poorly?


I was re-reading George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” recently and was struck by the relevance it still holds today. To recap, Orwell argues that the “ugly and inaccurate” use of written English that he witnessed during his time was not the mere by-product of untalented writers. Rather, it was a distinct trend motivated by political orthodoxies that sought to “give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Being the friend of many English instructors, I was particularly interested in Orwell’s suggestion that poor writing serves a strategic purpose, that it reflects the motives of writers whose goals are better served by vagueness than by clarity. Nearly every person I know who has taught a writing class has expressed frustration or dismay at the difficulty of turning a poor writer into a good one. When considered alongside Orwell’s essay, this challenge provokes me to ask: what if students want to write poorly?

What if they bring to writing a set of assumptions and goals that are incompatible with clear, concise expression?

Finally, how can understanding and addressing these assumptions and goals help instructors succeed in fostering better writers?
When I was fresh out of graduate school and looking for work in the private sector, I landed a part-time job as a proposal writer for an IT security company based in Toronto. Armed with a PhD in English Literature, I vibrated with excitement at the opportunity to prove my more practically-minded relatives wrong by showing how valuable my skills could be in the “real world.” I wasn’t prepared for the setback I’d experience after handing my boss my first draft proposal.

The man emailed the document back to me almost immediately demanding a full rewrite, noting that the document “didn’t speak the language” that was necessary to gain credibility in the IT sector. I needed to use more words like synergistic, architect (as a verb), leverage (also as a verb), and utilize. This last word pained me even more than the others, since Orwell himself once advised his readers never to trust someone who uses the word “utilize” when they could just as easily use “use.” Yet my boss insisted that demonstrating our comfort with consulting-sector jargon superseded the goal of communicating our value as clearly as possible. He also asked me to add more than ten pages of extraneous material simply to make the document appear more detailed and rigorous.
In another instance, I found myself arguing on the phone with a representative from a company that had overcharged me for a tax-filing service. Over and over, the young man on the other end explained to me: “It has been decided that you will not receive a refund.” Repeatedly, I demanded that the young man admit that a human being, located somewhere in the world, was responsible for this decision. But he wouldn’t budge from his use of the passive voice, and kept repeating “It has been decided” until I gave up in Kafkaesque despair.
What I soon learned in my postgraduate life was that even though clear expression is a great gift, the world constantly calls on us to obscure what we are saying for personal or professional ends. There are daily occasions where we must choose not to express ourselves clearly, but must pad our writing and speech with innumerable qualifications in order to achieve specific ends, whether it be to soften our tone when delivering bad news or to qualify our thinking with a dozen layers of nuance.  
To return to the question I posed at the beginning of this essay: what might motivate a student to write poorly? As many instructors will no doubt attest, teaching students to write well can be very difficult, even over the course of a four-year university degree program. A student might spend a few more hours than usual studying for a biology exam and expect to improve their grade on their next test. Yet spending a few extra hours on an English term paper (while always a fine idea), does not carry the same level of correlation to an improved mark. Anyone who has ever heard a student say something along the lines of, “But I worked so much harder on this one!” understands that this lack of correlation between increased effort and instant payoff can be a source of great frustration for students and instructors alike.
Mastering the mechanics and style of good writing is a long and difficult process. But I’m convinced that it is longer and more difficult than it needs to be, due to the assumptions and motives that students bring to the process.
Anyone who has ever taught a writing class will recognize the line, “Since the dawn of time, man has always…” This common opening reflects the writer’s inability to assign an appropriate level of scope to their argument. But it also reveals something more—the student’s engrained belief that English class is a place for lofty statements, the bolder the better. Such lines are the product of a culture whose concept of an English professor has not advanced beyond the likes of John Keating in Dead Poets Society.
To summarize, teaching students to write well is difficult not only because the craft itself is hard to master, but also because of the false beliefs and counterproductive motives that inform students’ concept of what writing is supposed to accomplish. For many people, and young people especially, writing is meant to convey one’s grandest ideas and to persuade others to agreement. Accomplishing as much will require a writer who can go beyond simple, clear statements. However, one can’t progress to the strategic use of language until they’ve grasped how to write an idea in simple terms. But as I’ve seen countless times, many people will actively resist putting their grandest ideas into simple terms.
One of the greatest gifts of youth is a belief in the uniqueness and world-shaping significance of one’s ideas. For many, these ideas exist not in words, but in the boundless enthusiasm that one might feel for a fragment or image that feels extremely insightful. Unfortunately, these ideas are much like dreams—incredibly interesting to the person who experiences them, but equally vague and boring to those who don’t. The holder of the idea will often resist expressing it in plain language, for fear of killing the happiness it inspires in them. Considered in the daylight of clear expression, the idea reveals itself to be not nearly as unique or compelling as its creator initially thought. This resistance to clear expression isn’t limited to young people. There are many adults I’ve met in my postgraduate life (especially entrepreneurs) who’d much rather preserve their enthusiasm for a vague idea than ruin it by trying to set it down in clear terms.  
This is all to say that there are powerful motives informing people’s unwillingness (and yes, I call it an unwillingness) to write clearly. When seen as the product of unwillingness as much as the product of inability, poor writing reveals why it is such a difficult problem to address.
I haven’t written anything in this essay that experienced writing instructors don’t already know. What I’d like to pose again, though, is the question: how might students and instructors both benefit if writing classes explored the motives of poor writing as thoroughly as they addressed the mechanics of strong writing? I'd be very interested in hearing people's thoughts on this subject in the comments below. 

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Right to Speak is Not the Right to be Heard

Free speech advocates will often accuse so-called Social Justice Warriors of shutting down speech with nothing more than a claim to victimhood, as though the marginalization of specific groups were based solely on a person’s squishy feeling of being victimized and not a matter of historical record (which it is. Anti-Jewish state propaganda exists. Laws banning women from voting exist. Look ‘em up). The next claim is that while such laws might have once existed, we’ve cleared them all away and now we’re all on an equal footing (let the moral hand-dusting begin). How these people would explain the overrepresentation of African Americans and Indigenous peoples in the prison system, or the high likelihood of assault being committed on members of the LGQTQ++ community remains a mystery to me if group-based marginalization doesn’t exist.

If these free speech advocates want us to be super specific about which speech SJWs want to shut down and which speech they don’t, they need to be equally rigorous about the flip side of the equation: what does and does not constitute a violation of a person’s freedom of speech? When we ask this question, we see just as much hand-waving by free speech “victims” as they accuse SJWs of engaging in.

So let’s start off with a baseline for a violation of a person’s freedom of speech.

Case #1: When the government threatens to legally prosecute, intimidate, or disappear someone based on something they’ve said.

That’s it. Seriously. That’s it.

The Antifa groups that sometimes engage in violence such as Nazi punching?

Nope, not a violation of a person’s freedom of speech. Even if you don’t believe in violence, this is a violation of a person’s right not to be assaulted. The assailant might not know the person is a Nazi at all. They may have thought the person in question was looking at them cockeyed. Even if you don’t believe in punching Nazis, this is (and is only) a violation of a person’s right not to be assaulted.

When a university denies someone the right to speak on campus?

Newp. Not a violation of their freedom of speech. This is a matter of campus policy. Different campuses have different policies about who can come onto their campus and speak, and they can change these rules any time they want. There may be some argument here based on the fact that these are publicly funded institutions, but the fact remains that policies about who can and can’t come speak on campus are different at different schools.

When I start screaming at someone to shut up and drown them out?

No, this doesn’t constitute a violation of that person’s freedom of speech. If it did, the free speech advocate would have to admit that speech in itself is capable of violating another person’s rights. That means speech is a form of violence, and the entire divide between speech and violence that free speech advocates rely on would come crashing down.

The screaming example raises another important point, and it’s one I repeat to myself whenever people start talking about their free speech being violated.

The right to speak is not the right to be heard.

In recent conversations on the internet (and they have been actual productive conversations), I’ve engaged free speech advocates about the idea of internet “mobbing” of those who express unpopular views, be it on the right or left. One claim to victimhood that is constantly made by free speech advocates is that when more than a few people (let’s say more than five) gang up on someone to call them a Nazi or some other epithet, this somehow constitutes a violation of that person’s speech. To these people, being a person who bravely presents a dissenting view to a group orthodoxy somehow constitutes a more authentic act of speech than those who just so happen to share a common reprisal. We can talk all we want about the necessity of maintaining civil discourse and a rational exchange of ideas, but this doesn’t come close to violating that person’s freedom of speech. If Twitter (a private company) bans that person or the people who come after them, it doesn’t violate anyone’s freedom of speech.

Why not?


Because the right to speak is not the right to be heard. 


Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Why Debate Will Not Save Us

Debates are won by good debaters, not good ideas. That's why.

Everywhere I look these days, I see people championing debate as the only way to preserve our democracy and move society forward. But this valorization is based on the false belief that debate is good thing in every context. Simply put, it isn’t, and it isn’t for one very obvious reason.

Debates are won by good debaters, not good ideas.

Some would argue that ideas operate in a sort of marketplace, and that if we allow all ideas to circulate freely, the best ideas will win out. This is simply not true. It would be more accurate to say that the ideas with the most powerful appeal to emotion will win out. As a marketing professional, I can tell you that my entire multi-billion-dollar industry is predicated on the knowledge that appeals to emotion will invariably win out over appeals to some higher-order reasoning.

This is all to say that we shouldn’t be so quick to celebrate debate as though it were good and that shutting it down were bad. 

The most vocal calls for debate nowadays tend to come from the alt-right and other regressive voices, which often take on the message of “Hey, I’m just asking questions,” or “Why can’t we put this to a debate?” But it must be understood what a debate fundamentally is, and how it can be distinguished from conversation. Which brings us to my second point.

A debate is a contest.

A debate is a contest in the same way that a fistfight is a contest. The contestants use words instead of their hands, which is more palatable to society. But in essence, a debate does not guarantee the victory of good ideas over bad ones any more than a fistfight does.

So why this valorization of debate? Quite frankly, because we like to see victors and we like to see losers. We like to hone our own debating skills. We like to believe that being a good debater is a sign of great intelligence or superior ideas. We lie awake in bed, algorithmically going over arguments we've had in the past, and thinking about what we could do better if we had it to do over again.

It is our love of blood sport that causes us to return to debate as the proper forum for contesting ideas. Of course, this assumes that contesting ideas occurs in a realm separate from the contesting of space and bodies. We fool ourselves into thinking that a debate is a clash of ideas between two disembodied, ungendered, raceless minds. We mock those who refuse to debate with the easy explanation that they’re simply afraid they’ll lose. In doing so, we implicitly state that we know that good debaters win debates rather than good ideas. But through this sleight of hand, we equate being a good debater with having good ideas.

Do we forget so easily that when people practise their debating skills through debate clubs and the like, these people are randomly assigned different points of view to argue for? In this, we see a complete disconnection between the ideas one is debating and one’s skill as a debater. This should seem very obvious, but the champions of debate as a vehicle of positive social change are very quick to forget that debate is a form of battle that tests one’s skills as a rhetorician, not one’s capacity as an ethical thinker.

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of debate altogether. But what we must do is shed this dangerous belief that debate is somehow inherently good and that closing off debate is inherently bad. Ultimately, debate is a contest, plain and simple. It tests a person's rhetorical skills, but tells us nothing about which ideas are better than others. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Progressive white men: give up your faith in your own persuasiveness

I’m a white cishet male who grew up in an upper middle class household and has enjoyed nearly every privilege our society can confer. I have always had a profound belief in the power of listening to your political opponents and using empathy and persuasion to bring them to a more progressive view of the world.

I now believe that this faith in persuasion has been fed to me since birth, and that it has had extremely damaging effects on those who are more vulnerable than myself, which is to say almost everybody.

Growing up, I was constantly exposed both at home and at school to the victories of twentieth-century civil rights movements. Yet this exposure was always filtered through a lens that privileged rhetoric as the principal vehicle of societal change. I was implicitly told that Martin Luther King Jr. was such a great public speaker that he more or less persuaded America to become less racist. When I saw footage of black bodies filling the streets and being attacked with dogs and fire hoses, it seemed as though the footage was only there to show me just how much injustice King had managed to overturn with his words.

In school, I learned that having a command of language was a form of magic, that it was the best and only way to further the cause of justice. My university education more or less confirmed this belief, as it confirmed that critical thinking and the persuasive essay were the greatest tools available for creating social change.

What I didn’t see in all of this were the bodies that had filled the streets throughout history, the erased and marginalized bodies that shouted and dared to take up space, and were destroyed. 

While these bodies were being destroyed, I watched a lot of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart during the Bush/Harper eras. Stewart's brand of comedy made me feel very self-satisfied in the knowledge that regardless of what way the world went, intellectual and moral superiority belonged to me and people like me.

Then Obama was elected, and it seemed as though the world had finally gotten its act together. Obama came into office validating what I had always believed. He said that he was going to heal a divided America by forging bi-partisan unity through the magic of compromise, empathy, and his peerless rhetorical and intellectual abilities.

Except that’s not what happened. Conservatives shut down Obama at every turn and forced him much farther toward regressive policies than the public ever could have imagined. Also, his bipartisan, consensus-building approach was wrong on at least one key point—Those in power are never persuaded to concede any of their power. They are only forced, and forcing them requires bodies in the streets.

Then came the Occupy Movement, which many criticized for its lack of focus. What did the protesters want? Who was their leader? The movement refused to answer.

I retreated to online message boards and coffee shop commiserations to express my anxieties about what I saw as the failure of the Occupy Movement. I didn’t realize that when the protests had "ended," the concepts of the economic 99% and intersectionality had become as common in media discourse as the concept of freedom had become under George W. Bush. Occupy shifted political discourse itself, a feat more important than pushing through any concrete policy. 

The time of reckoning for my faith in persuasion came with the election of Donald Trump. It felt at the time that intellect and a persuasive command of language truly didn’t matter. And that was really the most important lesson of all—that my ideas and my powers of persuasion were not nearly as consequential as I’d once thought.

Among the many privileges and fantasies the progressive man must interrogate and relinquish, one of the most destructive is his belief in his own persuasiveness. I think this belief is at the heart of many instances of mansplaining.

No, fellow men. Mansplaining doesn’t mean you’re never allowed to explain anything to anyone. It means that you need to be aware of that confidence that fills your veins when you feel like someone is not communicating a concept or idea as effectively as you could. If only you could just interrupt the person and fill in the gaps in their explanation. You feel yourself resisting because you know that interrupting is rude, but fuck would this conversation be over so much quicker if the other person just let you commandeer the explanation. Yes, other people can see this eagerness in your body language and your darting eyes, the expectant intakes of breath indicating that you’re only barely resisting the urge to interrupt. You’re right to think that holding back is better than actually interrupting. But don’t expect a cookie for your efforts. The same confidence can be seen when you spend more than thirty seconds explaining something without interruption, unaware that speaking without interruption is a privileged form of claiming and taking up space. 

One of my favourite novels is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. I used to think it was the book’s depiction of unreformed toxic masculinity that I found most compelling. But I think that what rings truest for me now is the fact that even after the time-traveling black protagonist Dana has repeatedly saved the life of her white slave-owning ancestor Rufus, the toxic male still tries to rape her and she must kill him. It is one of the most compelling depictions of the failure of persuasion and reformation I’ve ever encountered.

I used to despair at the ineffectiveness of the ideas I was encountering in my university classes, especially those involving critical theory that sought to identify systemic injustices in our language and material practices. I became overwhelmed by the reality that even when I invoked something as patently undeniable as, say, Eve Sedgewick’s work on homosocial relations, a friend or relative of mine could simply say, “Nah, I don’t buy it” and laugh when I persisted in flummoxed frustration. I despaired over the realization that an idea could never compel someone to agreement, no matter how true it was.  

It was only recently, while reading Angela Davis’ Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, and Judith Butler’s Notes on a Theory of Performative Assembly, that I realized what my problem has been all along. It’s a problem that might appear stupidly simple to anyone of less privilege than myself, but for me, it was nothing short of a fissure in the bedrock of my understanding. It was the realization that no powerful group has ever given up its power because it was persuaded to do so by a superior set of ideas. Rather, social change comes about only when bodies take up space and make a big, hot, stinky fuss. Protest doesn’t care whether anyone is persuaded by it—especially those who seek to silence the marginalized.  

This is why trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos are destined to lose. The only power they have is the power given to them by progressives who cling to a belief in the respectful exchange of ideas and the power of rhetorical persuasion. If a progressive gives up the belief that their ideas and intelligence are superior to those of their antagonists, the experience can be very liberating. No, we aren’t rhetorically superior to trolls, and it wouldn’t matter if we were. The right way to deal with someone like Milo is to go to one of his events and scream your fucking head off, a tactic that vulnerable people know and practice much more readily than people like me. That’s because they understand that contesting Power has never been a conversation—it has and always will be a fight, and it is only due to my enormous privilege that I’ve ever had the luxury of believing that a calm exchange of ideas and superior argumentation could bring justice for those more vulnerable than myself.

Yiannopoulos and his acolytes may try to hold themselves up as the great defenders of calm, respectful dialogue (which is bullshit, since Milo begins nearly every talk with some comment about a marginalized group that is extremely disrespectful. For some reason, his supporters think that if he issues his slurs with a calm voice, this somehow preserves his claim to a respectful exchange of ideas). But on top of this, people looking to defeat Milo need to realize that having better ideas or better arguments are completely inconsequential from a political standpoint. Power only responds when bodies make a big, hot, stinky fuss. This is not to say that ideas aren’t important. It’s just that persuading opponents is pretty far down the list of things that ideas are meant to accomplish. When you read Tah-Nehisi Coates’s account of encountering revolutionary ideas at Howard University in Between the World and Me, you don’t hear him talking about how he then used these ideas to persuade racist white people to become less racist. No, he used these ideas to understand his own experience and to illuminate injustice for other vulnerable bodies. 

The belief in the power to persuade is responsible for the rise of one of the most faithless characters we’ve seen crop up in the age of the Internet—the pathological devil’s advocate. Posturing as a Socratic gadfly, the devil’s advocate seeks to paralyze progressive arguments simply by exposing the fact that they—like all ideas—are predicated on a set of assumptions that begin to crumble when subjected to sophistic scrutiny.  But such weaponized skepticism is merely another tool of Power.

Power does not operate according to the laws of reason. It convinces you through your education that reason is a set of rules you should adhere to if you want to persuade people to accept your arguments. But then Power laughs at you when all of your arguments fail to prevent a Donald Trump from getting elected. This must mean there’s something terribly wrong with what you’re arguing, right? This must mean that we need to give up on the whole intersectionality thing and work harder to understand and empathize with the people who voted for Trump, right? Absolutely not. What the election and its aftermath have shown us is that the political change we seek will only come about if we make a big, hot, stinky fuss and keep on doing it indefinitely.  For privileged cishet white men like myself, it rests on the ability to let go of the fantasy of our own persuasiveness as a tool for meaningful social change. 

I need not make these points for those who have experienced vulnerability and marginalization in ways that I never will. But to privileged cishet white men like myself, I want to reiterate: give up your belief in your own intellect and persuasiveness—these things wouldn’t matter even if you possessed them. If someone reaches out to you for a genuine conversation, then meet them halfway. But be done with engaging devil’s advocates or those who never have and never will make an earnest attempt to defend the rights of bodies more vulnerable than their own. You can’t persuade these people about anything, and it wouldn’t matter if you could. The bigot’s support is inconsequential. The misogynist's is unwanted. Garnering his support simply doesn’t matter even if you can get it. It doesn’t matter whether your ideas win elections. Nixon created the EPA while Clinton deregulated the financial industry: what matters is the environment of protest that forces all of political culture to shift. That means you need to get out among bodies that are more vulnerable than your own, be the best ally you can be, and do whatever you can to make a

BIG

HOT

STINKY

FUCKING

FUSS.

And please, be mindful of how you’re taking up space when you do it.  Like I said earlier, there’s no precedent for a powerful group giving up its power willingly, and that group includes you. It’s not up to you to decide when you’re being a good ally. The group you’re trying to support gets to decide that.


  



Friday, 11 November 2016

An Email to My Mother in the Wake of Trump's Victory

Hi Mom, 

Sorry I've been a bit silent since Tuesday, but it's taken me this long to process what has happened in the U.S. I have decided, ultimately, that this might actually be a positive thing in the long-term, even if it's very difficult in the short term. Here are my reasons why. 

1) At heart, I am a New Brunswick populist. One of the reasons I left the academy is because I truly believe that highly educated progressives are far too dismissive of less-educated people, writing them off as racist idiots and demanding recognition of their own authority as highly educated intellectuals. I think the highly educated needed a huge trauma to make them understand that they need to do more to close the divide between themselves and the less-educated. We can look back to the 30s and 40s for inspiration, where many intellectual socialists spent almost all of their time among the working class, trying to organize and support them (i.e. Moses Coady, Jimmy Thompkins). I think intellectuals will finally get the message and get out of an ivory tower shell that has existed for too long and grown far too thick. 

2) The more difficult part here is that beyond the populist victory, this election demonstrates that many Americans fundamentally believe that the country belongs to straight, white people more than it does to anyone else. I think this is the aspect of the election that scares most people. But I think this is also going to be okay for several reasons. First, I don't believe that Donald Trump has turned anyone into a misogynistic, transphobic racist who wasn't already one. In fact, he has shone a light on how much this already exists in American society, and now America will have to deal with it. People will get hurt, but I think the long-term effect will be a progressive one because I think the election has made the American public more aware than ever before about how vigilant it needs to be in combating racism, sexism, and all of these other things that liberals were content to think could not carry an election. Violence has always been happening toward marginalized groups in the States, and now we're just going to pay more attention. This same debate is coming to Canada, and now we'll be ready for it.

3) I think that this election is going to spark a fundamental rethink of the Democratic party, which (let's face it), has been a pro-market right-of-centre party ever since Carter's crushing defeat by Reagan. A lot of people are now looking at Bernie Sanders and realizing that he may, in fact, have had a better chance of beating Trump. Even the notorious Charles Koch has come out in the wake of the election saying that Trump's victory demonstrates a frustration with the two-tiered society America has turned into. This might be a case where conservatives are actually embracing economic populism, as long as they feel like they're getting it on their terms instead of having it imposed on them by a leftist government. 

4) Like I said, the next two years (at least until the congressional elections) are going to be difficult. But they have also shown us that the flows of global capitalism are no longer an inescapable reality that both parties agree on. It has shattered a political inertia that I think has existed since Reagan, and in that sense, it really might be the punch in the face America needs. 

The sad part is that I have the privilege of writing this as someone who will likely be least affected by what's happening. The real struggle will come with the members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, African Americans, and other vulnerable groups who will need to stand up and fight a newly emboldened bigotry every step of the way. I am going to try to find new ways to get out of my comfort zone and be an ally to these efforts in any way I can. 

In any case, I just waned to share this. I love you Mom, and tell Dad I love him too. I think things are going to be okay. 

-Phil