Category Archives: language has power

The words we use change how we think. They’re valuable tools – but for whose benefit?

When free speech is expensive

This Saturday, the University of Washington College Republicans are bringing in a speaker from a right-wing group called Patriot Prayer, amidst protests by campus groups. The president of the university has warned people to stay away from the area for the entire day because the university has information that people are coming with the explicit purpose of instigating violence. Now, it also turns out, according to an article in the University of Washington’s Daily newspaper, that the College of Republicans is also suing because the University is imposing a fee of $17,000 to provide security. That is some expensive free speech!

Last year, on January 20th, when a protester was shot (by somebody who came to the university, with a gun, with the intent to use it, at an event sponsored by the College Republicans) he and his family and community paid dearly for medical costs. He almost died. This was free speech for the wealthy and powerful speaker, who wasn’t even a UW student, but expensive on many levels for everyone else.

In a free society, who should bear these costs?

Let’s suppose the College Republicans has to pay the $17,000 for security. I assume they could. But most student groups couldn’t, which in practice means they wouldn’t be allowed the same free speech rights as the College Republicans.

Something’s wrong here, not only with the situation, but also the way we’re all thinking about free speech. I have this to say to antifa activists regarding the “No Platform” strategy:  right now, it is the wrong tool for the job. More powerful and constitutionally defensible tools exist. For instance: what if every campus group demanded $17,000 for the combined costs of bringing out a speaker and paying for security? A call for “Equal Platform” — now, that would be free speech.

Above all else though . . . folks, be safe out there on Saturday.

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Watch your language . . . please?

So there’s an argument on social media somewhere. Doesn’t matter what the argument is. There are two sides to the argument, even though the issue itself may have many sides. You try to make a third point and are swarmed by angry hornets, maybe on one side or maybe on both.

Poor you! You’ve just been unfairly mobbed! It’s a witch hunt! Thought crimes! There’s no room for moderates any more!

What do you do? Retaliate, of course. Of course you do. Because on social media, you have to think fast and act fast. You take advantage of your brain’s superpower — and it is indeed a superpower — of quickly assembling meaning from a group of facts, of seeing patterns. And you respond.

But now you’re somebody else’s angry hornet.

For most folks on social media, the solution is simple: go offline, get a cup of tea, call a friend and vent, smell some flowers, or do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. Come back later when you’re calmer, or move on to some more pleasurable activity.

But there is one group of people for whom I have a higher expectation: public writers and bloggers. You, my dearies, are the ones that upset the hornet’s nest in the first place. This isn’t a value judgement. Sometimes a situation calls for a swarm of angry hornets.

But if you are writing for the public, if you set those hornets off accidentally, that’s on you. That’s your mistake. If you’re complaining about thought police and whatnot, and you’re doing it honestly (you don’t have a hidden agenda, that is), but not looking at where you might have gone wrong, you’re only compounding the mistake.

Me? Who? Me? I didn’t do anything wrong! I was just saying what I think!

Yes, you did do something wrong. You were careless with your craft. And if someone is kind enough to point it out to you, for heaven’s sake, pay attention! Put on that thick skin that all professional writers must have, and look past the sting of the comment to what the person is really saying. Writers mess up, all the time, but if we look honestly at our mistakes we will always improve.

Now, when I say you were careless with your craft, what I mean is that you didn’t bother to get to know your audience. And that’s Rule #2 for persuasive writing. (Rule #1 is “Consider your purpose” and Rule #2 is “Consider your audience”.) No matter how good of a writer you are, you will never have a full understanding of the depth and breadth of your audience’s viewpoints and life experiences.

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So why am I saying all this right now? Is there a specific piece and writer that set me off? Yes, there were two or three or four. But rather than go into the specifics, here’s what they did wrong.

  1. A respected Second Wave feminist who actually had something important to say about #Metoo but erred in using the phrase “witch hunt.” There were no actual witches in Salem, but there are plenty of people who sexually assault and harass others. This matters because some of the people who are actively fighting to maintain the status quo, such as Gamergater types, are also using the phrase “witch hunt.” Is it fair of people to accuse you of guilt by association? No, of course not. But, as a master wordsmith, did you really intend to align yourself with Gamergaters?
  2. Same feminist who is apparently getting into arguments with millenial feminists and wrote an article to defend herself against the claim that she is a “bad feminist.” This broke Rule #2, “Consider Your Audience,” because her message will be received positively by some audiences (anybody who feels defensive about being called a “bad feminist”) and with anger by others (millenial feminists who don’t feel listened to).
  3. A writer of an ostensibly progressive paper who started her article complaining about social media is a brush fire — which is true — and callout culture is a problem — also true, but lost me in the middle when she started talking about “thought crimes.” For some reason, although George Orwell coined the phrase to attack authoritarian governments, these days it’s mostly used to shut down conversations about racism, sexism, ableism, and the like. I paused in my reading of the article to wonder, “Which side is she on, anyway?” and then, “Should I bother finding out, or do I have better things to do?”

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To go all meta, let’s look at my purpose and audience in writing this piece.

My primary purpose is to provide an alternative perspective to a problem we’re all complaining about (other people being annoying on social media) and also to advocate for craft in persuasive writing. This is a bit of a follow-up on a series I started several years back on persuasive writing for activists and have yet to finish.

So far so good. But let’s be honest: my primary audience is imaginary. I wrote it for every single author who’s ever started a pointless argument over a topic that actually needs attention, and who, when called out, takes it personally and attacks back. This is what I’d say if we were in the same room and I had their undivided attention.

So there’s also a secondary audience: every writer everywhere who has to write for an audience of human beings. My condolences.

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Keep writing, but for the sake of your craft . . . mind your language!

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-Kristin

 

 

 

Muddled Privilege Conversations

Yesterday I came across a simple, effective lesson on privilege that missed out on something important. It came from a comic by Nathan Pyle, posted first on BuzzFeed and then on the Everyday Feminism site: “How One Teacher Taught the Class a Powerful Lesson about Privilege.”

The Lesson

The teacher instructed students to crumple up pieces of paper and toss them in a recycling bin. Students in the front row had it easy, but oddly enough, students in the back row had it much harder. So far so good. But. The moral at the end.

Your job — as students who are receiving an education — is to be aware of your privilege. And use this particular privilege called “education” to do your best to achieve great things, all the while advocating for those in the rows behind you.

What’s wrong here? In short, it’s all about preserving privilege and power. It’s assuming an audience of privileged people and presenting them with a recommended course of action–all the while ignoring the folks in the back, and with them, any possible chance of doing away with privilege altogether.

Rather than argue my points, let’s play with a couple of different scenarios and see what happens. We’ll name the students in the front row A and B; the second row C and D; and the third row E and F.

Scenario #1: Bow to the Teacher’s Wisdom

All the students throw their crumpled papers. A and B succeed, and consider it a job well done. The second row students try diligently. C barely makes it, while D misses, resolving to try better next time. E and F aren’t even close. They complain bitterly and start arguing with the rest of the class.

“Well, I didn’t make it either, and you don’t hear me complaining,” replies D.

The teacher imparts his wisdom and most of the students nod thoughtfully,  imagining themselves in the front row of life and resolving to be kind to those less fortunate. But the back row students feel something’s off.

After the bell rings, E complains to F: “You mean to say the best I can hope for is to throw my paper, fail, and get a pat on the head from B?”

F shrugs. “Guess so. Jerks.”

(Later that evening, the janitor comes in and cleans up the crumpled papers, feeling mild irritation at these careless, privileged students.)

Scenario #2: Classroom Warfare 

In the middle of the teacher’s speechifying, E breaks out and says, “That was not fair! I demand a redo!”

“What’s your problem?” asks A.

“You’re way up close!” says F.

“That’s not our fault!” says A.

In the second row, C turns around and says, “You sat in the back row. You don’t deserve to score. But I tried.”

E and F start crumpling fresh pieces of paper and get out of their seats for an impromptu redo.

“Sit down, students!” calls the teacher. “I wasn’t done explaining!”

E and F keep moving forward.  Afraid of violence, D asks everybody to quiet down and listen to the teacher. Meanwhile, A, B, and C have gotten out of their seats and formed a protective wall in front of the recycling bin.

A and F start yelling at each other. D starts shouting that it’s just a game. E pushes a chair up to the blockade and starts to climb up, B kicks it away, and A brandishes a ruler. D knocks over a desk. By the time the bell rings, the classroom is trashed and two kids are in detention.

(And the janitor is not pleased.)

Scenario #3: Somebody Uses their Imagination

Before any crumpled papers are thrown, F blows a whistle and says, “This is completely unfair!”

“So what?” says A. “It’s just a game. We sit in the front row, we win. It’s that simple.”

“You people are so sensitive,” says D.

The teacher tries to break in. “Students, this is a lesson about privilege. And your job, as students receiving an education, is to be aware of your privilege, and to advocate for others who are less fortunate.”

F blows the whistle again. “I vote we put the recycling bin in the back of the room. All in favor?” E shouts “Right on!” But C and D just look confused.

“This is a classroom, you moron, not a presidential election,” says A.

But C’s eyes light up. “Let’s put it in the exact middle.”

“Right next to you, of course,” A remarks. “As if.”

“Why do you care?” asks C. “It’s no farther away from you than it is now. You have the same chance of success.”

“Because it’s not FAIR to ME,” says A, with an eyeroll. B snickers and nods.

The teacher scolds A and B, saying, “Remember your privilege, and to advocate for those more fortunate.”

B looks a little abashed. “How about we give them more practice time?”

“Wait, I know!” says E. “We could move the chairs into a circle.”

“Sorry, but no,” says the teacher. “Moving furniture is not allowed for this exercise.”

All eyes turn to the teacher.

“Why?” asks E.

“Because I’m in charge, and I say so.”

“Now, that’s privilege,” says D.

“Well . . . no. . . ” says E, thinking hard. “Not privilege. Power. The power to impart privilege to some and not to others.”

The teacher makes eye contact with A and B and rolls his eyes conspiratorially. “That’s enough for today, students.”

F blows the whistle again. “All in favor of moving the chairs?”

The vote is not even close. The teacher vetoes, and A and B refuse to participate in the vote on the grounds that voting in a classroom is ridiculous. But the second and third rows are unanimous.  Chairs are moved. The game is played. Everybody wins.

(And the janitor has nothing to clean and goes home early.)

The Moral of the Story

It’s all well and good for the front-row students to understand their own privilege. But what then? What is to be done with that information, and who is capable of doing it?

(Aside from offering those questions, I have no Official Wisdom to impart. Make your own moral.)

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– Kristin

 

Who makes public policy?

Lawmakers pass laws. Lobbyists influence lawmakers and therefore the laws. But who writes the laws? And most importantly, who decides on the public policy that shapes the laws? That’s the part of government that we don’t usually see. Luckily, it’s easy to find, if you know where to look.

The private sector creates public policy. This includes for-profit corporations, nonprofits, billionaire philanthropists, and think tanks. One well-known example of the private sector creating policy is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – read more about them here.

ALEC does their work in secret, but many organizations do the same thing out in the open. I found this out when I started learning about corporate education reform, which mostly means creating opportunities for the private sector to take public education dollars and use them to “improve” public education and control what is taught to our kids. For the public to swallow this, I learned, it took quite a bit of propaganda. Being a curious person, I researched and wrote a post on the think tanks that create the propaganda.

As it turns out, these same think tanks are holding policy discussions on topics that affect us, and our children, quite intimately. Seattle Public Schools, along with thousands of schools across the nation, is about to administer a suite of tests called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. These tests are meant to measure student mastery of the Common Core, a set of education standards that was designed and promoted by the private sector — specifically, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), two nonprofits. These standards are copyrighted by the NGA and the CCSSO, meaning that any modifications to the standards are completely out of the control of the public.

Let’s go back to the think tanks for a minute. One of the think tankers I mentioned in my blog post on think tankers is named Rick Hess, or Frederick Hess. He’s a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which was founded in 1943 by a combination of thinkers, business leaders, and finance leaders. It has drawn fire over the years for spreading propaganda for the tobacco industry and for bribing scientists to disseminate information that undermined legitimate research on global warming. Not a poster child for the public good.

Hess, to my surprise, came out with criticism of the Common Core. Curious as always, I poked around a bit and found that the AEI had hosted a symposium with the topic “Common Core Meets the Reform Agenda.” It asked the question: “Going forward, will the Common Core initiative complement or conflict with the school reform agendas that states are currently pursuing?” That question was tackled by people who influence policy in one way or another (see participant bios).

The papers show a debate over various corporate reform policies such as high-stakes testing, charter schools, and the Common Core. For example, here is a policy recommendation from the article “The Common Core Standards and Teacher Quality Reforms” by Morgan Polikoff.

(A quick note: There is a note on this article claiming it is a draft and asking people not to cite it. That’s silly. Since it’s online, it is published, and citations fall under fair use guidelines.)

“Because these changes are happening simultaneously, both reforms might be more faithfully applied if there were a moratorium on making high stakes decisions about teachers (e.g., hiring, firing, tenure) until after the Common Core and its assessments are fully implemented.”

So the recommendation is to implement Common Core and assessments, and then work on legislation to use those assessments to make high-stakes decisions about teachers.

That conversation ought to have occurred in the public eye and with the involvement of the public, especially the parents, teachers, and students this recommended policy will impact.

It didn’t. That’s not how our government works.

But seeing what’s going on behind the scenes does give us the ability to stop it. Knowing about ALEC, for instance, has helped us oppose dangerous laws before they are passed.

Knowledge is power.

Knowledge is Power!

Conversation-Fail Bingo Card

A unicyclist goes down the street. A passerby says, “Hey, you’re missing a wheel!” It’s a funny joke and the passerby thinks she just said something incredibly clever and original. The unicyclist shakes her head and moves on, because she’s heard it a thousand times before.

Online conversations with men and women often have the same kind of problem. A man says something offensive, and a woman gets angry not only because it was offensive, but also because she’s heard it a thousand times before.

To make matters worse, there’s a pattern at work in online conversation, a collection of ways that men frequently dominate the conversation, minimize women’s concerns, patronize women, and argue when they ought to be listening. Each of these things piss us off, and a big collection of them pisses us off even more.

To make matters even worse, this often starts a general communication breakdown in which women try to explain what’s happening and men argue with the women.

It can be difficult and time-consuming for us to explain what’s going on, because we have gotten angry without necessarily noting each individual thing that was a problem. The human brain is adept at recognizing patterns. Once we’ve learned a pattern, we see the forest but we can forget about the trees. So a woman might see this pattern, get angry, but not necessarily know which trees pissed her off. Meanwhile, it’s common for a man to demand that a woman produce the one tree that’s the problem, then argue with the women about that one tree. No learning occurs, no problems are solved, the conversation derails, and nobody’s happy.

This Bingo card is a way of addressing the problem. Men can use it as a self-education tool, and women can use it as a way to explain the problem without having to go through the hugely frustrating process of explaining each point one by one. Think of it as a diagnosis tool. If squares keep getting marked, there’s a problem. The more squares, the worse it is. Time for an intervention!

There’s also a companion card, a Conversation-Win Bingo Card, here.

If you don’t know what a Bingo card is, do a google search for “feminist Bingo card” or “racist Bingo card” or something like that, and you’ll find one. It’s full of offensive things that people say on a certain topic. Things that have been said a thousand times and piss people off more every time they’re said. If somebody can make Bingo, the conversation is a Fail. If you don’t know what a Fail is, do a google search for the word “racefail.”

Conversation-Fail Bingo Card

Conversation-Fail Bingo, a.k.a Mainsplaining Bingo, a.k.a. Bingo Card for Troubles with Online Communication Between Men and Woman

A companion to the “Conversation-Win Bingo Card”

Conversation-Win Bingo Card

My last post was a Conversation-Fail Bingo card. It’s a diagnosis tool to find out if there’s a problem in an online conversation between men and women. But then what? How can it be fixed? Or prevented in the first place? So here is a companion card, a Conversation-Win Bingo card. These are some things men can say to up the overall quality of a conversation between men and women. Or any conversation between any gender, for that matter!

 

A companion to the Conversation-Fail Bingo Card

A companion to the Conversation-Fail Bingo Card

Creative writing programs and the CIA fan club

This week, author Eric Bennett dropped a rather enormous bombshell on the literary world. The CIA, as it turns out, helped spread propaganda through creative writing programs all across the United States.

What? How?

Through the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, the most prestigious and influential creative writing program in a U.S. university. To make a long story short, in 1960 Paul Engle, the head of the program, wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation explaining exactly how his program could help fight communism (by bringing foreign writers to Iowa to indoctrinate them). He got the money, and later money from the CIA and the State Department, and used it to implement his plan. In essence, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop under Engel became the CIA Fan Club. The money, and the director who sought it out, left an enduring mark on creative writing programs all over the country.

You can read more about this from Bennet and a rebuttal from a University of Iowa Professor Loren Glass.

All this money brought prestige and influence to the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which in turn influenced the creative writing programs that came after. Bennett writes, “The Iowa Writers’ Workshop emerged in the 1930s and powerfully influenced the creative-writing programs that followed. More than half of the second-wave programs, about 50 of which appeared by 1970, were founded by Iowa graduates. Third- and fourth- and fifth-wave programs, also Iowa scions, have kept coming ever since.”

With this influence, the Iowa Writers Workshop exported its long-held values – “middlebrow realism,” as explained by Glass in his rebuttal. And it exported Cold War propaganda.

Having gone through an MFA program and a creative writing undergraduate program, I have to say that this explains a whole lot. I’ve been busy re-evaluating my experiences in view of the larger picture. I wasn’t just learning writing, I was learning what the rich and powerful wanted me to learn.

The most obvious example took place in graduate school. Many writing professors will tell you that political writing is bad writing. (Of course, that’s a complete misunderstanding of politics. Everything is political. If you don’t see it, that’s just because it reflects the politics of the dominant culture.) At the time Paul Engle headed the program, that would have meant commie writing is bad writing, but today it means more than that. So on time my professor asked us to hand in some story ideas. I had an idea about something that happened to the anarchist Emma Goldman. I wasn’t sure I could pull it off – it would involve doing historical research and somehow transforming that moment into fiction. He returned it with a note explaining that stories starting from politics turn out badly. So I chose a different idea, having to do with a husband and a wife and some turtles. The Emma Goldman incident never made it into story form, although I did write an essay about it for the Aqueduct Press blog.

I would have been more skeptical of the concept if I had thought it came from the CIA. But no, it came from a trusted professor. And who taught him? Not any particular person, I imagine. It was just in the air.

That’s the obvious example. But the influence of the CIA Fan Club also spread to the seemingly apolitical – to general questions of content, style, and narrative structure. Good writing met the expectations of the “middlebrow” white male with his wife and children and white picket fence. Bad writing didn’t.

Those seemingly apolitical questions played a huge part in my writing development in my very first university courses. Creative writing programs at the university are deeply influential in a writer’s aesthetic. Writers, and especially beginning writers, have the disadvantage that they really don’t know which stories are good and which aren’t. We write what’s in our heads, and it may or may not please the reader. We don’t know until someone has read it and given us feedback.

I first studied creative writing in the early 1990s at the University of Utah under writers such as Jan Nystrom and François Camoin. They taught both the “traditional” writing that the Iowa Writers Workshop favored and “experimental” writing, a kind of writing that plays with narrative structure and style and today would be called postmodern. I felt the pull of both.

One of the wonderful things that Jan Nystrom and François Camoin did for me as a writer was to expose me to all kinds of interesting “experimental” writers. This was important, because the writing I was already doing coming into the creative writing program differed from the expected norms. I felt very much at home with Leonard Michaels’ lyrical prose, especially a story about a hotel maid who kept cleaning the same room over and over and finding more and more disturbing things. That was a story that went straight to the imagination and the spirit. I also felt at home with Grace Paley’s stories, which didn’t use quotation marks for the dialogue. This gave the dialogue an internal feel.

These stories became part of what I saw as possible in literature. Another couple of things that stood out –

  • Jan Nystrom wrote a story about women who fly around and leave shoes on roofs. There wasn’t any (rather Freudian) climax, but I loved it, and along with the work of Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley it became part of the inspiration for my Pushcart Prize-winning story “The Wings.”
  • Sophia Kartsonis’ first story was very lyrical and poetic. Somebody questioned whether it was too poetic to be a good story. To me, the poetry enhanced the appeal. I raised my hand and said so. As for me, my first story to be workshopped had comma splices for most of the sentences. This was entirely intentional and was part of the rhythm of the story. One of the classmates saw that as a big flaw and said so, but Camoin stuck up for me. In a different workshop, I might have been squashed by both the classmate and the teacher.

Also on the plus side, Camoin told us which literary magazines would accept experimental writing. It was only a small fraction, but it saved me a lot of trouble and got me published.

On the minus side, even though there was a lot of freedom and flexibility in the curriculum, there was also a lot of emphasis on “minimalist” writing, which is basically “show, don’t tell” taken to an extreme. The author’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions are theoretically omitted, as are explicit politics. This is one of the three favored forms of writing by the Iowa Writers Workshop, according to Bennett. (Bennett called it “cold” writing, but the kind of minimalist writing we looked at had dazzling language. Dazzling, but not gorgeous in the way something like Virginia Woolf’s work is gorgeous. More like a stained glass window than a river.) Just from a craft side, I learned a lot of bad habits there, which I had to unlearn in graduate school and beyond. Thing is, you can only skip telling if your reader is coming at you from a common cultural context, which is rarely the case.

Also on the minus side, this freedom of narrative structure came at the expense of the ability to publish some of my stories. I have written a couple of stories that just weren’t suited to go anywhere. They’re not bad stories; they just didn’t meet a particular literary aesthetic.

And so the years went by and a lot of things happened with my writing that I’ll also write about if I have time. I’ve abandoned a fair number of stories that didn’t meet expectations for narrative structure and I’ve edited out various experimental aspects of stories. And I’ve always wondered: Is something wrong with my story, or is there something wrong with the writing aesthetic? I still don’t know. Writers can judge their own work, but only to a point.

But you know what? Every time I did something unusual, whether it succeeded or whether it failed, I was fighting Cold War propaganda.

I’m pleased.