Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Opinions Are Balloons: Social Media Manifesto for Conversation

A question I've heard asked more than once this week is, "How is Thanksgiving going to be? What if people bring up politics?" There seems to be a higher-than-usual degree of anxiety about this, although who knows. 
What I suggested to one person is that it is not so much what we talk about as how we talk about it. If politics is too painful or contentious, something else might be best, but I would actually recommend finding a topic where other views or opinions are present and practice the art of conversing and comparing differences. 
Coincidentally, I recently felt the need to make a statement about a culture of conversation for my Facebook page. Perhaps there is a thought here that might be of use:
Welcome to “my” page on Facebook. I put “my” in quotes because obviously none of this is mine: I don’t own this platform or how it is designed. As Facebook users, it is important to remember that we are not the customers - we are the product. Facebook is a business that caters to advertisers, who pay for the opportunity to advertise at us. 
Nonetheless, many of us find Facebook useful for staying in touch with friends and family; networking; sharing items of interest; or some combinations of these things. I use Facebook for all of these purposes. I use my page to post articles on a range of topics of interest to me, and that I think some people who see my Facebook page would also find of interest. Sometimes I state my opinions. Most of what I post is set to universal access, meaning anyone can see it. I don’t post secrets on the internet. If I don’t want it published, I don’t publish it. Some of my personal life comes through in funny stories about my kids or statements about my feelings on personal topics, but for the most part this is for people who like to read and write. 
It is also a place for people who like to converse, discuss, and even argue a little bit. And here is where I feel a need to state some ground rules. In doing so, I realize I am also proposing a bit of a manifesto for the art of conversation on social media. So be it. Feel free to share your thoughts and/or share this note if you think it is worthy. 
I grew up in a household where it was assumed that people can compare different points of view, disagree, and even question each other a little bit (not too much, but a little bit), in the spirit of conversation. This works really well when participants buy into it, and think of conversation as a way to build something no one could have experienced on their own, and a way to test ideas or propositions with people who can be trusted not to attack you personally. 
So please know that I am not trying to convert anyone to my point of view, anger anyone, or engage in combat. I may say that an argument is weak or foolish, but if you are a human being, you matter in my book. I exhibit human failings, misunderstand things, sometimes let my sarcastic thoughts grab the mike - but generally I try not to be a jerk. People are free to disagree with me, and I actually appreciate it when it is done in the spirit of discussion instead of trying to win me over to something, belittle me, or accuse me. What a gift it is when someone says, “I follow that. I arrived at a different conclusion. Here is where I am coming from.” There is nothing offensive or defensive about this, it’s just people comparing notes on what they’ve seen and how they think. We need more of this, I would suggest. 
In fact, that was once considered to be a function of conversation and written letters. (Yes, written letters - the original “text message” - and an art I still practice.) Social media is a tool that can be used for these purposes and that is one way I attempt to use it. When we lament social media’s impact on culture, we rarely point out that people are engaging in written arguments. Look at this, we’re writing! If half of this activity were in written letters, the USPS would be loaded. (And the arguments would probably be better.) However, a general lack of experience at this art is frequently evident.

The community of people who frequently read and comment on this page include people from various social classes, gender and racial identities, occupations, philosophical outlooks, and political orientations. You are all human beings I value, and I ask that people engaging here try to engage in a similar, humane spirit. Compare different opinions by all means. No attacking one another, please; no personal insults please; if you feel the spirit of this ground rule has been breached, state your case and let us give it due consideration. I will delete as needed; I am happy to say I rarely need to wield my zapper.
Occasionally, I am asked about my Buddhist practice, since I am unafraid to disclose my positions about some issues, and I state them with confidence. Is this incompatible with Zen practice? That’s a really good question and something I have taken time to reflect upon. I think this question reflects an assumption that argument must be contentious: a fight to assert ego rather than a way to communicate and explore. 
First of all, beware of cliches about Buddhists. People who practice Buddhism have a range of opinions and they can discuss them just like anybody else. I've met Buddhists with liberal opinions, conservative opinions, and socialist opinions. Some Buddhists are comfortable discussing personal opinions, some prefer not. Some go as far as to participate in activist politics, whereas some refrain even from voting. The content of a person's opinions has nothing to do with being a "good" Buddhist. Zen, in particular, is about paying radical attention to why you do the things you do. Why discuss opinions? How is it beneficial to the project of awakening with all sentient being(s)? Is it about puffing up yourself, or contributing something to a communal good, or what?
As my friend Jason, who is now a zen teacher himself, sometimes asks: do you use your opinions or do your opinions use you? 
One thing practice has helped me see is that my opinions are not part of my identity or my skin, that there is nothing to be defensive about if someone disagrees with you or questions you. Opinions cause suffering when we feel a need to defend them as if we were defending our body. Clinging to opinions is suffering. If you're not clinging to opinions and being defensive, you can play with your opinions, turn them upside down, go at them with an axe. 
Thinking clearly and well allows us to nurture principle and act on it courageously. That’s good for me and I hope good for you. Yes, social media easily lends itself to insulating ourselves into like-minded groups and living in a bubble; but it can also be used for engaging and exploring the world in ways I can’t with just my books. And if a defensive reaction does appear, aha! An opportunity to examine something! On a daily basis - I emphasize daily - I observe tiny defensive reactions in myself about the funniest things. Generally, they have to do with personal interactions rather than written arguments. 
If you ever have the opportunity to work with a zen master, defensiveness will be the big obstacle. Zen masters pop every one of our precious balloons; it's what they do. Clinging to the balloons is suffering. If you're not attached to the balloons you can play with them or not as you choose.
I'm not a zen master or playing that role, but I enjoy conversation and I use my space on Facebook for that activity. No one is required to participate. I don't ask that people agree with me. I like learning more about the person and perhaps the issue we are discussing.

On the other hand, a lot of people have defensive reactions about their opinions: “Don't bop my balloon!!” They will take disagreement personally. Their instinct is to fight, to use argument as a way to hit at the person instead of explore the topic. That's when it is time to step back. This would happen in my household growing up. Occasionally a conversation would become contentious; a friendly argument would not feel friendly anymore. That’s when it’s time to make tea, pour wine, switch to something else, step back. If you do not trust my intentions or my honesty, if you are not willing to read slowly and process before reacting, if you are interested in "winning" something, if you are making false statements about what I wrote, then we are not engaging in the same activity, and besides wasting our time it can damage our personal relationship. That would be sad and pointless.
So let’s review:
  • Opinions are balloons, and balloons are for bopping, flicking, deflating, and popping.
  • Opinions are not who we are but we can use them to express relationships, aspirations, and value.
  • Differences are not a threat to you and actually exist to help you explore who you think you are.
If these statements seem strange, it is because our culture is on a very different track. The logic of market relations and exchange value has contaminated the way we conceive of social relations. Our culture emphasizes individual achievement over collaboration and commonwealth; personal heroics over collective action; top-down authority over ground-level solidarity. Utility and profit dominate humanistic values. It is a condition that has paved our slide into an increasingly authoritarian society.
But I’m a guy who still writes letters by hand, reads, meditates, engages in art and politics, and I use this space as an extension of that project. Conversation is a key value here. If you are entertained by trolling and verbal combat, excellent - there are places for that elsewhere. 
Now that (I hope) we understand each other, I hope you will write me a note. Ask questions, comment, tell me a story. 
Oh, and if you want to give written letters a try, fire away and I promise to write back to you (this includes international letters): Algernon D’Ammassa, P.O. Box 84, Deming, NM 88031 USA.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Of Mike Pence's Evening at the Theatre - and Authoritarian Culture

Vice President elect Mike Pence scored tickets to see Hamilton on Broadway, and good for him. I hope he enjoyed the show.

As you may have heard, his presence was noticed and much of the audience booed him. It was enough of a distraction that the cast of the show decided to address it rather than ignore it, and they addressed the Vice President in-waiting with a respectfully worded, earnest, and humane statement about the concerns that led to the boos.

Before we proceed further with this case, here is a link to where the statement can be read and viewed. It is important to be aware of what they said, because a lot of the kibbitzing suggests to me that some people are formulating their conclusions without regard to what was said - just the fact that they had the audacity to speak to the Leader.

This was certainly the reaction of President-elect Donald Trump, who immediately demanded that the cast apologize to Pence for this, despite the fact that the performers actually stopped the booing and channeled the energy into more constructive words. For his part, Pence - who was never in physical danger - smiled and seemed unphased. He's been in this business for a while.

It has been interesting to see journalists (like Dave Itzkoff of the New York Times) and artists, including some who identify as liberals, falling into an authoritarian trap here. For instance, musician Steven Van Zandt typifies the line of argument in this article. Since Van Zandt enfolds the basic shape of the argument, I'm going to respond directly to him.

Van Zandt's case is basically logical, but as a theatre artist I take issue with his two central premises:

* Feeling comfortable and safe from real world issues is not part of the contract when you go to the theatre. This idea that theatre is an intellectual "safe space" is news to me and generations of actors, playwrights, directors, designers, and choreographers who came before me.

* Since Van Zandt is addressing the cast of Hamilton, I assume what he is describing as a "bullying tactic" is the curtain speech that was addressed to Pence - which, again, was respectful and humane and called for the audience to stop booing. What Steve calls "bullying" was actually a polite address to a person in a position of considerable power, and which we once were taught to believe is an inalienable right.

There have been suggestions that Pence should have been allowed to enjoy a private evening of entertainment. Oh no, sorry, no no. The theatre is not your living room at home: that's a private space. The theatre is a public space. And Presidents and Vice-Presidents don't get to go out in public and not be President or Vice-President. Out in the world, you are always "on." It is part of holding office.

We really must resist the conflation of a respectful, humane statement of concern addressed to a person of considerable power (the second highest office in the republic), at a time where there is well-founded public fear about the incoming government, as somehow being "bullying." The right to address our office holders in such terms is a self-evident right that supersedes deference to authority.

It is especially disquieting to observe an artist yield that distinction so readily. I suppose he thinks he is being fair and balanced; but he is actually being too deferential to authority, and this is a symptom of our creeping authoritarian culture: when bias towards authority, protecting them from criticism, begins to feel "neutral." 

If Mike Pence has the mettle to stand in legislatures and seek laws forcing women to organize funerals for aborted pregnancies and allowing shopkeepers to refuse service to gays, and defend Donald Trump's categorical threats against entire religious groups and nationalities, he can jolly well handle an articulate statement of concern proffered by an artist who is every ounce as much a citizen as Mike Pence.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

His Majesty the President

A couple of my friends have written thoughtful posts recently about the way we treat Presidents - not just the formal protocols of address, but what we think we mean when we speak of "respecting the office." How much personal adulation is a President entitled to in a republic? To what extent is he (soon she, I think) entitled to a pass from criticism, under what circumstances?

So this morning I'm reading this book about the very first Congress, in March of 1789, when the whole circus was brand new and nobody was happy about it, and the first order of business for the United States Senate was how to address the President.

"After calling the Senate to order, [John] Adams immediately threw off conventional procedural restraints as presiding officer and pressed the Senate to consider as its first order of business of how to address the President. Infatuated by the pomp of European courts he had visited as an American minister during the Revolutionary War, he suggested 'Your Highness' or 'Your Most Benign Highness' as appropriate titles for the President. In a scene that would have delighted Lemuel Gulliver in Lilliput, twenty-two of America's most learned and powerful statesmen responded with complex arguments supporting 'His Exalted Highness,' 'His Elective Highness,' 'Most Illustrious and Excellent President,' and even 'His Majesty the President.' When one senator proposed calling the President 'George,' another snapped in response, 'Why not George IV?'
"A few senators protested Adams's intrusion in the debate as a blatant violation of customary procedures, with one protestor ridiculing the Vice President as 'His Rotundity.' Others were less oblique, stating that the President was neither a king nor an emperor and entitled to no title but 'George' - certainly not 'George I.'"

[From Mr. President: George Washington and the Making of the Nation’s Highest Office, by Harlow Giles Unger.]
Personally, I lean toward the austere republican view. I do not require the “First Lady” to wear beautiful clothes nor the house to plated in gold and clink with rare china. While visiting heads of state should be treated with comfort and style, I would prefer state dinners to be modest and humble - at least until such time as all Americans are fed. With room and board and other services and privileges provided to Presidents and their families, the salary should also be modest - at least until such time as all Americans receive living wages and decent treatment in their workplace (indeed, they should be part owners in their own workplaces and participate in self-management).

Washington settled for “Mr. President,” which is regal enough. The sometimes quasi-monarchical affection for a President has its opposite in the kind of fanatical opposition we also see - something Washington himself thought about as he struggled to get from Mount Vernon to New York, stopping at every point for celebrations with cannon fire, fireworks, and speeches that elevated him to Olympus. He wrote in letters and his own diary that these energies were not only embarrassing but unsettling. He understood the other side to that kind of mass affection for leaders.

Of one friend of mine who proclaimed a civic virtue of displaying deference to the President, I asked this question: While we can surely understand an elected President is entitled to some decorum whether we are pleased with their service or not, is there a boundary? Can a President lose their title to our personal esteem? For me, this is actually not a hypothetical question. There was a point in 2005 where I stopped using the word “President” in front of George W. Bush’s name, and in his presence I would not have stood (except to turn my back on him, as he had turned his back on us). In light of the Iraq invasion and the stunningly incompetent response to Hurricane Katrina, the official sanction for torture and mass surveillance, I no longer felt I owed him any deference. I am no monarchist; I do not hold to any notion of “my President right or wrong.” It is his good fortune that Congress did not have the conscience and political will to impeach him - the grounds were there. He deserves a trial in the Hague. Instead, he now receives a pension, continued Secret Service protection, high speaking fees, and more than enough ceremonial pomp when he makes appearances. He will die in more comfort than far worthier men. He doesn’t need my ceremonial respect. He was an officer of the republic, and not a very distinguished one at that.

It is, rather, for Presidents to pay honor to people, to lift their hats to the worker, and advocate for people’s welfare in proportion to their oppression rather than their access to wealth and influence. I understand this goes against our actual history: we have from the start been a republic that believes in a ruling class out of democratic reach, where plutocratic sentiments (that wealth has better standing to govern) were once openly expressed.

Yet I cannot shake the notion that Thomas Paine helped instilled in us, that we have standing to steer history otherwise. It is because of this standing that we can look a President in the eye, assess the person, and call that person by their personal name.