Sunday, May 29, 2016

Narratives and power...

I've seen some interesting graphics online over the past few months...some that mesh well with some of the thoughts I've expressed here.

The statement above touches on something...power...that is complex and important. The story of another person is just another way of saying the narrative about another person and the last post on this blog was about narratives.

Ms. Adichie references power and power tends to be a factor that is often entangled with narratives or stories that we are familiar with. Often the narratives...or stories...that become seen as "normal" or "true" or as "common sense" achieved that status not because of some intrinsic excellence or profound truth in that narrative/story but because whomever (a group, etc) was promoting or believed that narrative had the power to impose it on others and to impose the labeling of it as "truth" or "normal" and also had the power to suppress or deny other perspectives or narratives.

Conceivably, stories or narratives could come to be accepted as "true" or "normal" or whatever because groups or those with differing stories shared those stories and examined the differences or variances between narrative versions and either came to a consensus story that all agreed upon or came to see differences that were valid or accurate and agreed that various versions of a story had different truths or accuracies depending on which group was telling a story or being identified or referred to by a story or narrative.

In other words...it is conceivable for a society to employ narratives that are not imposed by power but rather are shared and mutually agreed upon by all groups in a society.

That's not difficult to understand, I don't think. In my last post I referenced the idea of someone looking at a statue from the front and someone else looking at a statue from the rear. Each have different stories or narratives about how the statue looks. Each have some truth in their stories or narratives.

A more well known variant of this notion is the story of the encountering of an elephant and the various comprehendings based on what aspect of the elephant that is encountered.


It's a very different thing though whether the "accepted" or "normal" or "common sense" story about what the statue...or elephant...is like is one where the differences between the various viewpoints (stories or narratives about the statue or elephant) were noted and examined and melded into a story that took all perspectives into account or...if the viewers of the statue/elephant differed greatly in power and the viewer with the power simply imposed their view and defined it as "normal" or "common sense" and rejected and demeaned any other view or experience of the statue/elephant.

We all swim in a sea of historically created meanings...and many...if not most...of those meanings are partial and incomplete but...often those who originated these meanings had the power to override all other perspectives and presented their limited viewpoints as complete and as "reality" or "normal" or "common sense"...and to label differing viewpoints as "deviant" or "untrue" or as "pushing an agenda". We can struggle to comprehend things as fully as possible or we can opt to ignore and/or deny aspects of reality in order to bolster or cling to our stories or narratives.

Is it not better to risk confusion and disorientation (for a time, anyway) in order to more fully grasp or apprehend truths or reality than it is to wipe out or deny or destroy viewpoints or perspectives that differ from what we thought was true?

Grappling with all this is confusing and difficult (for me)...yet...at the same time it is also exciting and exhilarating. For an instance of a situation where competing narratives clashed with one another you can go read this post I recently wrote.

Often the temptation is powerful to simply squelch or ignore a narrative that doesn't fit with the dominant one...but...doing so means risking wiping out or ignoring part of the truths or facts of reality. That seems exceedingly dangerous and harmful to me. And...incredibly disrespectful of those who might have a different experience of the "elephant of reality" than I might have or that I have been told was complete and true.

It seems to come down to deciding whether to deny aspects of reality...and try to cope with the results of that denial or to struggle to comprehend and accept all of reality that you can...and try to cope with the results of that comprehending and accepting. Hmmm....

 


Saturday, May 21, 2016

Thinking about narratives...

The last piece posted here had to do with "pushing agendas". The "aha" experience elaborated on in that writing continues to come into my awareness again and again....and again.

One of the links I furnished went to a page that provided some information about something called the "master" narrative. In part, that page reads:
The Master Narrative is generally described as the colonially-derived story of events, emphasizing European perspectives. In contrast, the Counter Narrative offers accounts of history from diverse perspectives, with a critical examination of the widely accepted, colonially-derived story. Reading or writing counter-narratives is part of a process of de-colonizing, or dismantling and questioning the histories that are regularly read, repeated, and studied in mainstream education.
Sometimes this "master" narrative is also called the dominant narrative or discourse.

In other words...stories (narratives) that we tell ourselves to "explain" the U.S. (and pretty much everything else) are derived, in part, from mainstream (public school) education. Another take on this idea of master narratives can be found in this interview that Bill Moyers conducted with Toni Morrison a few years ago. Ms. Morrison says, in response to a question about what constitutes the master narrative:

....It’s white male life. The Master Narrative is whatever ideological script that is being imposed by the people in authority on everybody else: The Master Fiction . . . history. It has a certain point of view. So when those little girls see that the most prized gift they can receive at Christmas time is this little white doll, that’s the Master Narrative speaking: ...
The master narrative(s) here in the U.S. is/are told (almost exclusively) from the viewpoint of a white male (although that's never ever made explicit or overt) but that viewpoint is presented as though that is (or should be) everyone's viewpoint or perspective. What is implied is that the viewpoint of the master narrative should be your viewpoint too...or at least it should be if you're a right thinking and sensible and 'normal' person...unless you're "pushing an agenda".

A white guy...his experience is universal...right?
Above is a photo of a white man...he's well dressed, friendly appearing, what the heck...his viewpoint is everyone's viewpoint...right? His experience of society and school and work and and and...that's the way it is for everyone...or so we're subtly and persistently encouraged to believe.

But...we're never told outright that his way of seeing things and experiencing life is what we're being ooched toward believing or accepting as universal. And...we're encouraged to believe that if our experience isn't like his...well...that's because there's something wrong with us. Maybe we're not trying hard enough or we're not smart enough or we're deficient or warped in some way or other.

I'm still struggling to get a good feel or comprehension for what is meant when folks talk or write about narratives...there are master narratives and counter narratives...and various terms are used by different folks that refer to aspects or features of these narratives. Therefore, I'm working to stay open about what is meant by all this. Right now I'm tentatively operating off the definition that narratives are stories people in a society use to explain events and history and identities (e.g. what it means to be a "man" and such) to themselves.

For example, Joe Feagin...a sociologist who writes about these notions regarding race...uses a term he calls a racial-frame to describe narratives that 'explain' race and factors associated with race. He references a white racial frame and a black counter frame...he also writes about counter frames associated with different racial groups. My presumption is that he's meaning something like a master narrative when he writes about the white racial frame and counter narrative when he refers to, for example, the Native American counter frame and other counter frames. I especially liked his writing about how the liberty and justice frame is distorted by white people. 

It has been transforming for me to move to a way of thinking that takes into account the unspoken fact that most all originators of widely disseminated stories about the U.S. are created by white men. And...those stories...purposely or not...pretty much tend to uphold the notions that the experiences of white men are the experiences everyone has...or should have...and the ways of experiencing or understanding things should be from the viewpoint...or position of...a white guy.

When I write all that out it seems ludicrous...and yet...frighteningly enough...that's pretty much the way I wandered through my life. What's more terrifying...that's the way most people I've known perceive things. It's really rather embarrassing. I owe everyone and myself an apology for being so clueless. Good grief. 

The links in the paragraph about the racial frames go to different posts on the personal blog of Julian Abagond. One of the steps I took to work at breaking out of the fog of whiteness that the U.S. zeitgeist encourages is to find writers who have different lived life experiences than that of a white guy. I find most of Mr. Abagond's writing to be cogent and understandable and seriously informative. I also pay very close attention to the writings of Breeze Harper and Aph Ko and Syl Ko. There are a number of other online authors I follow but these folks probably are definitely among my main ones right now.

I've read a multitude of articles by academics and non-academics, I've also read a large number of books by authors of who aren't raced as white and who occupy various positions on the spectrum of sexual identities and behaviors. The social world of human beings is much much much more complex and different than that which is encompassed by the main or master narratives here in the U.S.

If you are/were like me...I'm reluctant to say it...but say it I must...then you are probably (like me) pretty clueless and oblivious about many, if not most, things to do with the social aspects of human beings...and lots of things really. We're much more often taught how to not think than how to think. That's one of the prime tools those in power use to hold onto their power.

It's almost as if there's a 200 piece orchestra playing a composition but when I was a child I was carefully taught to listen only to the woodwinds and told that the complete experience of the composition being played could be understood and appreciated by listening only to those instruments and...even worse...the rest of the orchestra was superfluous and inferior to the woodwinds and if any part of the orchestra sounded different than those woodwinds...well...those other instruments were just "pushing an agenda" and probably didn't know what in hell they were doing. I bought into these absurdities...mostly...not quite all the way...but way too much.

I was re-reading Marylyn Frye's excellent little book titled: The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. In one of the essays she offered the story of two people, one looking at a statue from in front of it and one looking at that same statue from the back. Their positions are different, hence what they see is different even though they are looking at the same statue. It's a nice reminder that position impacts what you're able to see. You can find this little book for a very low price from a used book dealer and I highly recommend it.


The idea of dominant narratives or discourses is pointing out that the story of what the statue is like is often determined not by what's actually there (the statue) but by which viewer of the statue has the most power and can thereby squelch or disregard what might be seen by different viewers who are not in the same position as the viewer with the power.

That's why it is critical to become familiar with information and viewpoints from folks who don't have social identities or positions (race, gender, age, sexual orientation, social class, etc.) that are the same as those who have power. Like Toni Morrison noted...if you don't do some work...you'll simply end up believing that everything is as it seems from the perspective of a white male. And that will make you rather ignorant and oblivious to much of what's real in a society and in the world itself. And...as you can easily see...that sort of narrow perspective doesn't work out too well for most of us...or for mother Earth.

 

 

Friday, May 13, 2016

Cuteness updated..

In an earlier post I wrote a bit about how an unexpected jump in the population of a rescue can create problems in care. The jump I wrote about was a rescued mother bunny giving birth to a bunch of babies.

It is amazing to experience the strength of the feelings that babies...in this instance baby bunnies can evoke in we human animals.

In the first picture from that post, right in front, you can see a little baby, covered with light grey fur, sleeping peacefully.

Here's that baby, just a few weeks older:


She (we think her sex is female but it is difficult to be certain because she's so young) is simply exquisite. As are all of the babies. Most of them are delighted to see a human because that means head rubs and food and oohs and aahs.

I said to the director of Heartland Rabbit Rescue recently that it really is almost impossible to stay in a down mood around bunnies. Especially baby bunnies...their excellence can simply overwhelm sadness or depression. If you want to elevate your mood...go volunteer and spend time around Earthlings who aren't human. That experience will likely cause a bad mood to evaporate. Helping is usually much more fun than medication.

Support your local sanctuaries and rescues. Please.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Pushing an agenda?

Recently I had one of those smile making experiences that are unexpected and rare...and greatly appreciated. They're like gifts and I've learned to take them as such and just enjoy them.

I was reading someone's post over on a site called Medium. I have been poking around there recently and have happened onto a number of writings that were thought provoking...and sometimes more than that.

While reading that particular essay...not too attentively I have to admit because the topic just didn't grab me, I ran across the phrase "pushing an agenda" and bang...I've seen that phrase numerous times elsewhere but…for some reason this time when I read it an ‘aha' moment occurred with me. After savoring my 'aha" a little I gave thanks to the author.
For the first time, I wholly grasped that whatever is thrown out as “normal” or usual or natural is “pushing an agenda” too…it just doesn't make it clear that it is doing so. This notion that something is “just normal” often invisiblizes the agenda being pushed (and thereby enhances its influence by insulating itself against objection). Pretty sneaky.

I say realized for the first time...it isn't that I didn't have all the elements of grasping this nor that I had never understood this previously...it is, though, that for the first time I fully comprehended the insidious misdirection involved in anything being presented as "normal" that is socially constructed. "Normal" or "just natural" or "that's the way it is"  is "pushing an agenda" too but without acknowledging that's what it's doing.

Look at the image below...notice the unwritten message that indicates a "pro-gun agenda" is the norm (a socially constructed one) and that it isn't being "pushed". It just is...or it's just "common sense" or it's just...well...normal and anything that resists it is "pushing an agenda". Often the most effective messages are the unspoken or unwritten ones...the ones we fill in with our minds and because they are created, by us virtually out of our conscious awareness, they thereby often escape being interrogated or examined by our critical thinking.  

Socially constructed? What's that, you ask? Here's a brief definition taken from the wikipedia entry about social constructionism:
A social construct or construction concerns the meaning, notion, or connotation placed on an object or event by a society, and adopted by the inhabitants of that society with respect to how they view or deal with the object or event. In that respect, a social construct as an idea would be widely accepted as natural by the society, but may or may not represent a reality shared by those outside the society, and would be an "invention or artifice of that society".

You can read the wikipedia article, or you can read something even more verbose here or you can read a fairly accessible article by Ta-Nehisi Coates about this sort of thing regarding race here. There's also a very easily digested bit of writing...with helpful images...about the social construction of race here.

You can think about it this way...if the meaning of something is socially constructed...then it is stuff that people make up. Things that are socially constructed as "normal" generally are notions that are made up by and serve the interests or the agenda of the dominant group(s) in a society.

Or...as Mr. Coates might put it...stuff people make up as "normal" only requires folks with guns needing a reason (often unspoken or unwritten) for how they think or act. In other words..."normal" is mostly defined by the group with power...that "normal" is structured to serve the interests of that group and if you have little power...tough noogies for you. Saying we live in a capitalistic, patriarchal, white supremacist society means that wealthy white men have most of the power and generally define what is considered to be "normal" for the rest of us. (note too that power, ultimately, in a white supremacist structure usually is enforced by violence)

It may be that the “just normal” conceptualization of something is in place because of unconscious or out of awareness factors (socialization) but that doesn't mean that some agenda isn't being pushed…it just means (or suggests) that if someone didn't consciously know the origin of why they were saying or doing something, or the impact of it, then somehow they aren't responsible for it and/or subject to being called out about it. It's sort of that intent vs. impact thingee.

In essence…when someone or something gets characterized as objectionable or invalid because of “pushing an agenda”…it's usually because what is being said or written isn't hiding behind the cloak of invisibility. It isn't pretending to be "just normal" and therefore viewpoint and/or agenda free and it's usually countering the dominant group's agenda.

Objecting to obliviousness that's in place because of out of awareness socialization often elicits the “pushing an agenda” attempt at squelching it.
So...anytime you want to engage your thinker...and not be an unwitting supporter of the status quo (i.e., the interests of the dominant group) then whenever you hear or see written some accusation that someone or some group is "pushing an agenda"...make sure you take a look at who's making the accusation and examine just what their agenda is...because they will undoubtedly have one. But...they'll often not be openly and clearly admitting that they do so especially if they're invoking the "normal" trope. And...sadly...they may be oblivious to it themselves. (see the white guy in the image above)

Alarm bells should automatically ring for you whenever you hear the phrase "pushing an agenda". It's almost invariably a notification that someone is trying to negatively paint a narrative (think of narrative as a story) because it is in opposition to some other narrative (that first story or narrative is usually what is known as the 'master' narrative).

There's a powerful proverb attributed to various peoples in Africa that beautifully sums up much about the theme of this post.

One version of the African proverb goes something like this: "Until lions have their own historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter."

"Pushing an agenda" is a signal that there are at least two stories (narratives) being told and those narratives (stories) differ from one another. "Pushing an agenda" is an excellent indicator that it is time to figure out what each of those stories are because you can't evaluate them until you know them.

Don't be suckered into automatically dismissing some narrative that is described as "pushing an agenda". Instead realize that it is time to do some work toward comprehending and understanding what the first story is and then clarify the story that is disputing or differing from that first story.

It could be that the "pushing an agenda" phrase is a manifestation of what is called the Semmelweis reflex. Ignatz Semmelweis was a fellow that I accidentally learned about years ago and the tragedy of his life stuck with me.

It is amazing to me that…for some reason...these perspectives regarding "pushing an agenda" hadn't snapped into clarity before. It just goes to show that the phrase "live and learn" often references truth. I'm still churning all this around so any thoughts would be welcome.