Thursday, August 4, 2011

You've Gotta Give 'Em Hope

As indicated by my more recent posts, teaching has been on my mind. It's in large part thanks to the students in my summer course that I have realized one more thing:

You've gotta give 'em hope.

In this class we've spent six weeks talking about really heavy stuff like disciplinary norms of compulsory heterosexuality, gender policing, insecurities of masculinity, and the the interplays of racism and other forms of domination and oppression. Although it's called "Philosophy of Love and Sex," I've made it about how attitudes, assumptions, beliefs, pleasures, choices, desires, and some of the most basic parts of our experience that are usually taken for granted work within a historical, social, and very political framework that privileges some and restricts the freedom of others. Sure talking about sex for 75 minutes every day sounds like a lot of fun for most 18-21 year olds, which is why I think most people initially sign up for the class, but after weeks like this past one where the focus of our attention shifts to the brutality of transphobic violence, it becomes pretty clear that even though we often have a lot of laughs and a good amount of fun, we are always talking about serious stuff. Matters of life and death. Pretty soon, once one begins to traverse the path of a philosophical undertaking, where historical narratives about how and why things are the way that they are become increasingly complicated and interwoven, the structures of normalization and oppression can quickly become overwhelming.

For it's not enough to simply critically explore the nature of heterosexuality, but also all of the other kinds of sexualities that people have like bisexuality, homosexuality, pan- and asexuality. And then we add issues of race, culture, gender, ability and disability, intersexuality, transgender embodiments, class, and how these factors shift the meaning and experience of sexual identities in ever more complex ways. At the same time, notions of science as a normalizing discourse, religion, and history are cast under the skeptical light, while what counts as natural bodies, reality, and even truth itself are also revealed to be elements of a much larger network of institutions and discourses that serve particular, and political, ends. And yes, even standard appeals to evolution are no longer accepted at face value.

This is a review of six weeks worth of material for my summer course

For some people, all of this critical thinking is just too exhausting. Thinking and talking about these issues takes work, dedication, and if one really tries to untangle the issues, there's a risk of throwing everything into question. Even what you think and believe and know about yourself. Or perhaps especially what you think and believe and thought you knew about yourself. Yes, sometimes people would just rather not know because it's "easier."  And sometimes some people describe these issues as being "real downers," and they criticize those who do dedicate their time and energy to bringing these issues to light as being too sensitive, too dramatic, or overly politically-correct. If nothing else, people who focus on such "downer issues," like forms of oppression, might be accused of being bitter, resentful, miserable people who have to blame others for their own struggles. Such attitudes reflect a general dismissal of the issues and what's at stake concerning people's lives (but more accurately, it's probably the lives of others). It also can reflect an attitude of apathy.

These responses came up this week in Jose Medina's public talk as part of PIKSI (Philosophy in a Key Summer Institute) at Penn State (Here's a link to the website). In his paper, "Invisible Identities, Social Blindness, and Irresponsible Ignorance" Medina noted that addressing social ignorance about particular communities (such as the Jewish Community at Vanderbilt) requires addressing cognitive gaps--what people really don't know--as well as the affective lacks, such as when people learn about something but then respond with apathy and don't care about the issues at hand. This notion of apathy became a topic of discussion in the following Q&A session, and the challenge seemed to be this: How do you get those who have the privilege of not needing to know or care about the practices and experiences of other groups to actually own up to some degree of epistemic responsibility and begin to care about how their own identities stand in relation to those of others? When we are talking about people in privileged positions, whose privileged status may actually be better served by not knowing these relationships which often involve the domination and oppression of marginalized groups, apathy becomes a real problem.

While apathetic responses are certainly problematic, I don't think that the challenge of motivating social change and increased political sensitivity ends there. Even after apathy, there's the sheer size of the struggles and complicated relationships between related forms of oppression that are, as if by their very nature as oppressive systems, institutions, and discourses, disempowering.

Fortunately, in my experience of teaching, and in this summer class in particular, many of my students have managed to identify and appreciate the individual pieces of this puzzle we have discussed over the past few weeks. By the questions they ask and the insights they offer, I can also tell that many of them are able to see how the pieces fit together to make a bigger picture, an interrelated mosaic of seemingly disparate issues. And the better news is that many of them really seem to care. Few, if any, are overtly apathetic.

But as we approach the end of the summer session, I have been picking up the distinct sense that something else is creeping into the room. Not so much apathy, but rather something more like hopelessness and despair. But it's not just because they see how so many violent, dehumanizing acts affect the lives of real people, but rather because they do understand even more that these issues are not going to be easily resolved.  After unpacking and undermining some of our most basic assumptions, they are starting to realize the magnitude of what they did not know before (and by implication how much they still do not know), that the world and politics and history and how they have always gone about living their lives might be part of a historical narrative that they actually don't want to be a part of anymore.

The problem is that now, they don't know what to do about it. Or they may think that there is nothing that they can do about it.

So, at this point in the semester, it's not uncommon for students to write a sophisticated re-telling of the current state of affairs, again, evidencing a deeply developed critical perspective, only to follow this up by stating, "But change is unlikely because it would take so much to make any difference at the level of society and culture as a whole."  And class discussions are at risk of dissolving into empty repetitions of all the right words, "It's because of heteronormative patriarchal society's values and our dependence on binary oppositions that people feel threatened by the identities of others because they reveal the instability of faithfully assumed "truths" about sex and gender." (Lest one fear that I am only creating queer little feminist monsters in my classes, the vacuity of statements like this concerns me almost as much as when students say that transwomen are really just men trying to be women by wearing dresses).  And at this point in the semester,  even when the most unapathetic students in my classes on race and diversity or sex and love echo the refrain, "Why can't we all just get along?!" I assure them that no matter how many times they plead for equality, peace, and justice, simply begging for it does very, very little.

This is what I mean when I say that our challenge as educators of ethical and epistemic responsibility goes beyond the mere apathy of some (and this relates back to this post regarding the end of the world). One of the biggest roadblocks for change is revealed when even the most passionately and critically insightful minds and bodies feel disempowered, overwhelmed, and hopeless, like the very, very hard work they may do will all be for very,very little return, like any act of resistance is negligible because the few who care enough to fight are fighting discursive and institutional regimes that dwarf Goliath. But as I mentioned before, it is probably the nature of the beast itself, as if by design, that systems of oppression leave those who might work to resist them feeling disempowered. The challenge, then, seems to be finding ways to empower people and show them that they do make a difference, that their effort is worthwhile, that change is possible, and in fact, that it's already happening around them.

This thought for me relates to my interest in affective politics and affective relationships with philosophy. On one hand, simply undertaking the task of continual, self-reflexive critical thought is itself doing something to make changes. But it doesn't just have to start and end and stay within that one individual's changing mind because, on the other hand, these sorts of practices can serve to empower people to find ways to relate to themselves and others in new ways, and to live and be and act and speak in new ways that also affect others. All of which can be manifested at various levels, from grassroots political activism to how one talks to little kids.

The worst thing that we can do as educators is fall into our own sense of despair and hopelessness by believing that people don't or won't care. I think it is gravely mistaken, and obviously counterproductive, to underestimate the capacity for people to become invested in certain issues.  Even with my limited experiences while teaching, and thanks to the feedback from strangers on the Internet about the handful videos I've posted, I'm continually inspired and encouraged to keep doing what I do because people do care. Many people want to learn. And they want to think. And they want to develop the language and tools to be able to change the world that they live in and the experiences that they (can) have.

Our task, perhaps our responsibility, is to give them hope that this is possible.

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