Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tempering Our Activist Goals: The Long and the Short of It

I was reading Alt Dis and came across Peter Elbow's chapter "Vernacular Englishes in the Writing Classroom: Probing the Culture of Literacy." You can download a version of it here, and I highly suggest it. It's looking at the issue I recently discussed involving Black English and grading students' papers. What's a composition teacher to do when s/he recognizes that non-"standard" dialects are equally valid uses of language but also recognizes that part of the job is preparing students for professional and academic realities that don't treat them that way?

Well, Elbow faces the same dilemma, and he has this to say:
"A good strategy for handling contradiction is to introduce the dimension of time. . . to work for the long-range goal of changing the culture of literacy, and the short-range goal of helping students now."
Elbow explains how he uses time to temper his vision in a way that allows him to remain invested in his cause while still helping individual students navigate the world as it currently is.

This is a lesson that is helpful to all kinds of activism, not just vernacular Englishes in composition classrooms. It can be helpful anytime our passions get the best of us and might start to get in the way of progress, an issue I've been wrestling with for quite a while now. Sometimes we can become so focused on our ideal goal that we become blind to marginal progress along the way or, even worse, we actively reject that progress because it's not good enough.

Tunnel Vision
Tunnel vision, not just for caves. 
Some examples that come to mind:
  • The very noble goal of promoting more breastfeeding among new moms turns into a very public battle over choice and autonomy, as it's quickly becoming for the Latch On NYC movement. 
  • We fall into arguments over whether a heroine like The Hunger Games' Katniss or Brave's Merida is "feminist enough" instead of recognizing these major changes in the characterization of female protagonists as steps in the right direction. 
  • We reject allies in our movements for not fitting the perfect mold, like when we vilify a mother as non-feminist for staying home with her children.
That's not to say that there isn't truth and reason behind all of these reactions. That's not to say that there aren't excellent conversations to be had surrounding any of these topics. That's not to say that there are any easy answers to how this all pans out. 

But that is to say that sometimes we can be our own worst enemies when we've got progress on the brain. Progress is often slow, and progress is often complicated. 

Peter Elbow discusses time as an element that needs to be considered in approaches to progress. I would like to suggest that we also add depth perspective


21-06-10 Cause I'd Rather Pretend I'll Still Be There At The End ~ Explored #1

Elbow explains that he can keep his eye focused on the long-term goal (creating a space where all discourses are viewed as equally valid in the academic community) while still setting short-term goals that might seem at odds with the long-term (helping his students' meet the demands of their actual academic and professional realities by requiring Standard Academic English on (most) final projects). 

On one hand, it seems that Elbow is upholding the very standards that he's ostensibly trying to eradicate. But the alternative--to send students from his class unprepared for the realities of the actual academic culture--is also a disservice. 

By admitting the element of time into the equation, Elbow suggests that we rethink what progress looks like while still maintaining our visions of what progress ultimately does. We can still strive for the ideal while reacting to the actual. We can make the world a better place while living in it as it is. 

And when we do that, when we maintain both a long-term and short-term vision, we are better equipped at reaching the long-term. For one thing, being present and reactive to our actual realities makes us more capable of reacting to changes in the climate. For another thing, we're much more likely to gather support and allies for our causes--whatever our causes are--if they're grounded in experiences that people relate to. 

Which brings me to my second point:

Depth Perception

The Forest For the Trees

You know the saying "you can't see the forest for the trees"? Well, I think that it is something that really, really has a place in discussions of activism. 

Here, the forest represents the culture at large. And those trees? They're individual people. 

We have to separate individual choices from collective norms

We want to change things on a cultural level. We want to shift the way that the entire culture frames these discussions (and again, I don't have a particular topic in mind, this is in general for any activist movement). 

The problem is that individual decisions and cultural influences aren't so easy to disentangle. People make decisions based off of the influence of the culture around them, and the culture around them is shaped by the decisions of individual people. It's a two-way street. 

So I see how it can be tempting to think that we can change the culture by attacking the individuals. After all, the individuals are a lot easier to attack. 

But attacking the individuals is almost always more complicated than it's worth. For one thing, individuals are never making decisions in isolation. They are a composite of multiple experiences and influences. If you define your platform by the actions of a few, you risk creating a platform that's incredibly vulnerable to attack. For example, if you want to demonstrate that racism is a problem, you might be tempted to use a particularly racist individual in your argument. You attack that person and his/her hateful, vile rantings. But it's very easy to dismiss the actions of an individual as an unfortunate anomaly. If, on the other hand, you use institutional practices and collective policies to make your case, it's much harder to be dismissed. (That's not to say that you should just tolerate the hate rantings of an individual racist (or sexist, or whatever-ist), but making a personal choice to keep such negative people away from you (or even to publicly humiliate them as individuals) isn't the same as building a movement around that decision). 

This works the other way, too. People are not only less likely to dismiss you, they are more likely to join you. 

Remember when Beyonce's pregnancy had the whole internet in a tizzy? (Yes, I know, I'm linking to myself a lot. I've just had a lot to say about this!) Well, some made her out to be a representative for a larger cultural problem. We took a very noble activist platform (reducing c-section rates) and turned it into an opportunity to very publicly scrutinize the very private decisions of an individual woman. 

Similarly, Jordin Sparks made headlines when she recently lost weight. But some complained about what a disappointment her weight loss was because it meant the loss of a plus-size role model in the media. These complainers have a very valid concern for a collective norm that pressures women to lose weight and that privileges bodies that meet certain size standards, but does body policing an individual woman really have to be the battleground on which that war is waged? 


I don't have all (or maybe even any) of the answers to how we best enact the changes that we want to see in the world, but I believe that we can learn a lot about these approaches to progress if we take a step back and think about our impact. 

By recognizing time and depth, we can begin to forge strategies that are multi-pronged and far-reaching. We can recognize the world that we live in today while changing it for tomorrow and we can realize that an individual's decision may be tied to the collective problem, but that our approaches in how and why we address them need to vary. 

What do you think? How do you keep your perspective around your passions? Can we separate the individual from the cultural?

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