Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Blogging to My PhD: Stepping Into the Contact Zone (How Can We Talk About Dick Pics?)

I'm reading Identity Matters by Donna LeCourt, a book I'm really enjoying so far. In it, LeCourt talks about how her acceptance of contact zone pedagogy led to some really difficult places in the classroom.

Contact zone pedagogy draws from Mary Louise Pratt's work, which posits that the "contact zone" is the area in which two cultures overlap (often unevenly). Pratt's concept has been pulled into rhetoric and composition theory by scholars like Patricia Bizzell and Joseph Harris. Harris' article "Negotiating the Contact Zone" does a good job of summarizing much of this discussion and includes the following passage that dovetails nicely into LeCourt's work:

So far as I can determine, contact languages do not often seem to hold the sort of symbolic or personal value for their users that native languages do; they are rather born out of expediency, as a way of getting by. It is thus a little hard to see who (except perhaps for a teacher) would have much at stake in preserving the contact zone, since it is not a space to which anyone owes much allegiance.
We ask our students to adopt "contact languages" in the composition classroom because we are asking them to negotiate confrontation (and, most often, conflict) between the discourse they most commonly inhabit and the discourse of the academy. Their "home" discourse, of course, does not have the same weight or level of authority as the academic discourse, creating an imbalanced conflict aligned with Pratt's idea of a contact zone. This is a space filled with contention, grappling, and tension.  

Harris uses his conclusion to move (theoretically) beyond this kind of contact zone pedagogy:

But I am growing less inclined to valorize notions of conflict or struggle in and of themselves. I want instead to argue for a more expansive view of intellectual life than I now think theories of the contact zone have to offer-one that admits to the ways in which we are positioned by gender, race, and class, but that also holds out the hope of a more fluid and open culture in which we can choose the positions we want to speak from and for. To work as teachers towards such a culture, we need to move beyond think- ing in terms of fixed affinities or positions and the possible conflicts between them. We instead need to imagine a different sort of social space where people have reason to come into contact with each other because they have claims and interests that extend beyond the borders of their own safe houses, neigh- borhoods, disciplines, or communities.
LeCourt became similarly disenchanted with contact zone pedagogy when she realized that her success in getting students to see their subject positions as culturally inscribed and socially constructed did not always translate into them successfully moving beyond those inscriptions. In fact, she says her "students were just as likely to become more mired in their own positions" (18). Pointing out the subject positions and the way that they are constructed often had an effect that directly opposed LeCourt's goal:
Discussions often foregrounded the constructed nature of positions--for example, with comments continually prefaced by 'as a white person' or 'as an African American.' Students claimed ownership of those positions so vociferously that African American students would claim whites could never 'understand' a reading by Cornel West, or female students would tell male students they had no right to discuss an essay on women's experience. Seeing claims of positionality as a means of discussing difference did not lead to exceeding such positions to traverse boundaries. 
This is a tricky place for composition teachers. Ignoring the differences that culturally-enforced subject positions bring to our classrooms is detrimental and erases the lived experience of students while simultaneously cutting off the rhetorical power of ethos. Contact zone pedagogy is so attractive because it gives composition instructors a way to put those differences up front, pull them out of the margins and grapple with them as part of the instruction rather than as a distraction from it. But, as Harris and LeCourt are both exploring here, it doesn't always work out the way we hope. So what are we to do?

LeCourt identifies the source of this block in the way we perceive identity, even if we readily admit (in theory) that identity is a construct and one that we inhabit with multiplicity:
identities are too often acted upon as if they were authentic and unified within the cultural categories by which we explain our experience to ourselves and others. While we may wish to enact these multiple subjectivities in favor of other kinds of discursive action, the way we perceive identity frequently prevents such an intervention into culture
In other words,  you may be intellectually aware of the fact that social conditioning has led to your identification with particular groups and that your experiences are actually a multiplicity of those groups. I, for instance, recognize my subject position as a woman, as a wife, as a mother, as a teacher, as someone who grew up in poverty, as white, as heterosexual, etc. I can even recognize that the way I experience those identities is socially constructed. But when the time comes to "intervene into culture" by voicing my experiences from one of those positions, I often feel that identity in a way that is more visceral than that theoretical understanding allows.

When I am discussing something like the public breastfeeding debate, for example, my identity as a mother no longer feels socially constructed and like a splintered part of my many intersecting identities; it feels all-consuming and essential, and I speak from that space passionately.

We have to grapple with difference if public rhetoric is to have any meaning. As LeCourt says "a unitary public is no longer viable" and if rhetoric is to have any use it must "highlight what those positions might be by providing opportunities where difference is no longer marginalized under a false concept of a unitary consensus about social norms but becomes a possible site of rhetorical action."

And the internet has done that, right?

It has given people the opportunity to have a public voice without the censoring power of an authoritarian screen. No longer do you have to pitch your story to the editor of a powerful magazine to get it told; you can start your own blog and tell it without any censorship at all. We've found niches and tribes and communities for slivers of identity that would have seemed unfathomably small. If you want to read a blog about Wiccans who knit or new mothers who do sex work or tech geeks who drink herbal tea, you can do it.

It's a beautiful thing to have such access to these communities, and one that was virtually impossible even just twenty years ago. You can find the people who are like you easier than you've ever been able to before, and because of that you can find just what it is you are like in ways that you may have never even recognized without the aid of a community to show you the way.

But just as this highlighting of identities in LeCourt's classroom caused some unexpected consequences, we see the same thing happening in the larger public. We become so entrenched in those identities and so emboldened by our community membership that we stop trying to see things from other perspectives; we shut down conversations rather than engage in them. We create echo chambers where we only hear voices that agree with us.

Today, Salon shared an old post on their Facebook page about a woman who contacted a man's mother after he sent her an unsolicited picture of his penis. (I promise I'll make the connection in a second; I know that was a jarring leap.)

The Facebook comment thread on that post does an excellent job of illustrating the type of problems we're discussing.

Several men in the comments are angry that a man sending a picture of his penis to a woman who didn't want it and then calling her a "prude" for asking him to stop is called "rape culture" in the article.

Commenter Nathaniel Raddin said:
"I wonder what girls would think if guys started doing this? Honestly do you think most of the naked photos going around online are dudes sending pics? I think guys need to start treating girls the way they treat us honestly, if you talk to me in public and I don't want to hear it I am going to scream 'rape culture', if you flirt with me and I don't like you I am going to scream 'rape', and when I girl sends a naked picture you should send it to her mother and post it on the internet to shame her. Cause I am sick women screaming 'rape' when they don't like the attention, and then wearing almost no clothing in public and being mad when someone notices."
Commenter Brad Downy explains:
"She's on a dating site and when this guy makes an advance in a manner she doesn't like, it becomes "perpetuating rape culture"? Yeah, riiiight. Some women respond to that sort of direct approach, others do not. Calling her a "prude" is not a nasty reaction to her rejection. She should have just moved on instead of turning this guy's bad manners into some sort of political statement. It's ridiculous."
While you can go read through the thread for yourself for more examples, there's definitely a trend of men coming forward and calling this woman's response an overreaction. There are some people (both men and women) who try to take these comments to task. They try a variety of rhetorical strategies.

Many take to name calling and dismissal, but some attempt to create a "contact zone" of sorts by creating hypothetical situations in which these men could find some empathy and understanding. Commenter Jeremy Selenfriend, for example, tells Brad that this would be the equivalent of a man "whipping it out" at a bar just because a woman was flirting with him. Many women ask men to consider what it would be like to get constant pictures of penises and threats of violence sent to them.

Several other men get angry at these types of comments and use their position as a man to make their objection more powerful. For instance, Bob Bates says "A perfect response to a bully. Out them. No one should ever have to say 'knock it off' twice to unsolicited idiot nudes.What the FUCK is wrong with some of you guys? Don't make me come over there and rip up your 'Man Card.'"

But none of it seems to work. As I'm sure will not surprise you in the least, there are no "ah-ha, you've changed my mind about this!" comments anywhere in the thread. This is the most frustrating part of the internet: it seems to be a rhetorical dreamland, a utopian agora where ideas can be shared and minds can be enlightened, but instead it mostly turns into inane argument where no one is going to change their mind (see this hilarious argument over how many days there are in a week as a prime example).

Much like a classroom operating under the direction of contact zone pedagogy, a Facebook comment thread puts difference on full display. There is no upholding the illusion that we all exist in a consensus. Conflict is inevitable and often embraced.

But we also don't get anywhere. Despite the fact that numerous women are saying that these unsolicited pornographic pictures insult them, there are still several men saying that this is just a way of "making an advance" in the dating world. Not a single woman is coming forward to say "Yeah. I love a good unsolicited dick pic," but the men defending this action are so entrenched in their subject position that they don't notice, and the fact that there is more than one man making that argument emboldens them and gives them a community to fall back on. It's the reason that pick-up artistry is so disturbing. Creating a community of people who share a discourse gives strength to that discourse. In many cases, this is a fantastic way to give voice to the marginalized and draw attention to perspectives that have often been ignored and erased from history, but that same strength in community can also create bubbles around already privileged (and sometimes abhorrent) positions.

And that's what I think is happening in the dick pic argument. There are enough men sharing the perspective that this kind of behavior is okay that they can effectively shield themselves from the rhetorical acts of those around them. The men and women taking a variety of tactics to demonstrate the problem with their view can't get through that bubble. The dick pic supporters are so entrenched in their subject position (one of culturally-constructed notions of masculinity, patriarchy, and sexuality) that they are using that subject position to shield themselves from other perspectives. In fact, I think that part of what has them so angry in the first place is that the woman who sent the picture to the man's mother drew attention to the fact that we inhabit multiple subject positions simultaneously. The man was also "son." By pulling his mother into the conversation, the victim of the dick pic assault shattered the illusion that we can inhabit only one space at a time, and since that illusion brings a lot of power and comfort, we don't take such realities lightly.

Where does that leave us, rhetorically? I share Harris' and LeCourt's frustrations with contact zone pedagogy in my own composition classroom, but even more than that, I become frustrated with the way that attempts at embracing difference play out in our daily public interactions. I believe in the power of conflict and difference as a way to learn, grow, and thrive as human beings, but it's a potential that seems constantly squandered even in spaces where it is theoretically understood and embraced.

Pictures: Peggy Reimchen, Kathryn, Tim

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