Information, meaning, and the insidiousness of a libertarian perspective on knowledge
This is going to be a long one, so…let’s go. (Also: apologies, it gets quite rambling in some places. Yay blogs!)
I should be transcribing my data (it’s all I do these days, and it’s taken way longer than I had originally hoped), but what I’m about to churn out is not unrelated, so I figured it would be an acceptable way to spend an hour. It also has a whole bunch of waves and circles to it, so I hope I don’t lose anyone due to my lengthiness.
This story is about hopelessness and frustration, about community, and about what I see as the largest failing of people on the left side of the political spectrum (en masse).
Hopelessness and Frustration
A lot of things have been hard lately. The marriage amendment has been hard, watching our local musicians devalued in the lockouts of the Minnesota Orchestra and Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra has been hard, watching Kao Kalia Yang struggle against the behemoth that is an entire public radio organization has been hard, and a number of conversations that I’ve stayed out of on Facebook have been hard.
Oh I know, I’m never really hopeless. I’m channeling here what I’ve heard over and over from my research participants in how they felt about what they could do to help LGBT youth who are suffering. Hopeless, frustrated, unsure of what they could do that could matter — or what they could do without being called pedophiles (still a common fear, especially for older LGBT people).
So I’m frustrated.
I wrote a little something for MPR about why the wellbeing of all children is important as a reason for us to reject the anti-gay marriage amendment in Minnesota. That felt pretty good, though it’s a drop in the bucket. Even knowing that it takes lots of drops to fill a bucket, these small acts of speech often feel futile to me. One tiny drop squeezed into a bucket with what feels like a tidal wave of disinformation or powerful cultural norms and stories that desperately want to ignore important stories or set important perspectives as an outside insight, an outlier, from the accepted storyline. It is not surprising that even MN United doesn’t spend much time focusing on the need for all children to see LGBT people as happy, functional adults who are accepted in our society. LGBT teachers still face pretty antiquated traditions, perspectives, and cultures in the schools, especially those in elementary education.
I can imagine that Kalia feels something similar, though my communication with her and Aaron has mostly been in the form of Facebook comments and likes — not exactly deep conversation. But maybe she’s more patient than I am, maybe the long-term silencing or just plain ignorance of Hmong voices in the larger culture makes every drop worth it. Maybe the bucket is so slowly filled that every drop is noticeable.
The LGBT community has seen a lot of action in the last fifteen years, and as it amps up more and more I get simultaneously more hopeful and more impatient. More hopeful and angrier. More hopeful and less cognizant of all the fights and all the threads and how this will never be over. It’s an ocean of wins and losses, advances and forgetfulness.
And forgetfulness is the worst because it gets your brain out of shape. If we think we’ve solved racism, that we’ve solved homophobia — that we’re progressive or scientific or that we, the dominant, (at the times during which we are dominant) have given enough attention or enough rights and feel good enough about ourselves that we’re ready to move on — we’ll stop thinking, stop working our brains.
I sometimes joke about my MFA in poetry. A wink and a jocular comment about how there’s “so much money in it.”
It’s true that you can’t shelter yourself with a payment of two copies of the journal you’re printed in, but I think we’re all mixed up letting vocations eat into the life we’re supposed to spend building communities and creating lives worth living. My career has changed over time, but I will always be a writer and a poet and there are poets who make my head spin. Without the arts, I would be a shy, angry person. I certainly wouldn’t be an optimist. I certainly wouldn’t have found the voice that let me tap into my natural extroversion. A poet can make the tragic beautiful to behold and that is truly valuable.
In the rare instances in which an artist or a musician or a writer is able to become so profoundly skilled that they can make a career in it, they have achieved something amazing. I’ve been bewildered by the discourse around our orchestras — that the musicians make too much money, that their labor accounts for a large percentage of the organizations’ budgets…
I went to see the locked out MN Orchestra musicians play at the Minneapolis Convention Center, which they sold out, and the standing ovations went on so long they literally had to leave the stage to get people to stop clapping. We would have been there all night. In the comments on articles about the concert (and I know, never read the comments), some nameless people were saying — “See, they should just do this. No government funding or philanthropy. Free market blah blah blah.”
We, as a weird, disagreeing, patchwork community make decisions about the kind of world we want to live in in many ways. As we defund the arts in schools, we say the arts are not important. It’s no wonder that we would think sustaining an organization as complex as an orchestra is unimportant. As we subject ourselves to the agendas of people who would have us turn education into only training, it should not surprise us that people believe less and less in institutions and more in the whims of the market. A history-less world.
We can’t go it alone
I think a lot about societal change. Despite my generally excitable disposition, I’m actually pretty patient working with people and educating them about what I think is important.* I don’t expect people to transform their world views in total and immediately and get on board without resistance. And, in general, I think that makes me more of a moderate than many people I know while still being extremely far to the left of most Americans. (This actually amuses me a lot.)
*The exception to this is with politicians who wield their ignorance like a weapon, who have no desire to understand the world in more complex ways — or, worse, those who know better, but prefer using manipulation of peoples’ lack of understanding to gain support and forward some other agenda.
We have a pretty serious problem, though. I’ve had this floating around in my head for a long time — a nameless discomfort. I’ve never felt really comfortable with the idea that if someone didn’t know something that I knew or didn’t understand something I understood, that they should be excoriated. There are limits to this, as I noted, and frustration can make you say mean things or get angry and in my heart I am more of a brawler than a peacemaker, but that characteristic drives me eternally back to reflection and what I can do better and communicate better. It also forces me to consider what my responsibilities are.
If a person or the larger culture does not know something — if they don’t know what the experience of LGBT teachers is, for instance, how can I say that they should? How can I tell them that the information is out there, that they should know where to look, and that they should be ashamed for not thinking of it on their own? Knowledge is power, but knowing what knowledge you lack is a profound skill (and one that — even if you have it in some areas — you do not have in every area) and the bias that you should just know to inform yourself, or know what you don’t know, or know where to find primary sources on every issue ever and then understand those sources on your own is a problem of epic proportions.
This is a libertarian bias towards knowledge and information and it is strong within progressive communities. It also leads to a certain kind of truth-orientation in which discussion is nixed in favor of referencing flavor of the decade terminology that, almost invariably, was decided upon by a small circle of people with the power to make definitions stick (on another day maybe we’ll talk about the many issues we ignore when we promote use of the word ‘queer’ as a catchall for the alphabet soup and mashed-up experiences that constitute being in the spectrum of LGBT).
I want to strongly advocate that individuals are not responsible for spontaneously learning what they don’t know.
It’s funny to draw in marketing here, but Expedia made a fantastic advertisement/story about a father traveling to his daughter’s wedding to another woman. It was part of their “find yours” campaign and was titled “Find Your Understanding.” As an educator, I love this. It’s not about being right or perfect or even having a comfortable experience with the process of discovery, it’s about the process of learning to understand and gain insight into the experiences of people that may not be what you know or understand. It’s about finding that your previous understanding of the world was incomplete because you just didn’t know. And even though it’s about you finding your understanding, that discovery is based on someone else taking the steps to educate you by being open and accepting your ambivalence and trepidation and discomfort and letting you have your process.
I know it’s hard
It’s tiring to educate. It’s much easier to throw information out there and shame people for not knowing something. It’s much easier to tell them to figure it out themselves. The process of making yourself available and vulnerable kind of sucks. It can be painful. When you educate, you are responsible for more knowledge than you’d have from just your own experience, but as you educate, you are forced to learn more. It’s a wonderful thing.
I’m often troubled. As you get older and learn more, process more, discover more, the contradictions of the world and the grayness of the world get more challenging. We will never live in happy unicorn rainbow land because there are no easy answers to our problems and not everyone is willing to open themselves up to the vulnerability of being ignorant. This is true for all of us — left, right, center, all over the map — and the role our cultures play in determining what we see and don’t see are so invisible that it’s easy to miss what you don’t know you’re missing. It’s easy for a male physicist to say there must be something women lack as an explanation for why men dominate physics because it fits the cultural ideas they have about science and work ethic and meritocracy. It’s easy for the leadership of the MN Orchestra to send out letters to donors about the “economic realities” of why they have locked out musicians because it plays into a general cultural notion that is prevalent at present that no one in the non-profit/government/arts/education world should make good money.
In the quest to argue why you are right, sometimes you lose all but a single perspective.
In the quest to say people should know this, that male scientists should know better (for instance), we stifle conversation about why they are so comfortable with that explanation and how that can change. We could say they should be ashamed (and it kind of feels that way), but shame doesn’t change people — it entrenches them in the world they know and are comfortable with.
What’s the point?
I don’t really know how to end this. It’s long, there’s a lot in here, and I’m just sort of soaking in a lot of different thoughts at the same time. As I said, I’m a bit of a brawler, so I’m tempted to say we should stop being conceited assholes about the things we know and instead think of ourselves as educators and students all the time every day…but that language doesn’t necessarily help the point. I am also aware of contradictions in my own writing history — that sometimes I do like the pen as sword (or, rather, the keyboard as sword) and have been known to use my writing skills for evisceration as opposed to education. And I probably will again because I’m human and I’m in a constant process of learning that my most base impulses are not necessarily the best or most useful ones.
So, hey, let’s try to not be assholes and think no one is as smart as we are and everyone should be even though we’re not smart about everything and life is complicated and issues are complicated and we’re all fallible, temporary animals in this world who really need each other and need joy and need to consistently combat our myopic natures. How’s that?
(Special thanks to my friend Kristen, who doesn’t know that she kicked this off in my head when she lectured me for saying Paul Ryan looked like Eddie Munster, noting that his appearance has nothing to do with his policies. She was right, and I was using his looks as a lazy shorthand for “I don’t like and disagree with that guy so much.”)