UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

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So Yesterday

Awhile back I received an email from a college teacher using one of my books, The Gender Knot, in her class. She mentioned a disagreement among her students about whether my account of male privilege still holds true. One of the students settled the argument by flipping to the front of the book where the copyright date is found and pointing out that, well, there it is, the thing is eight years old.

That was easy.

Apparently, there is a ‘believe until’ date on descriptions of reality, or at least ones we’d like to see go away. And social systems can change almost as fast as Apple puts out a new iPhone, except, unlike Apple, no one has to actually do anything to make it happen. I don’t know exactly how many years it takes for a book to lose its credibility, but for some readers it is shorter than the average length of time that people own a car.

Sometimes I hear from a student who wants me to know that however bad things may have been for my generation, things are different now. That was then and the new generation has left all that behind.

There is change, of course, and there is good research showing that most of it happens between generations, but the idea that we can go from up-to-your-necks to past-all-that in the space of a few decades, not to mention years, is something else.

What might account for such sudden and dramatic change the student does not say, as if it somehow explains itself. It’s not that I don’t get it. When I think back to being nineteen or so, I don’t think it occurred to me that my generation might have been a continuation of anything remotely connected to that of our parents. We didn’t have to do anything to be unlike them, to break from the past, to start all over, because something new is what we were in spite of all those years of going to school and reading books and watching tv and everything else that goes with being socialized to fit the world into which we are born.

And don’t adults give graduation speeches exhorting young people to go out and be the hope of the future by being different from them?

It speaks to the power of both individualism and wishful thinking that we can sustain what amounts to a myth of self-invention by which each generation starts out fresh and decides who they are without having to deal with any historical or emotional baggage that they didn’t pack themselves. If everything is all about my experience and I’m not aware of experiencing the thing myself, then it must not be there. “I have never been discriminated against as a woman,” she says. “I don’t see color,” says he. “If I can do what I want, then so can anyone else.”

The myth of self-invention is connected, in turn, to the idea that everyone is different from everyone else. I’ve never really known what that means, or, more precisely, why it matters so much. Why should we care that no one out there is an exact match for us when the thing that makes our lives possible is all the ways in which we are alike—presenting ourselves and behaving in ways that other people will understand and accept as familiar. So what if there are dead ringers for me somewhere in the world?

And if everyone is supposedly unique, then it follows that everyone must have their own opinions and perceptions. I suppose that’s true in the sense that everyone has their own underwear, but, again, what does that mean when those same opinions and perceptions (not to mention underwear) show up in millions of other people, there being only so many possibilities?

And yet, we persist in the idea that our experience and what we know are somehow both unique to us and independent of the world through which we come into being and exist. I think, therefore I am—not I belong, connect, relate, share, participate, or continue some form of what came before.

Which brings me back to expiration dates on reality and how easily unpleasant things get relegated to a ‘past’ where they supposedly no longer apply, as if we can give them up as we would a habit or a fashion. And if problems like race or gender or poverty persist, it must be because there are individuals who, for whatever reason, have decided to be different from the rest of ‘us.’

The thing is, though, that social systems, and systems of privilege in particular, do not continue from force of habit, inertia, or individual choice. They are more than a collection of self-conscious attitudes or beliefs or styles that come and go on their own or through individual self-improvement.

Systems continue because of powerful forces exerted across generations, including adaptations to new circumstances so as to preserve the underlying structure and effect while seeming to have changed. “Power does not yield except by demand,” wrote Frederick Douglass more than 100 years ago, and as far as I can tell, recent history shows precious little of that.

The illusion of change is on my mind because new editions of two of my books—The Gender Knot and The Forest and the Trees—have just been published. I spent months digging into the latest data, scouring books and journals. And has anything changed? Well, of course. We have a black president, for one, and same-sex marriage is gaining support, and words like ‘transgender’ have entered our vocabulary.

But the evidence is also overwhelming that the basic structures of male privilege and white privilege and class privilege and even heterosexual privilege remain solidly intact. The epidemic of rape everywhere from the military to college campuses, the almost complete lack of progress toward gender equity for more than 20 years, the devastation of people of color in the most recent economic collapse, increased racial segregation and discrimination in hiring and the criminal justice system, the dramatic surge of economic inequality, the almost complete dominance of state and national politics by corporations and the wealthy, the patriarchal capitalist juggernaut that continues its systematic destruction of the Earth . . . you get the idea.

This is not to say that we don’t have the potential to reinvent ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. After all, that is what much of my work, both public and private, is about. But such invention comes only from our active engagement with the reality of what has been and how it continues into the present, however much it may shape-shift into forms that give the appearance of change. And however much we might wish it otherwise.

“The past,” wrote William Faulkner, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”

_____________________

If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Letting Go of Despair and Hope.”

The Hazards of Being Real

I was walking around San Francisco one day when I saw a panel truck go by with a message on the side in a large and colorful script

Art is a lie that tells the truth

a quote, I later learned, from Pablo Picasso, who went on to note that the artist “must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

Which is to say, it is no easy thing to lie so convincingly that the painting or the novel feels true even though the audience knows going in that it’s a lie.

And then there is my other favorite quote about what artists do, from the poet, Jane Kenyon, who said the job of the poet is “to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, in such a beautiful way that people cannot live without it; to put into words those feelings we all have that are so deep, so important, and yet so difficult to name.”

We have, then, the lie—the three-dimensional scene on the flat canvas, the work of fiction whose characters should not be mistaken for people living or dead.

And we have the truth that is realized through the lie.

And then there is the beauty that makes the whole thing something we cannot live without.

I have learned the hard way that some lies are more acceptable than others, no matter how convincingly or beautifully they are told. Sometimes it is just a matter of fashion and style, of what’s in and what’s out, what’s hot, what’s not, what’s old, what’s new.

Other times the lie is told in such a way that it disturbs too deeply our grasp of what is real. The art of Paul Cézanne was rejected and even ridiculed for his way of portraying nature and human figures. His pears didn’t look like pears, they said, his portraits not like people, the perspective all askew, misshapen, out of whack. Unpleasing.

It turns out that the truth of likeness was not what Cézanne was trying to paint. He believed likeness to be over-rated compared with something deeper that he was after—what it felt like to be in the room with the person he was painting, or what it felt like to look out on the hills or the sea, or to sit with a bowl of pears.

And then there are the lies that are rejected because they tell a truth considered too disturbing in itself, that people do not want or are not ready for and may never be. And if the lie be well told, made compelling in its beauty, that’s all the more reason to turn it away.

D. H. Lawrence had so many of his early novels attacked and banned in England for their portrayal of sexuality, that by the time he wrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover, he didn’t even try to find a publisher, but had it privately printed and sold by subscription. His work was not rejected because he told the truth badly or falsely or in a literary style that was not in favor at the time, but for telling it at all.

The practice of rejecting the disturbing real is, of course, alive and well today, and the difference between what is accepted and made known and what is not is worth exploring for what is lost.

I come to this from my own experience as a novelist. Some years ago I wrote my first novel, The First Thing and the Last. It is the story of Katherine Stuart, who barely escapes being beaten to death by her abusive husband, David, in the kitchen of their suburban Boston home. In the aftermath of utter loss—her husband and son both dead—she is sought out by Lucy Dudley, an elderly woman living on a family farm in Vermont, who reads about her in the news and is drawn to her by a closely guarded history of her own. Katherine accepts Lucy’s invitation to come to the farm, setting in motion a deepening relationship between the two women that frames a universal struggle to heal and reclaim what severe trauma takes from people’s lives.

Over a period of more than six years, the novel was turned down almost sixty times by commercial publishers. Three senior editors wanted to publish it but were overruled. Another editor wrote to my agent that the writing was “remarkable” and the story “compulsively readable.” He loved Katherine and Lucy and felt they were “brought completely and convincingly to life.” Everyone on the editorial board “admired the quality of the writing and everyone agreed that this is a novel that deserves to be published.”

But they would not, because some parts of the story were “difficult” and presented in a way that was “not sugarcoated and not softened by cutting away at the critical moments and would be difficult to sell.” He hoped we would find someone brave enough to take it on.

And then there was the editor who was interested in the paperback rights after the novel was finally published by a tiny subsidy press no one ever heard of and got a nod from Publisher’s Weekly. She thought the writing was lovely and lyrical and Katherine and Lucy were both empathetic, strong heroines, and the friendship they form was redemptive and illuminating. But she would not pursue the rights because she found the violence “a little too real.”

And I had thought ‘real’ was what Picasso and Kenyon were talking about, it not occurring to me that there could be too much of it, as in, art is a lie that almost tells the truth or sort of tells the truth or tells the truth but only part of it or in a sugarcoated way that makes it just enough less than true so as not to get anyone overly upset. Real but not too real.

It took me a long time to get over that, but I did finally arrive at the realization that I am in the good company of artists who strive to tell the truth about things that are considered too disturbing to be made real. Every society, every era, has its own version of that little sign hanging outside the door, Do Not Disturb. But it matters what we let in and what is kept out, and it’s important that we be on the lookout not only for what is offered up for us to view or read, but what is not and why.

There are reasons why artists feel compelled to realize the power of images and stories to lie their way beautifully into our hearts so that we may discover what we cannot live without. There are reasons why artists go deep into the painful heart of the human condition, even if it means coming back to be ignored or attacked or ridiculed or banned. And the reasons are important not only for the artist, but for what becomes of the art which is, after all, the point.

Art matters because truth matters, and there are truths that art can enter in ways like nothing else, and the more disturbing the truth, the more it matters to make it as real as we know how.

But if the only art that is supported and made known is art that is easier to sell, that fits what we already know, that people will want in the same way that they want to feel good, to be entertained or otherwise distracted from their lives, to be amused and excited, thrilled and enthralled, or even to feel sad or deeply moved or frightened (so long as it isn’t too sad or too deeply or for too long and does not require any courage), if there are stories about the human experience that are unacceptable unless they are made less than real, less than whole, palatable—

then the lie stays just a lie and we are left to live without what we cannot, and we will not even know.

________________

If you liked this post, you also might want to read, “Saying Goodbye to Philip Seymour Hoffman.”

Jane Kenyon, in A Hundred White Daffodils: Essays, Interviews, The Akhmatova Translations, Newspaper Columns, and One Poem. (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1999), p. 183.

Idiots, Morons, Lunatics, and Fools: When Worldviews Collide

man yelling 2I once received an email from a reader of one of my essays who said that anyone who believed as I did “must be either an idiot or a moron.” He did not elaborate.

My dictionary defines an idiot as someone who is “utterly foolish or senseless” or is of the “lowest level of mental retardation.” A moron turns out to be pretty much the same thing, so I’m not sure what kind of choice he thought he was offering me. Perhaps he just wanted to drive the point home.

There is a lot of such name-calling in public life these days. It has become routine when people want to attack those who disagree with them whether the issue is guns, abortion, affirmative action, immigration, or the proper role of government. It’s as if the only way to understand what someone is about when they stake out an opposing point of view is to assume they are stupid or mentally deranged or—and I’ve been accused of this as well—doing the devil’s work.

What I hear in the words he used to attack me was not simple disagreement with my analysis or a disputation of fact. No—and this is important—his reaction was far more global, as if he didn’t care about the particular facts or logic of what I was saying. It was the whole thing that got him so upset, making it impossible to imagine how any sane, intelligent, decent person could see reality as I appeared to him to do. And, I must confess, when I read his words, I found it difficult to imagine how he could fail to get what I was trying to say. Unless, of course, there was something wrong with him.

So, here we are, both suffering from a failure of imagination, which makes me wonder, what do I use to imagine him and he to imagine me?

What I can imagine depends on what I already know or think I know, a huge collection of beliefs, values, and assumptions that make up a worldview. Like everyone else, my worldview shapes how I see everything, from the cosmos and what happens when we die to why people do what they do. It is the stuff out of which I construct a taken-for-granted reality that I don’t have to question. It shapes not only what I perceive as real, but how I make sense of it, how I explain what happens and what is and is not, and how I justify what I do in any given situation.

My worldview, for example, includes the belief that gravity is real. It has been established by science (also in my worldview) and I therefore do not question its existence. I think I know how it works and how to live in relation to it, so much so that I don’t think about it most of the time, and when I hear about someone falling off a roof, I have no trouble understanding why they fall and why they get hurt or don’t survive, which is why I avoid high places.

When worldviews get disrupted, all hell can break loose because it isn’t just some idea or matter of fact that’s being called into question, but our sense of reality itself. If this isn’t true, then how can I be sure of anything? Imagine that all of a sudden people and everything not tied down start floating up into the air, or baseballs hit out of the park just keep on going. Or that the route you drive every day suddenly is no longer the same—streets not where they were, two-way streets now one-way, the signs and names all changed around. Or one friend after another reveals they never really liked you after all. You go along day after day thinking you know what’s what, how things work, what to expect, and then something comes along and turns it all upside-down.

Worldviews shape not only how we experience what’s right in front of us, but also what we cannot see and what hasn’t happened yet. If I see the world as a dangerous place, for example, I will feel the need to protect myself from things that haven’t happened and possibly never will, while if I see the world as relatively safe, I will not. When women are asked to name the precautions they take every day to ensure their physical safety from assault, for example, they typically produce lists whose length surprises many men, whose own lists are much shorter if not altogether empty, reflecting a striking difference in worldviews.

Because worldviews enable us to feel like we know what’s real from one moment to the next, it’s not hard to see why we’d feel we cannot live without them, which is why opposing worldviews can provoke extreme reactions like calling people idiots or morons or evil. To nullify the threat, we draw upon those same worldviews to understand our opponents in ways that leave our worldviews intact while discrediting theirs.

Which brings me to what is, I’ve long believed, a general pattern among human beings that applies to both sides of any argument. It goes like this—when we lack information that is important to us, we tend to make it up. Our worldview is our primary source of such material. We can’t really know what’s going to happen next, for example, and we can’t really know why people believe and do what they do. We cannot see into their hearts and minds. But that doesn’t keep us from acting as though we can. I don’t actually know what the driver of that other car is going to do in the next ten seconds, for example, but watch me act as if I do.

We make up reality as a way to avoid the anxiety and fear that come from uncertainty and from the need to feel solid ground beneath our feet. Where this can go wrong is when we pretend that what we’ve made up is the actual person or group or thing we’re dealing with. Look at the daily waves of anger, fear, outrage, and disbelief around one issue or another and we can see the result—I’m right, you’re wrong; I’m good, you’re bad; I’m sane, you’re crazy; I’m smart and you’re an idiot or a moron.

And so it will continue unless we step back far enough to see what’s happening and imagine something different. This isn’t an easy thing to do, and there are several things about worldviews that I try to keep in mind when I feel my own being challenged. In what follows, I’m going to focus on the current struggle over guns in America. I could have used any number of issues, but the conflict over this one is intense right now and the massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut, which is where I live, is still fresh in my mind.

Until now, my worldview made what happened in Newtown literally unthinkable. It never occurred to me that someone might break into an elementary school and slaughter children and their teachers. Like most of the nation, I struggle for answers, and my worldview is what I have to work with.

My assumption that children in school would be safe from mass murder isn’t something I thought up on my own or adopted by conscious choice. Like most of what constitutes a worldview, I came by it through living in a social environment in which that belief has been part of the worldview reflected everywhere I turn. Nor did I ever experience it as a mere opinion or belief, but as the way things are, something to be taken for granted, something that I could assume that everybody knew.

That the authority behind worldviews is based in something larger than and beyond ourselves only increases our tendency not only to experience them as true, but to be unaware that we even have a worldview in the first place. We take the reality it portrays to be not a particular version of reality or point of view on reality, but reality itself. Which then sets us up to see those who hold a different worldview as not living in reality—idiots, morons, lunatics, and fools.

Which is what has happened in the aftermath of the Newtown massacre as worldviews diverged from a shared sense of shock, horror, and grief to a polarizing national debate about whether to control access to the kind of guns used to carry out the murders. Both sides accuse the other of caring not about the safety of children or anyone else but only for a narrow political agenda—to promote the unrestricted right to own weapons on the one hand or to destroy the Second Amendment altogether on the other. How did we go so quickly from the one to the other?

Part of the answer is that the points of conflict have always been there. Worldviews overlap—we’re all horrified by the murder of children—and they don’t—we disagree about what’s to be done about it. From its beginning, this country has been host to a variety of worldviews that get along some of the time but also erupt in conflict when we’re confronted with their differences. We’re like sheepdogs keeping the herd of all our beliefs and assumptions together, making sure they all fit and chasing off any interlopers who show up at the periphery.

Another part of the answer is that worldviews are not only largely unconscious, but they are also complicated and consist of countless interconnecting parts. The disturbance of one part touches many others. The issue of gun control is not simply about guns or control, but is connected to all kinds of other things—what it means to be an American, the cultural definition of manhood, how safe we feel in the world and what we feel entitled to do when we feel threatened; the role of government and authority in the lives of citizens, the belief in the use of violence as the cause of a problem or the solution, the fear of strangers and groups identified as ‘not like us’, and the view of government power as a means to ensure the common good or as a threat to individual liberty, including the use of violence against its citizens; the cultural ideal of the rugged individual, the degree to which we feel accountable to other people, the meaning of civil rights, of freedom, and the Constitution—to name just a few. And our worldviews shape not only what we perceive to be the reality of the world outside ourselves, but also our own identity, who we think we are in relation to all of that.

Which means there is a lot more at stake here than guns.

All of the above makes worldviews highly resistant, if not impervious, to doubt, which is why they’re so hard to change and we dig in our heels when we encounter one that contradicts some part of our own. We defend our worldview not simply because we like a particular set of what we consider to be facts, but because our sense of reality itself—of who we are and the difference between what is real and what is not—depends on it. This makes it impossible to completely separate ourselves from whatever worldview we’ve come to have. In writing this essay, for example, I am acting from a worldview that includes the belief that words and ideas can make a difference, that it is possible to understand our experience and behavior as human beings, that people I do not know can read what I write and draw from it some idea of how I see reality. I cannot tell you how I acquired that belief. I also cannot say just how I know that it’s true. I can make an argument. I can cite evidence. But, in the final analysis, it really comes down to what I believe.

When I go out into the world—to the movies, for example, or shopping for groceries—the worldview I carry does not include the belief that there exists a reasonable chance that a stranger is going to attack me and that I might need a gun to protect myself. I also don’t believe that I have the right to kill someone who is trying to steal my property. Nor do I see our government as a malevolent force out to destroy liberty and oppress its citizens, against which adequate firepower is the only defense. I do not believe in society as a collection of rugged individuals who stand on their own against any attempt to limit their ability to be left alone to live their lives the way they want without anyone telling them what to do. I don’t believe the social world of human beings actually works that way, or that it should. I believe we really are all in this together whether we like it or not, that we’re in the same boat and what happens to some of us happens to us all in one way or another.

Do I actually know for a fact that my perceptions and beliefs about all of this are true? Do I know for certain that a civil war against a tyrannical government is not in our future? Am I absolutely sure there will never come a moment when a pistol might be the only thing to save my life or someone I love? Of course not. And yet I act as though I do because my worldview tells me so, providing me with the only reality I have. And supporters of gun rights do their own version of the same.

Perhaps the greatest power of worldviews lies in their invisibility to us most of the time while at the same time being crucial to our existence. So, when debates turn ugly and both sides accuse the other of being some combination of evil, crazy, and stupid and wanting to destroy something precious to the other side for no other reason than, well, they just do because that’s who they are—we can be sure the conflict is about something much larger and deeper than the issue at hand. Even more important—given the way these things usually go—it’s unlikely that what’s really at stake will ever be named, much less discussed, which is why such debates are rarely resolved and keep coming back again and again.

The only way out of this is to change the conversation, to take it beneath the surface and talk about larger and more fundamental differences that need to be heard and reconciled. Can we be accountable to one another, for example, and still be free? Free to do and be what? What are we afraid of and what do we need in order to feel safe? What assumptions are we making about the reality of social life and one another and what it means to be a human being?

Examining our own worldview is not an easy thing to do. It is hard work that can be confusing and uncomfortable and threatening and, at times, frightening. But it is also the only alternative we have to angry refusals to compromise or even listen to one another. Yesterday a caller to an NPR radio show expressed support for gun control and then blurted out in exasperation, “Why should we have to compromise?” while at a recent gun rights rally in Hartford, a man was heard to say that the two sides are on opposite sides of the moon, with people like him on the light side and their opponents in the dark. It would be easier if this were true, because we’d have no reason to reconcile our differences. But we inhabit the same society. We live down the street from one another. Our children and grandchildren attend the same schools, go to the same movie theaters.

Finding a way out of this doesn’t mean making our worldviews all the same, which is impossible. It does mean opening our own worldviews to the reality that they are just that, that they are not the only ones, and that those who see things differently are not crazy or stupid or malevolent. Then we can talk about evidence and consequences and how to construct a society in which worldviews can coexist without our being at one another’s throats.

This country fought the Civil War—the bloodiest conflict in our history—from a failure to recognize the worldviews that underlay regional hostility, fear, and violence, to step back and critically evaluate what shapes how we perceive and understand the world, or to listen and strive to understand the worldview of others. We can do better than this—we have to—and given how polarized our country has become over so many issues, now is the time to begin.

___________________

If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Fatal Distraction: Manhood, Guns, and Violence.”

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