Identity

Failure Friday: More on the Irony of Optimism

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic?” The Pythons always had a bit of a punch-line challenge and they liked to end a sketch by throwing in something random like, in this case, having Michael Palin walk into a room where Terry Jones is offering “getting hit on the head lessons.”

So yesterday I was browsing the archives of a blog called The Golden Echo, and I came across a post tagged “Failure Friday.” As I have an interest in failure, I thought I would like to steal, er, offer an homage to the Failure Friday tag. I wondered, however, if I could come up with enough failure material for a recurring feature.

Fate intervened, for today I was reading Stat (of course I read medical blogs) and I stumbled upon an article by Sara Whitlock with the title “One Reason Young People Don’t Go Into Science? We Don’t Fail Well.” Whitlock’s thesis is that repeated failure is “the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience.”

(It is, undoubtedly, the fundamental underpinning of resilience in the arts as well. By the time anyone is making a career as an artist, dancer, musician, actor or writer he has gone through more than his fair share of rejection and failure.)

Westerners in general, and Americans particularly, face a lot of social pressure to be above average. We’re consumers of books on “success,” and we are judgmental of those who do not achieve it. Success means standing out, showing a talent that you have above and beyond others. Talent is thought to be innate, part of an individual’s makeup.

A number of studies have found that Asian cultures take a different approach. For example a 2001 study had Canadian and Japanese students take a so-called creativity test. It did not test anything, but the experimenters gave the subjects feedback on how well they had performed then they watched their reactions. When they were told they were successful, Canadians worked longer. With the Japanese it was completely the opposite. They worked harder if they failed.

One big East/West divide, according to Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, is that Westerners are focused on building and shoring up our individual identities. In the East it is different:

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese there is no word for “individualism.” The closest one can come is the word for “selfishness.” The Chinese character jên— benevolence— means two men. In Japanese, the word “I”— meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalized self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences— is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for “I,” depending on audience and context.

We believe each person has a consistent self that remains stable regardless of the context. This self can be either “creative” or “not so creative.” The Canadian therefore takes the feedback on the creativity test as information on how creative a person he is. If it turns out he is not “creative” he will want to move on to what he is good at, leave creativity to “creatives,” and try to develop his core competency. The Japanese subjects do not take the test as a measure of their inherent qualities, rather as a challenge at which they can improve.

Nisbett concluded, “Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades.”

We might try science, but if we don’t stand out fairly quickly we move on to try to find out where we do excel. This makes us less resilient in the face of failure. Whitlock cites a 2011 study that examined resiliency in disadvantaged students in a number of countries and concluded that non-US students were more resilient than we are. Is there a moral to this story?

Maybe we need to sign up for more getting hit on the head lessons.

 

 

 

Personal Memories and Historical Memory

CoverHaving been immersed in Oscar’s Ghost for some time, I finally had a chance to do my first pleasure reading in more than a year. I found, on my shelf, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. (It seems they made a movie of this book. It is one of those novels that is so internal, it is hard for me to imagine its translation to film.)

I was looking for something refreshingly Oscar Wilde free. My forthcoming book, Oscar’s Ghost, if you were not already aware deals with a long and bitter feud between Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas and the man who would become his literary executor Robert Ross in the years following Wilde’s death.

Inevitably, it seems, I was not permitted to exorcise myself entirely from Oscar’s Ghost. The Sense of an Ending deals with memory, how we create narratives to explain ourselves to others and our lives to ourselves. We remember episodes that confirm our stories, forget episodes that do not. We make assumptions to fill in missing information, and these assumptions in turn color and shape our memories of events.

This led me back to Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Their feud had many complex causes, but at its heart, it had to do with the past and who would win the right to interpret those events. Who, or what, had been responsible for Oscar Wilde’s downfall? By the time their feud broke out, the two friends had largely gone their separate ways. They had entirely different views on politics and ran in different social circles. Each had a different interpretation of what had happened all those years ago. Those interpretations had consequences for who they believed themselves to be.

One of the pitfalls of writing a biography is that there is a compression of time. We read about the actions of Ross and Douglas in their 20s and a few pages later they are in their 40s. We see the continuity, whereas the men themselves experienced many shifts in perception and developed new ways of understanding themselves and their pasts. In twenty years, there were episodes and attitudes that had been put aside or forgotten. Each man had constantly rewritten his story emphasizing certain moments, contextualizing others and forgetting others still in order to remain true to his story of himself.

Old letters played a huge role in Ross and Douglas’s conflict. It began with the revelation of Wilde’s prison letter, De Profundis, a letter full of recriminations against Douglas. Douglas did not read the full text, which was in Ross’s possession, until years after Wilde’s death and it challenged his memories of his relationship with Wilde in a way that was traumatic for him. In the legal battles which ensued, Ross produced old letters that Douglas had written to him in his youth. The letters had the tone of a wounded adolescent, rebellious, fascinated with sex, and melodramatic about love. By now, he was a middle aged man, a new and zealous convert to Catholicism who disapproved of the excesses of his youth.

I was drawn back to the conflict when I read Barnes describing his protagonist reading a nasty letter he had written to an old girlfriend after a break up decades before.

I reread this letter several times. I could scarcely deny its authorship or its ugliness. All I could plead was that I had been its author then, but was not its author now. Indeed, I didn’t recognise that part of myself from which the letter came. But perhaps this was simply further self-deception… My younger self had come back to shock my older  self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.

If you have ever found an old diary or letter you wrote decades ago, you will relate to this passage. What a strange experience it can be reading words that were written by someone with a biographical connection to you who is still, somehow, not quite you– the person you believe yourself to be today.

Our memories are not always historically accurate, although we believe them to be. This is important when considering the story of Douglas and Ross. Wilde’s imprisonment and early death was a traumatic event for each, and each did a lot of internal work to understand his own role in it. Neither man’s account can be taken entirely at face value. When Ross’s accounts in the context of the legal battles fail to conform to what can be documented, or when Douglas’s views of his friendship with Wilde are more rosy than the De Profundis account or his memories of his own attitudes and emotions shift, we are inclined to view them as liars. In fact, they were something else. They were human beings with the same fallible and changeable memories as the rest of us.

The Others

This was the darker side of community. For a group to have a sense of cohesion, a sense of being “us,” it had to define what was outside of the group. It had to define a “them”— the excluded. Who “they” are changes over time and from society to society, but the process never changes. It is part of the nature of community life. To have an inside, a tribe must have an outer boundary. For most of the members of Paul’s community, young men dancing in gay clubs, people like Andy, were not “us” but “them.” Judging by his own reactions, Paul had to admit with some shame that he felt the same way. “I am not like him.”

I find that I have been thinking about this passage from the novel “Angel” quite a bit lately.

Something has happened this election cycle. It seems as though an epidemic of “othering” has descended upon us. To some extent this has always happened in election years. People dig in their heels, politicians try to differentiate between their views and those of their opponents. Republicans and Democrats try to set the stakes high and make it seem as though the people in the other party want to harm the country and only they can save it.

Then there are the pundits, covering the horse race and predicting how blocks of people vote based on demographic categories and stereotypes about them. “This area is rural and those will be big Ted Cruz voters…” “This area has a lot of students so they will vote for Bernie Sanders.” “Secretary Clinton expects to do well in South Carolina because of its large African-American population.”

The Los Angeles Times ran a story today by Liana Aghajanian in which she expressed her disillusionment with this kind of stereotyping.

After Bernie Sanders won Michigan, the media and its pundits were whipped into a frenzy, touting shock and confusion of how Arab and Muslim Americans — who constitute a healthy portion of the population in metro Detroit — could have supported a candidate who is Jewish.

The only way it felt appropriate to respond was to ask: Why wouldn’t they? Why do we so easily fall into these polarizing traps set up by mainstream media that paint and pit two communities against each other and then accept the idea as truth?

To assume anti-Semitism on behalf of an entire, very large population is not just irresponsible, but as the International Business Times wrote, “Reveals how much reporting on American Muslims is still rooted in an unsophisticated naiveté about what motivates them.”

Every four years we’re treated to this superficial analysis and asked to see our fellow countrymen as representatives of different groups.

“I can’t help feeling wary when I hear anything said about the masses,” the English chemist J.B. Priestly once said. “First you take their faces away from ’em by calling ’em the masses and then you accuse them of not having any faces.”

All of this is depressingly par for the course in elections.

Now we have Donald Trump, a candidate who elicits cheers and sighs of relief for saying “we’re too politically correct,” implying, of course, that those of us who do not agree that Muslims should all be treated as suspected terrorists or that illegal immigrants should be thought of as rapists do not actually believe what we are saying and are simply being polite.

There is room for polite disagreement on immigration policy. This is not about that. I am concerned that it is becoming increasingly acceptable to other and dehumanize groups of people. This is not a political problem, but a cultural one and, as photographer Brandon Staton put it in his viral open letter to Trump, a moral one. (If you want any more proof of this, and you have a strong stomach, you can scan the comments on his open letter for the phrase “you people.”)

To pillory “political correctness” is to overlook the fact that language does matter. There is a difference when you say that an immigrant “pops out a baby” or that she “has a child.” In the first case, you are speaking of her as something less than fully human.

“Is that why they pop out babies? To make them U.S. citizens? Is that why you popped out yours?”

What is the result of constant exposure to the idea that a group is not only “other” but “less than?” A racial empathy gap. As Lisa Wade wrote in Sociological Images:

Psychologists continue to document what is now called a racial empathy gap, both blacks and whites show lesser empathy when they see darker-skinned people experiencing physical or emotional pain. When white people are reminded that black people are disproportionately imprisoned, for example, it increases their support for tougher policing and harsher sentencing. Black prisoners receive presidential pardons at much lower rates than whites. And we think that black people have a higher physical pain threshold than whites.

This bears repeating: Somewhere in the uncritical parts of our minds, we actually believe that dark skinned people feel less physical pain than we do.

Talking about the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, ” “Instinctively we struck out for dignity first because personal degradation as an inferior human being was even more keenly felt than material privation.”

The only moral thing to do is to stand up for the dignity of other human beings, whether they are our fellow citizens or not, whether they share our religion or not, whether they speak the same language or not.

By the way, when Marco Rubio sent out a tweet in Spanish, he immediately received a predictable response.

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This is, of course, demonstrably untrue if “we” are taken to be all U.S. citizens.  More than 300 languages are spoken in the U.S. according to the U.S. Census Bureau. America has the world’s second largest population of Spanish speakers, more even than Spain. We have a growing population of Vietnamese, Russian and Chinese speakers. There are native speakers of Pennsylvania Dutch, Navajo, and Hawaiian. (In the latter two cases, they were here first.) There are even 1,000 speakers of the Pacific island language Samoan in Alaska. The only way to make this statement true is to define “we” as people who live in America and speak English. In that case it is true, but it is a meaningless tautology. (“We who speak English and live in America, speak English.”)

The strange thing is that illegal immigration has become such a hot button issue now as the number of Mexican immigrants leaving America is now actually greater than the number coming in.

But clearly the scope of the problem is much less important than the political value of having someone from the outside to blame for our ills.

Recently I questioned a Facebook friend who supported Trump and wrote about Mexicans “popping out babies” and getting free stuff in America.  In defending her views, she pointed to her own family history and contrasted it with the baby poppers of Mexico. Her grandfather fled Russia when the communists took over, and was forced to leave all of his possessions behind.

What fascinated me about this response is that being the descendant of a refugee did not produce empathy for other refugees, assuming that she agrees with Trump’s proposed Muslim ban. (I did not ask.) When her grandfather came to the U.S. he was fortunate that we distinguished between him and the people he was fleeing and did not keep him out because he and the communists were both Russian.

We can debate immigration policy. We can disagree. We can do it with respect.  But we cannot, as a moral nation, accept the notion that empathy is weakness. There is a way to take a hard line on immigration, and do it without dehumanizing people in the process. It is important.

In fact, empathy is hard. You have to work at it. You have to examine your own comfortable blind spots.  You have to be willing to adapt to others and not only assume they will adapt to you. It matters when we dehumanize people. Language matters.

Identity is the Word of the Year

Identity_Theft_Cover_for_Kindlejpg_picmonkeyedDictionary.com chose “identity” as its word of the year for 2015. Explaining why this was “the perfect word of the year” Time Magazine wrote: “appears simple but defines the complex shifts in a world that feels less fixed now than it did a year ago: identity.”

They were inspired, in part, by a New York Times article “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity.”

Most of these articles talk about gender identity and racial identity. But underneath both of those is an even deeper question– do I determine who I am, or do you? In fact, it is a dance. I an influenced by the world around me in the choices I make about myself. I take cues from you as to how to express what I feel I am. If I feel that I am a serious business-minded person I will dress a certain way in order to convey this to you. But that is only half of the picture– you must also accept this self.

There is a certain malleability, a certain amount of leeway you will give me. At a certain point, however, I transcend certain bounds and I become a fraud like Rachel Dolezal. I can’t claim an American identity without a passport that matches. Even then, if I become a naturalized citizen and speak with a foreign accent there are people who will never consider me to be a “real American.”

If I were to wake up and insist that I am a movie star and that my name is now an unpronounceable symbol there is a good chance I would be sent away for mental health care.

So identity depends on context. It is a relationship. I feel as though it is me, and yet I am constantly nudged by the people and culture around me. No wonder it is such a fascinating subject.

Identity Quote of the Day

“What do most of us mean when we say that we know someone well? We mean that we have constructed a mental image of that person, a sort of robot which functions adequately, except perhaps in revealing moments of crisis, and thereby saves us the fatigue of continually wondering what our friend is ‘really like.’ We have decided, once and for all, what he is like–arbitrarily accepting certain aspects of his personality and rejecting others–and our robot embodies our decision.”-Christopher Isherwood

Identity and Poetry

This poetry performance won the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.  In “Lost Voices” Scout Bostley and Darius Simpson change places and speak in the voice of the other.

Michigan Radio reported:

The main message of their performance, Simpson says, is to show the audience that “this is what you look like when you’re speaking for someone.”

…putting this piece together taught them a lot about how to be supportive of people struggling through situations different from their own and that there is inherently a limit to the depth of their own understanding.

…Simpson explains that the two aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t speak out for one another, but that in doing so there is the danger of losing sight of an individual’s experiences.