Wait, Who Should Be Shutting Up Here?

We have, according to many social commentators, a free speech crisis on our hands. In the wake of Suey Park’s #CancelColbert campaign and the resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of Mozilla, numerous articles have been written about why it’s not okay to belittle somebody’s right to express themselves. I don’t want to oversimplify the argument, but this classical liberal narrative goes something like this: “America is a wonderful melting pot of diverse ideas where, through healthy discussion and input from all different sectors, we both teach and learn from one another. Sometimes this joint effort requires detested opinions to be broadcast, and although many of us sensible folk agree that these opinions are not always appropriate, we must respect their right to be aired in spite of the unpopularity.” I have some minor grievances with this line of thinking, but like most people I find it to be pretty persuasive. My problem as of late has been that many liberal to moderate pundits seem to be contradicting themselves in their rush to hate the hatred of hate. I hope to produce a series of posts here on Stone Soup that details the quote-unquote illiberal side of the argument. Tonight we begin with an article by Jon Lovett in The Atlantic entitled, “The Culture of Shut Up.” I advise reading it before going onto my comments, but it’s not required.

You can tell why Jon Lovett was able to leave the White House, where he was a speechwriter for President Obama, and transition straight to the world of sitcom writing. “The Culture of Shut Up” is supposed to come off as cutesy but serious, seamlessly blending pop culture references with serious political issues in a way that endears Lovett to the reader. Lovett starts out by telling a story about a remote village where only three elders had the ability to speak. These elders represent the traditionally dominant political class made up of politicians and the media who long ago monopolized societal discourse. Eventually other villagers realized that they too could have their opinions heard—in print, on rocks (i.e. the internet). And so although the rock speech was messy and often devolved into finger pointing, it still served as an important check on the three elders. But now the rock speech is in trouble, and the elders might be on their way back.

If it weren’t for the self-mocking witticisms and Mad Men references, this article would be indistinguishable from a Tom Friedman op-ed (which is not a good thing). Lovett uses drowning imagery three separate times when referring to how much speech there is nowadays: “We are drowning in information…I don’t want those voices to drown out the diverse and compelling voices…[I]f we can live with the noise, even embrace the noise, without trying to drown each other out.” You get the idea. There’s so much shit on the internet that productive discourse is nearly impossible.

But what’s all this speech that’s drowning us out? Lovett says (continuing the village story): “Soon there were really only two kinds of messages people would write—either vicious personal attacks, or self-righteous calls for apology—until eventually the villagers, angry and exhausted and sick of the noise and rancor just started pelting each other with rocks…and turned back toward the smug and satisfied village elders who were just waiting for their chance to regain supremacy—just waiting for the moment when the villagers would come crawling back…desperate for the reassuring simplicity of the old order, the establishment, of the way things used to be.” Lovett is warning us that if we don’t become more civil in our online discourse, the great social experiment that is the internet will be deemed a failure by the powers that be and we will be right back to having no voice at all.

And so but here’s where I start to lose Lovett, because as much as I don’t like the elders being the only voice in society, I also don’t like a watered down rock system where voices that challenge authority are suppressed. But wait, this article is about how we have to stop telling each other to shut up or else bad things will happen, so Lovett and I agree!

But we don’t and here’s why. Lovett conflates two issues: 1) telling people to shut up and 2) vicious personal attacks/self-righteous calls for apology. I don’t think anyone wants to defend “vicious personal attacks” as being integral to the system; they can more or less go, and really even be banned outright, without much worry about institutional damage. But since when are “calls for apology” equivalent to telling other people to “shut up?”

Lovett’s interpretation of “shutting up” is as follows.

“Here’s a list of some other people who were told to shut up, off the top of my head:

The Chick-fil-A guy was told to shut up about gay people…

Paula Deen was told to shut up by everyone because her stuff was racist and crazy…

Stephen Colbert was told to shut up about satire, I think?

The Duck Dynasty guy was told to shut up about gay people…”

Those are pretty demonstrative of the rest of Lovett’s list: people said offensive things and were told to shut up.

Except that they weren’t. I find it interesting that responding to words you find offensive with collective action is tantamount to telling people to shut up, rather than notifying them that their words will not be taken lightly. Because what happens in Lovett’s account is that some people say offensive things and then other people, e.g. the Suey Parks and Mozilla employees and gay rights activists of the world, demanded that the parties now apparently responsible for policing speech in society, i.e. corporations, take action. And the ultimate irony is that these activists were told by many, quite literally by some and more vaguely by others like Lovett, to shut up. They were told they were not contributing to the dialogue, were being irrational, were distracting from Real Issues, did not (despite being writers) understand what satire was, were being racist themselves. I happened to agree with the motives of and means taken by these anti-racist movements; others did not. But the important thing here is that Lovett is asking for these “self-righteous calls for apology” to stop.

Why? He doesn’t engage with the substantive merits of the calls for apology, other than when he tries to be cute by saying Deen’s stuff was “racist and crazy” and Colbert was told to shut up about “satire” (when really he was criticized for using racist language while satirizing, which is way different). But Lovett seems to be concerned that this “bubble of subprime outrage and subprime apologies” (I told you he was clever) leaves us with a constantly boring cycle of outrage that is then capitalized upon by the sensationalist media.

But Lovett is falling into classic triangulation: “you people demanding apologies are wrong because the people hurling insults at you are wrong and since the whole thing is bad overall, both sides are bad and need to be put down.” Maybe that’s true; I don’t think it is, namely because if these rocks are important instrumentally in any way I hope it’s to allow marginalized groups a platform to point out discrimination and biases against them, so saying that a gay Mozilla employee who feels uncomfortable with their boss is doing nothing more than shouting “shut up” by publicly announcing his or her discomfort, you’re completely undermining the activism that has actually been pretty successful recently. But even if Lovett’s reformulated triangulation were correct, even if we need to end the cycle once and for all for the sake of humanity or whatever, he’s completely wrong to say that in this story the ones who are so-called “outraged” are the ones who are yelling, or devaluing the conversation. Because unless you want to tell me why the substance of their complaints are unmeritorious sans the “boring” responses from mean people and the media that inevitably result, I don’t see why these activists should stop doing what they’ve been doing so well. It sounds to me like you’re telling them to shut up.

So Lovett shifts the goalposts beautifully: by telling people that we have a Culture of Shut Up, he’s invoking the peaceful and respectful political discourse that many of us are constantly looking for, but he tells his audience that the ones responsible for our drowning in bullshit are the outraged minorities, who, ironically, need to shut up so that the cycle of outrage->vicious replies back->media coverage can be put to rest. What it seems like then is that the rocks aren’t working anyway, that the same “people in charge,” namely the media and neoliberal institutions responsible for deciding what conversations do and don’t gain traction, i.e. the elders, are still successful in suppressing dissent among the ranks via co-opting the social influence the rocks have. At that point, I’m really not sure if telling the “self-righteous” dissenters to stop taking action is all that much of an issue.

Next up: This terrible article

I’m Not Here to Tell You About Jesus

Do you think that God exists? If you had to choose, would you describe yourself as a believer, an atheist, or an agnostic? Now, the first thing I should flag about this question is that for most people it yields a firm answer. For thousands of years, erudite scholars have made argument after  argument on all sides of this question, but I bet that, whichever one of these options you choose, your choice is an unreserved one: you don’t tend to qualify it with “well, I could be totally wrong: there’s a lot on each side.”

Now maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, and actually agnosticism is just the box to check for “there’s a lot on both sides.” But I think agnostic means a bit more than that: it’s a term that describes a range of people running from atheists-in-sheep’s-clothing to those who think it is truly an unknowable question and either side could be equally right. In my personal experience I tend to find more of the former than the latter, but your mileage may vary.

More importantly, though, is that the agnostic is not someone who is half a religious believer and half an atheist, she doesn’t just sit astride the midpoint of that spectrum. There is an entire type of religious experience the believer has access to that the agnostic forsakes. She doesn’t worship in temple on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and then stay home in disbelief the rest of the time*[1]: the act of worship is totally cut off by her self-designation. This is not because she has doubt – the religious believer also has doubt (indeed it’s the very crucible of faith). The agnostic’s doubt is different because it leads her to rationally designate herself as removed from the concept of God. And that is something a believer can never truly do. Continue reading

Whistle Stop: Train Culture

After tonight, I will have spent 146 hours of the past five weeks on a train. But though that may seem long and exhausting to some (not any more tiring than a road trip, I’d think), the unique culture of long-distance train travel has turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the overall experience of traveling the country. I thought I’d take a moment to share my experience with train travel here as I wait to board my final train of the trip: from Chicago Union Station to New York Penn Station. Incidentally, look for more updates in the upcoming week as I make up for the lack of blogging during the trip!

A guitarist entertains a small group of rail riders in the cafe.

One thing I learned very quickly was that on a train, everyone is family. People walk around in slippers, clutching stuffed animals, blankets, and pillows. Striking up long conversations with your neighbor is the norm rather than the exception (though if you don’t like your neighbor, you can always sit out the ride in the lounge car). “Where are you traveling to” and “where are you traveling from” are the standard opening questions when you make eye contact with someone. And everyone has a story.

There are several options for those wishing to mingle with passengers beyond their immediate seating area: head to the observation deck (the upper floor of the lounge car), the cafe (the lower floor of the lounge car), or make a meal reservation, where you’ll be seated at a table with strangers in the dining car if you’re traveling alone (though for a price — dinner options start at $15 and run to upwards of $25). Amtrak, in conjunction with the National Parks Service, also runs Trails and Rails during the summer, where volunteers come into the observation car to talk with passengers about the regions the train is passing through (I was able to catch these programs during the first half of my trip — for Glacier National Park, the Cascades, Puget Sound, and between Seattle and Portland — but by the time October rolled around, Trails and Rails had concluded for the season). Sleeping car passengers (those who get their own beds and showers) get additional opportunities to mingle with each other at Amtrak-hosted wine and cheese tastings and movie nights.

I learned to head to the observation car if I was in a talking mood.

Passengers also find ways to provide their own entertainment. Playing card games or board games on the observation deck of the lounge car is the most common. On the night that I was traveling from Glasgow, MT to West Glacier, MT, I hung around the lounge car after a Cup Noodles dinner (that and the hot dogs were the only two items I found palatable from the cafe) and watched Amish children run amok on the observation deck. On the lower level, a guitarist entertained song requests from a small group of rail riders. I left shortly after stumbling upon the impromptu live music scene to pack up all of my belongings in preparation for my 8:23 p.m. stop at West Glacier, MT. When I came back to the cafe, bags in tow, I was surprised to see one passenger beam at my return and raise his glass to me. I was able to stay for “Cover of the Rolling Stone” (Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show) and “I Will Always Love You” (Dolly Parton) before my stop came up, and it was with a tinge of regret that I left the merry scene to disembark the train.

Chris, a full-time paralegal who’s been moonlighting as a  Trails and Rails volunteer since 2006, talks about Glacier National Park.

A significant portion of rail riders are retirees, but there is also a surprising number of young people and of families with small children. And, as I’ve previously noted, Amish and Mennonites also comprise a significant portion of rail passengers (as air travel is forbidden to them, while cars, though technically permissible where they ride with an outsider driver, are discouraged). Trains tended to be surprisingly packed for the most part, and it was rare for me to get two seats to myself (though when I did for an overnight ride, I was grateful for the opportunity to sleep in a sprawled out position).

Of the dozens of people I chatted with on trains, a few have stayed with me: Ruby, a primary school teacher from Colorado who’s been battling breast cancer for three years and who was returning to Colorado after visiting her son and grandson in Riverside, CA; Paulie, a 24-year old from Missouri who’s worked part time as a bail bondsman, and with whom I chatted late into the night in the cafe car of the Southwest Chief, comparing notes on our different upbringings; Rick, a legally blind sailboat salesman who considers it a success when he manages to hide the fact of his blindness from people (I didn’t realize it myself until the very end of the conversation — and this was after the train derailment, mind you, when the scene was one of general chaos); the three Mennonite women from Lancaster County who were traveling to Wisconsin to see family; Sonnet, an Oregon law student with a passion for water rights who filled me in on the big water rights disputes in the U.S. today; Adam, a stressed 23-year old father of a two-year old relocating from NoCal to Springfield, Missouri in hopes of facing a better job market, whom I chatted with while balancing his toddler on my lap — quite conscious the whole time of the fact that he was younger than myself; and an Oneida woman and primary school teacher from St. Louis en route to the Wisconsin Indian reservation on which she grew up to get tested for throat cancer (the reservation would cover her costs). The stories I heard were both humbling and empowering, and I hope to talk more about the overall impact this trip has had on me in a later retrospective post.

Whistle Stop Update

Sorry for the long hiatus: too many legs of my trip have been without Internet, without my laptop power charger (which I inadvertently left at my Forks motel, but which has since been shipped back to me…and then lost again, see below), or simply completely packed.

But here’s a quick update on a major event today, which still has me a bit shook up: the Amtrak train I took today from Emeryville (SF Bay Area) to Bakersfield (where I was to board an Amtrak bus to LA) derailed near Fresno after being struck by a big rig. I am fortunately OK, and I’ll be sharing the experience in a future post. However, that post could take a while, as my current priority is tracking down my one piece of carry-on luggage, which contains ALL of my clothes and recharging equipment (camera, laptop, cell…).

Whistle Stop: Forks, Washington — The Twilight Zone

Tues, Sept. 18: After a full day of exploring and hiking the beauty of the Pacific Northwest (including Lake Crescent, Marymere Falls, Hoh Rainforest, Sol Duc Falls, and First Beach at La Push — possibly a later post on this), I made my way to Forks, WA, where I would be spending the night.

Now, Forks, WA was once primarily a logging town. Until 2005, that is. In 2005, the first book of the Twilight series — which author Stephenie Meyer had decided to set in her hometown of Forks — made its appearance in bookstores, and a small town was forever changed. The following is an account of my brief brush with . . . the Twilight Zone:

“You want the non-Twilight-themed room, right?”

When I got this question over the phone, I knew this would be an interesting stay. I apparently got into town two days after the annual Twilight convention — Stephenie Meyer Day a.k.a. Bella’s Birthday, from Sept. 14-16, 2012 — wrapped up. A few banners celebrating the day still adorned the town when I drove in, but they were gone by the following morning (so no pictures, unfortunately).

The Twilight themed specials didn’t stop with hotels (every single lodging seemed to have a sign with something like “Edward Cullen would stay here!”). Every single store and restaurant in the town was trying to cash in (even the few shops that appeared to stubbornly resist Twilight decor — I ate at a coffee shop this morning that went with a Forks’ logging history theme — had small “Welcome, Twilight fans!” signs). One firewood store marketed its firewood as “Jacob Black’s Firewood.” I wondered whether any teenage girl would be persuaded by the sign to buy a log. But then again, the phenomenon wasn’t just limited to teenage girls — I saw a middle-aged man sign a Twilight guestbook at Three Rivers Restaurant, which I stopped at for dinner.  I confess that I stopped at that restaurant — midway between the La Push beaches I was visiting and Forks, WA — purely because of its Twilight decor. “Treaty Line,” a conspicuous sign outside read, “No vampires beyond this point.” (I would learn later — from the motel receptionist, an older man who looked to be about 65 — that La Push was werewolf territory). I got the werewolf burger, which was pretty delicious. The restaurant had a Twilight seating section in the back and a Twilight menu. Outside, they had converted a “Fire Threat Level” sign (present everywhere on the Olympic Peninsula) to a “Vampire Threat Level” one. After dinner, I made my way back to vampire territory and checked into my Forks motel.

As I had a few hours to kill before catching a bus back to Seattle, I spent the following morning exploring the town, taking photos, and chatting with a few of its inhabitants. Eventually, I came across Leppell’s Twilight Central, “The best selection of Twilight merchandise in town!” I went in.

I was the only person in the shop at the time, and there were two employees working the counter — one woman who looked to be in her 30s and an older man who looked to be in his early 70s. I struck up a conversation with them.

“What did this store used to be? Before Twilight?” I inquired. The woman led me upstairs, where she flipped on the light switch, revealing an assortment of home decoration items and various trinkets. “Leppell’s Flowers and Gifts. This is what the lower floor used to look like…and this is where our customers go when they want to escape the Twilight Zone,” she smiled.

“Have you read the series and seen the movies yourself?” She had. But she was quick to add that her favorite books were Kafka’s The Trial and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The Twilight series wasn’t quite her cup of tea, she said, but she thought the phenomenon was fun.

“How many people tend to visit the store when it’s not Stephenie Meyer weekend?” I asked, glancing around at the empty store. I was shocked by her answer: “oh, we average about 100 a day, except for the winter season.” The older man chimed in, “we had 75,000 people sign our guestbook last year alone, from all over the world.” Whoa. The woman mentioned that she had 200 people in the back room this past weekend for Edward and Bella’s wedding reception — just one of the many events that take place on Stephenie Meyer day. “Before 2005, the owner had one part-time employee helping her out. Since 2005, she’s hired three permanent employees.”

A lot of the merchandise in the store is made by local artists, the woman mentioned, and the store owned most of the trademarks and designs that were sold. The official marketing company supplied a few items, but most of them were unique to the store. I have to admit that the items I saw on the lower Twilight level were, on a whole, much more creative and unique than the items upstairs that they used to sell.   

“Are you tired of this at all?” “Not at all!” the older man responded. “I love talking to all these people. I’ve met people of so many different nationalities and from all over the world. How else could you have that chance when you live in a small town?” he asked. He added that Twilight was exposing a lot of people to the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. “Many of these people — they don’t know about the beautiful forests here, so they’ll come for Twilight and then keep coming back to visit the forests.”

And though Stephenie Meyer day is over, the store employees won’t be getting much of a rest; they’re already preparing for the release of Breaking Dawn Part 2 in a few months. “Most of the fans, as they left, were already saying ‘see you in November!’” she laughed.

Whistle Stop: An Unexpected Conversation With Mennonites

[Note: I'm posting this from Seattle, Washington, where I've just arrived on the Amtrak train. Just hours earlier, I was passing through the Cascade Mountains and Puget Sound. I'm catching up on Internet in a Starbucks (though not THE Starbucks) while waiting for a 1:10 bus that will take me to the Olympic Peninsula, where I'll be spending the next two days. The bulk of this post was written on the train.]

On Wed, Sept. 12, I boarded the Empire Builder from Union Station, Chicago at 2:15 p.m. and settled in for a long 24 hour ride to Glasgow, Montana, where I would be staying with my cousin’s family for three days. The first thing I noticed was that a great many Amish and Mennonites use the Amtrak train system. I had a chance to chat with three Mennonite women for nearly two hours in the Observation Car. It was a very interesting conversation, and I jotted down what I could remember following the conversation:

The group (six of them, though I met only three) was traveling from Lancaster County, PA to visit relatives in Tomah, WI. According to them, Tomah had been settled roughly 35 years ago by Lancaster Mennonites seeking better farmland; as a result, most Lancaster Mennonites had friends or relatives in Wisconsin. I talked primarily with one woman, who looked to be in her late 50s, while the other two were engaged in their own conversation (in Pennsylvania Dutch — which they described as being very similar to the Swiss German dialect) but jumped into ours from time to time.

This woman (we never exchanged names) was the oldest of eleven; she had four brothers and six sisters. She worked in a greenhouse, growing flowers and arranging hanging floral baskets. There was great demand for them, she told me when I inquired—they always sold off their entire supply and sometimes could not even meet demand. They had just finished with “mums” (which I learned was short for chrysanthemums) and when she returned from Wisconsin, she would be tending to poinsettias for the fall season.

On the Amish

So what are the biggest differences between Amish and Mennonites, I asked her. “Aside from dress and appearance.” (I had originally mistaken her for Amish, and she explained the differences in their dress to me). She paused at my question. “Is there a major difference in belief?” I offered. But she continued to mull my question over.

“Shunning,” she said finally. When a member of the Amish community stops heeding the Church, they’re shunned by the entire community—all ties are cut and the family completely disowns that person. But when a Mennonite leaves the Church, she explained, you’re still allowed to interact with them—to “sit with them and eat with them.” For example, she recounted—in a disapproving tone of voice—how her brother had left the Church. It was “a shock to all of us,” she recalled. He was already married to a woman in the community, had children, and had a farm. “None of us realized how unhappy he was.” Now he drives cars, watches television, and uses computers. She still talks to him and eats with him; but — she added — she can’t ride in a car that he drives (whereas she is allowed to ride in cars driven by non-Mennonites) because that would implicitly condone his decision.

Our conversation would later reveal many other differences between the Mennonite and Amish, so I found it interesting that she found the practice of shunning to be the most significant.

On Civic Participation

At one point, I asked her if members of the Mennonite community tended to vote in elections.

“Oh, we pray,” she told me in a matter-of-factly tone of voice.

“I’m sorry?” I asked blankly, unsure if that was a response to my question.

She elaborated: the Mennonites believe that God will put the right person in office — so instead of voting for the person, they simply prayed to God. They did not believe that it was for man to choose who would lead them, but for God to decide who would lead. We are all mere men, was the way she put it—and how could man profess to know better than God what is best for us?

She also added that Mennonites did not approve of the vitriolic mud-slinging in these elections. “The way they drag each other down…” she murmured with strong disapproval. She told me of a Mennonite saying that love and hate belong in same box (or something to that effect)—the idea being that both emotions were unproductive and dangerous, and that each person’s words and actions should be considered objectively and equally. I briefly wondered how aware she was of cable news networks, but I just let her talk since she seemed to be quite animated on this subject.

Finally, she went on to express sympathy for Obama, unprompted: “It seems to me that he’s tried to do right but just keeps getting blocked.”

“It seems so hard to get anything done in your system.”

On Cameras

They had spent a few days in Chicago, and I asked if they had seen the Cloud Gate sculpture. “That bean-shaped mirror sculpture in the park?” I elaborated. She still wasn’t sure what that was, so I took out my camera to show her a photo of the Bean. She appeared to flinch somewhat when I slid the LCD screen under her eyes.

“Oh! Uh- is this OK?” I asked stupidly. She responded in the affirmative. But she said that they weren’t allowed to use the cameras.

“Is this just digital cameras only, or even the old film kind?”

Both, she replied—this particular rule had nothing to do with the technology being used but rather, stemmed from the commandment prohibiting making an image or likeness of God or of anything of His creation.

“And it encourages vanity,” she added. I couldn’t help but think of how “this would make a great Facebook profile photo” was so often on people’s minds.  I wondered how much she knew of the social network phenomenon, but didn’t get a chance to ask. However, I’m guessing not all that much since I later learned that  she considered the greatest “evil” of the Internet to be…scammers.

Mennonites Play Oregon Trail, Too

“Can you imagine what it was like to make this trip in a wagon?” she murmured, as we passed miles and miles of vast open plains. At one point during that conversation, I mentioned playing Oregon Trail as a kid and started explaining what it was. But to my surprise, one of her traveling companions—the youngest one—excitedly jumped in the conversation. “Yes! We have that game, too!”

“What? The computer game? You can play that?” I asked in confusion.

No, it’s not a computer game, but it’s the same game, she insisted. And as she explained it, I realized it was indeed the same game. For example, she said, children try to toss a dime into a cup to determine the outcome of choosing to ford a river. If it goes in, you make it across; if it doesn’t, then your oxen drowned. Or you flip a coin to determine whether a team member dies of dysentery. Or how cold the winter is and how much damage early cold does to your team. It sounded like all aspects of game play are  reduced to event cards and mini-games of chance or skill. All the kids absolutely LOVE that game, she exulted.

Oregon Trail: a truly universal game!

Upcoming: Day 2 of Chicago, rural life in Montana, Glacier National Park, and train culture.