A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Friedersdorf sees stigma as a misused tactic

Those who rely on stigma are tied to a tactic that is employed most when needed least, often against groups already marginalized within a community; no wonder stigma it is correlated more strongly with signaling self-righteousness than effecting change. That isn’t to say stigma is never appropriate—just that engagement and persuasion is almost always the better option . . .

Conor Friedersdorf In The Atlantic

Jon Lovett describes a crisis of public conversation

It’s a demand for conformity that encourages people on all sides of a debate to police each other instead of argue and convince each other. And, ultimately, the cycle of attack and apology, of disagreement and boycott, will leave us with fewer and fewer people talking more and more about less and less.

. . .

Win the argument; don’t declare the argument too offensive to be won. And that’s true whether it’s GLAAD making demands of A&E or the head of the Republican National Committee making demands of MSNBC.

The bottom line is, you don’t beat an idea by beating a person. You beat an idea by beating an idea. Not only is it counter-productive—nobody likes the kid who complains to the teacher even when the kid is right—it replaces a competition of arguments with a competition to delegitimize arguments. And what’s left is the pressure to sand down the corners of your speech while looking for the rough edges in the speech of your adversaries. Everyone is offended. Everyone is offensive. Nothing is close to the line because close to the line is over the line because over the line is better for clicks and retweets and fundraising and ad revenue.

It’s like a financial bubble. It’s a bubble of subprime outrage and subprime apologies. I just hope we can rationalize the market before this chilling effect leaves us with a discourse more boring and monotone than it already is—a discourse that suits the cable networks and the politicians but not the many disparate voices who occasionally need to say outrageous things because there are outrageous things to say.

And there are real consequences to the outrage bubble. When Congress was debating the debt ceiling, one of the sticking points was a set of changes to the military-pension system. You don’t even have to take a position on these changes to say that it’s a reasonable debate: whether we should save money in the defense budget by reducing the rate of increase in pension benefits received by veterans who are younger than retirement age.

Agree, disagree, you’re not crossing the line, right? Wrong: Supporting this proposal is described, over and over again, as “sick” and “obscene” and “offensive.” Do we really want to make policy this way? Do we want our already timid and craven elected officials to have even more to fear?

Jon Lovett at The Atlantic, making some good points about public discourse, particularly how our current manner of addressing disagreement leads to silence, to a stop in the conversation. Thus Lovett points out that the problem here is not about rights but conversation.

To battle poverty, we will have to address violence

The way our world works, poor people–by virtue of their poverty–are not only vulnerable to hunger, disease, homelessness, illiteracy, and a lack of opportunity; they are also vulnerable to violence. Violence is as much a part of what it means to be poor as being hungry, sick, homeless, or jobless. In fact . . . violence is frequently the problem that poor people are most concerned about. It is one of the core reasons they are poor in the first place, and one of the primary reasons they stay poor. Indeed, we will simply never be able to win the battle against extreme poverty unless we address it. (43)

Gary A. Haugen, in The Locust Effect

 

 

Is The Great Gatsby Post-Hypocritical?

I find myself thinking a lot about hypocrisy and irony as I contemplate The Great Gatsby and its place in American literature. Hypocrisy seems to me to be one of those characteristics that bothers people more than almost any other. It’s like it’s the great American vice, not in the sense that Americans do it more than other cultures, but in a sense that Americans seem to detest hypocrisy more than any other action or situation. A stringent totalitarian might be hated, but not nearly as much as a stringent totalitarian who doesn’t live by the same strict rules he enforces for others.

Among the novels my American literature students read are The Scarlet Letter, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and The Great Gatsby (though this year is my first year teaching Gatsby, so it’s a new adventure for me). Hypocrisy was at the heart of what The Scarlet Letter was about–Dimmesdale’s public face was one of holiness, but secretly he was the most guilty sinner. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain took the hypocrites and made them look ridiculous, to make sure we didn’t miss it. He mocked the hypocrites, yes, but even more so he seemed to be mocking those of us who actually believed those hypocrites, those of us who fall for the hypocrisy of the king and duke and get lulled into accepting the reasoning of the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons.

Inherent in hypocrisy is irony–the way a person seems is incongruent with the way they are. In The Great Gatsby the first thing I see is irony, as these glittering rich people strike us as amazing: Gatsby’s fantastic parties; Tom’s profound wealth that allows him to turn garages into horse stalls and spend his time playing polo, the most exclusive and privileged game in existence, the game of royalty; and Daisy’s lounging on sofas and periodically having her daughter pop in to say hi. But undercutting their amazing glitter are their miserable lives (I’ve constructed a reflection for students opining that everyone in the novel is a total jerk). It’s ironic, but are they hypocrites? My first thought is that they were hypocrites, because they’re living like they’re awesome but they’re not. But then I realize they aren’t even pretending to be morally upright people. They just have so much wealth and privilege that they’re able to lead these miserable lives and no one is going to mess with them. Ironic? Yes. Hypocritical? Maybe not.

Tom is one character that makes me confused. He is a hypocrite of sorts, since he’s an adulterer. What adulterer is not a hypocrite? He’s just not very good at it, since though he’s technically hiding this affair from Daisy, everyone knows about it (Nick tells us people are mad at him for not hiding it more when he goes into the city, so there’s a sense in which there must be a code of decorous hypocrisy Tom is breaking). Tom is so cruel and confident about his playing around that he seems less like a hypocrite and more like a privileged bully. Of course, you could say that he’s a hypocrite for getting all upset when he discovers Daisy loves Gatsby, but that seems not like hypocrisy and more like . . . the actions of a control freak. After all, he seems not to be bothered by the idea of it having happened once he is confident Daisy won’t actually leave him.

Yet isn’t Gatsby a hypocrite? He’s a rich cool guy, but he’s built his wealth from some sort of illegal activities, which seem at least to include some bootlegging. But again, like Tom, he’s not so much acting one way when he’s really another as he’s just not emphasizing his bad way. He was “an Oxford man”–technically true, but obviously misleading, as all he did was go to a few classes and never graduate. Is that hypocritical? Not in the pure sense like Arthur Dimmesdale or the Shepherdsons and Grangerfords, but it certainly contains an element of hypocrisy, since he is living a kind of lie.

It seems like we could do this for just about everyone: look at their lives and quickly see the places where they are either liars or the places where they don’t live up to anyone’s standards. But in each case but Nick’s, no one really made any great claim to being better, morally, than they are.

Nick seems different because early on he insists, “I am one of the few honest people I have ever known” (59), but Jordan calls him on it at the end of the novel, saying, “I thought you were rather an honest, straightforward person. I thought it was your secret pride” (177), implying that she discovered he’s nothing of the kind. That seems to be the most clear representation of hypocrisy in the book.

The kind of irony, or hypocrisy, that is looked down upon in the book is Gatsby’s. He has presumed to be wealthy and important, but he’s not. He’s fake: fake in acquiring his wealth through crime, fake in being popular, as he throws parties for people who don’t actually know him, fake in his claims of being an “Oxford Man,” fake in suggesting his family is wealthy, fake all the way down to his name. He’s “new wealth,” living in West Egg, trying to get the attention of East Egg but really just drawing their scorn (see the time Tom and his friends on horseback invited him to lunch and couldn’t believe Gatsby thought they really wanted him to come). It’s sort of hypocrisy in that he’s ultimately different from what he portrays, but it’s more like he’s looked down upon for aspiring to be something different than he is.

But the book doesn’t seem to suggest that we should view him in the same way. We might think less of him, but not for aspiring to a new life. We might actually think less of him for trying for a life that isn’t worth having–after all, who really wants to be like Tom and Daisy?–and for thinking he could make Daisy transform into the form of his ridiculous dreams of the past, but those are different reasons for criticism than the other characters have of him.

So I’m left with in incomplete interpretation of the book and a sense that this particular great American novel is not so much about hypocrisy as it is about irony. In a sense it’s almost post-hypocrisy: what happens when people stop even aspiring to or claiming a moral high ground and instead act on their selfish impulses. When the hypocrisy is gone all that is left for us to see is the irony. We’re on the outside, looking in at the lavish privilege and parties of the rich, aspiring to be them, just like the poem “Richard Cory,” and ironically, when we get close enough to see the reality, those folks are 1) empty, hollow, and miserable, and 2) not willing to allow access to those who aren’t them, who aren’t the old wealth of East Egg. The disconnect of the irony is between the beautiful exterior (that their wealth provides them) and their corrupt interior (that makes up their personal lives).

And that confuses me the most, because my saying that triggers a saying from the Bible where Jesus criticizes a group of Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matthew 23:25). The Pharisees tend to have this cultural place as the ultimate or first examples of hypocrisy. They’re the purest archetypal version of the hypocrite, and his description of them is precisely what I stumbled into using for the characters of The Great Gatsby: clean on the outside, filthy on the inside. So maybe this is a book about hypocrisy after all.

I don’t know. If you have an opinion, help me out here.

Thanks for reading.

Andrew Sullivan asks if Civil Discourse is Possible

When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line. This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance. If a socially conservative private entity fired someone because they discovered he had donated against Prop 8, how would you feel? It’s staggering to me that a minority long persecuted for holding unpopular views can now turn around and persecute others for the exact same reason. If we cannot live and work alongside people with whom we deeply disagree, we are finished as a liberal society.

Comments from Andrew Sullivan regarding Mozilla’s asking Brendan Eich to resign. There’s lots in all this issue that’s interesting and suggestive of how things might operate in the not-so-distant future. It would be comforting if the discussion were operating like a discussion or debate instead of a battle.

Chickens deserve to be treated like chickens

Colonel Sanders wants us to think of chickens only in terms of dollars and cents. They are nothing but little pieces of meat to be bought and sold for food. And so we’re supposed to crowd them together in small spaces and get them fat enough to be killed. . . . But that’s wrong! The Bible says that God created every animal “after its own kind.” Chickens aren’t people, but neither are they nothing but hunks of meat. Chickens are chickens, and they deserve to be treated like chickens! This means that we have to give each chicken the space to strut its stuff in front of other chickens.

quoted in Bethany Jenkins’s article at the Gospel Coalition.

The movie Noah isn’t the first time this story’s been adapted…

But this is tremendously effective for an adaptation—especially for those of us who have heard the story our entire lives and grew up singing about the Lord telling Noah to build an “arky, arky” in Sunday School. It does what good art should do: it forces us to “re-see” a story anew, to once again sit on the edge of our seats and wonder what will happen next. That’s hard to do with such a familiar story, and this is done well, while still respecting and hewing to its source material, as well as it can.

- Alissa Wilkinson for Christianity Today

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