How to Avoid Mansplaining

All right, mansplaining.

I know.  I’m a guy and I’m about to explain how to avoid mansplaining.  I’m gambling on a few things here.  I’m fairly confident there’s a form of explaining that avoids the pitfalls of mansplaining; what’s not clear to me is if it can work here, or how much (especially given my own history with mansplaining) I’m up to the task.

One strategy I came up with to deal all this is to address this post exclusively to men.  Of course this would be done in full knowledge that women are reading too; the idea is that if I did end up mansplaining (despite my best efforts to the contrary), at least I (a male) would be doing so to men instead of women.

For a number of reasons, I found myself uncomfortable with this approach. It seems itself rather patronizing (which is a lesson in itself!).  Also, I’ve just never been comfortable with excluding anyone from a conversation like this.  Just doesn’t feel right, for reasons I can’t fully articulate.

Thinking about it for weeks, it seems my only option is to be empirical.  That is to say, I could continue playing around with the idea in my head, but won’t find out for sure if it’ll fly unless I actually try.  So here we go.

What is mansplaining?  Most accounts describe it as uniquely patronizing, condescending, or even infantilizing way of men addressing women.  Now while I by no means disagree with this definition, I don’t think it’s quite enough to help stop a lot of the mansplaining that takes place.

I prefer to see mansplaining as a genderized form of hierarchical monologue.  Now I don’t see my understanding as in any way at odds with the previous understanding.  What I do think, and I’ll offer this for your consideration, it that it might be a bit better in terms of helping us unpack what’s really going on inside mansplaining.

Mansplaining is hierarchical in that its primary purpose is to promote power relations.  It’s genderized in that it does so along gender lines, specifically according to the dictates of patriarchy.  And it’s a monologue in that it’s a one-way form of communication.

The end result, it seems to me, is a form of discourse where what’s communicated is a view of men as superior to women, with very specific demands made on the listener.

As an aside, here’s where I may differ from others.  I think conversations like these have been happening since time immemorial across race, class, religion, social, and economic lines, as well as between adults and children.  This leads me to suspect (and I may be on thin ice here) that the genderized piece is secondary to the hierarchical one.

Now you may disagree with me completely here, and your options are far from limited.  You could say there is something qualitatively unique about genderized inequality as a matter of history, and that this makes the gender component primary rather than secondary.  You could also say that situating mansplaining within the broader context of power relations intrinsically diminishes the gender component, thereby relegating it to secondary status.  This could even be seen as yet another instance of simultaneously and covertly masking male privilege while reinforcing patriarchy (ouch).

In defense of my definition, I think it allows us some important conceptual and political flexibility.  It follows from the sketch I provided that while mansplaining is typically and predominantly done by men, it can be done by anyone who identifies with male privilege.  That is to say, in this view mansplaining is (usually but not always) men explaining things to (usually but not always) women in an uniquely condescending, patronizing or even infantilizing way.

Can women do it?  I suppose so, in the sense that oppressed groups often act out among themselves the inequalities, injustices and injuries visited upon them by outsiders.  Have to say, though, the vast majority of mansplaining I see is done by men.  And to anticipate another set of objections, I don’t think that’s completely because of biology or anything essential to the concept of maleness; I think, rather, that it’s largely due to men being raised to think and behave along particular lines.

So while this doesn’t absolve men of the responsibility to cut the crap (instructions provided below), it does suggest powerful social forces are at work in mansplaining, alongside often critical personal and moment-to-moment choices, as well as qualities.

Now I don’t think we have to agree on what comes first or is more important (the gender or the hierarchy) to have an effective dialogue on mansplaining.  I could be wrong here, perhaps even egregiously so. Nevertheless, I still think the key point is that both get mixed up in an interesting way such that what’s being communicated is not so much information but (the importance of) a patriarchal relationship.

So what’s inside mansplaining?  It occurs to me that the mansplainer is attempting to sell you (his target) a number of Very Important Ideas, ideally without question.  I’m assigning them numbers not so much to rank them in order of importance (though some of them do depend on others) as to make it easier to refer to them in case they provoke any discussion:

  1. that they possess something you lack (usually knowledge or expertise, but sometimes also wisdom, maturity, or even moral fiber)
  2. that this something is not just a quality or skill, but a human virtue
  3. that this is not just true of you but everyone in your (let’s say gender) group
  4. that this makes it even harder for you to understand what the mansplainer is trying to tell you (or, in some cases, appreciate his wisdom or brilliance)
  5. that this, in turn makes any difficulty understanding or accepting what the mansplainer is trying to say (or any communicative failure at all) entirely your fault
  6. that all of the foregoing makes the mansplainer qualitatively better than you (once again, along some dimension of consequence), which in turn justifies a number of attendant social, economic, and political privileges
  7. that this is (or ought to be) as clear to you as it is (or ought to be) universally acknowledged
  8. that your primary socially obligations are to internalize all of these Very Important Ideas (e.g., believe them deeply and without question), work hard to promote them, and prove to any and all mansplainers that you have done so to their satisfaction (usually through a display of social deference; professional titles are especially helpful here)

Another thing: while the bulk of the communication is verbal, there are often important non-verbal components as well, such as a sigh or a well-timed eye roll. All these combine to reinforce the “I am better than you and you’d better publicly agree” message.

The sum total of the interaction is to make the mansplainer feel better than the listener at her expense.  That is to say, it’s one of many ways people have of boosting their self-esteem by taking someone else’s down. When this happens in a blatant or egregious manner, it’s easy to see and call out.  However, I think it happens far more often in far more subtle ways.

This brings me to the notion of microaggressions: tiny little paper cuts to the self-esteem that add up over a lifetime to destabilize or even erode the listener’s own confidence in her intelligence, perceptions, virtue, or even adequacy.  It’s saying “I’m better than and in charge of you” or “you are defective compared to me” through a gesture, a tone of voice, an image, an advertisement, a song, etc.

Now it’s bad enough when this happens to grownups, who’ve already had some chance to build up a sense of self as well as self-efficacy and self-esteem.  Here we’re annoyed at best, but our basic confidence in ourselves and our abilities remains intact.  You can imagine the damage it can do when it’s targeted at a group of people from the earliest age.

So that’s the basic process I see at work.  Given this analysis, how do we stop it?

One hope I have is that a greater awareness of the viciousness and cruelty that lies at the heart of mansplaining goes a long way towards eradicating it.  But I’ve also come up with more specific suggestions as well.  I saved them for the end because I don’t think they have quite the same power without a closer look at the power dynamics, psychology, and social role of mansplaining.  Once again here they are, and in no particular order, although some typically occur before others:

  1. If you haven’t already, brush up a bit on gender and privilege (and especially if you have, resist the temptation to think you know all about it already).  Keep in mind nobody’s completely free from the effects of bias, prejudice, and bigotry; specifically, that everyone has biases and is victimized to some degree by inequality.
  2. Be careful about thinking of individuals as representative of particular groups, and privately acknowledge any biases you’ve likely inherited from your family of origin or the larger culture.  As with any belief, keep in mind the all-important difference between having a bias, reflecting on it, and acting on it.
  3. Keep in mind the difference between taking effective responsibility for bias and shouldering blame.  Blame is often an invitation to feel worse about something and can be deflating.  Responsibility, on the other hand, may include remorse but empowers individuals to make bad situations better.  Put another way, it’s one thing to make you or someone else feel bad about having bias, it’s quite another to say and do things that encourage people to roll up their sleeves and get to work on it.
  4. When your bias or privilege is exposed without your knowledge or consent, treat it the same way you’d treat falling trousers.  That is to say, don’t pretend it didn’t happen, just smile, realize everyone has a derriere, pull up your pants, try to extract the appropriate lesson, and move on.
  5. If you haven’t already, ask someone who knows and/or who’s studied it about the concept of microaggressions.  Learn about how they can affect the quality of a home, workplace, or relationship.  Learn how they add up over the course of a brief period or a lifetime to demoralize, deflate, and oppress individuals or entire groups of people.
  6. If you’re feeling especially bold, look into the ways we deauthorize people as knowers on a regular basis, often without knowing it.
  7. Before explaining anything, ask yourself if you’re really in a position to do so.  Some questions to consider here: do you really know more about the topic than your listener?  Is this really the best (or even the right) place and time for it?
  8. Ask yourself if you want the explanation to be more of a monologue or a dialogue.  Be mindful of the differences between both forms of speech, especially the different expectations each makes of its intended audience.  Have some plan to handle the frustrations that typically arise when certain expectations aren’t met (in this case, when you set out to have one kind of conversation and instead get the other).  Also beware of taking this frustration out on your audience; if you feel it’s appropriate or useful to share, consider using the most respectful words possible.
  9. Make sure you have at least one way of explaining the thing you want to explain.  Wonder to what degree these different ways of explaining take into account someone’s level of knowledge as opposed to social status.
  10. Consider also any effects your different explanations or styles of explaining could have on your listener as well as the larger audience, especially if there’s a mismatch along any key dimension.  How will you know if your style or mode of explaining is succeeding?  How will you know if it’s failing in some important way?  What adjustments are you prepared to make or willing to consider as a result?
  11. Remember that you are no more your explanation than your listener is their response to it.  That is to say, your explanation can succeed or fail without this saying anything whatsoever about how good you are in any of your most cherished roles (parent, teacher, supervisor).  Likewise, resist the temptation to judge your listener by the success (or failure) of your explanation, or their response to it.
  12. Be prepared to look at your explanation as pragmatically and non-judgmentally as possible.  Also, when listening to feedback, let past experience be your guide here, and don’t dismiss someone’s experience simply because you don’t share it.
  13. Ask yourself if you think the knowledge you’re about to impart makes you a better person than your listener. If the answer is yes, ask it again until you get the right one.
  14. Wonder how useful your information is likely to be to your audience.  Wonder how you might handle it if they disagree with your assessment of its value.
  15. Wonder about hierarchies and emotional overtones.  Will the explanation help empower someone, let’s say bring them up to your level of (not virtue but) expertise?  Or will it keep or even push them down?  Be especially careful here about sharing information that’s designed simply to show off what you know or make someone else feel stupid.  If you suspect that’s happened, ask, and if so, apologize.
  16. If you get into a back-and-forth (and especially if you didn’t set out to), keep in mind the crucial difference between positions and persons.  That is, it’s one thing to say a position (belief, view, etc) is wrong and quite another to say a person is wrong (i.e., don’t say “you’re wrong”).
  17. If you find frustration mounting (yours or your listener’s), take a step back and beware of taking it out on your listener.  One often key mental step is to avoid thinking (and saying!) that your interlocutor lacks certain virtues or values.  While entirely possible, more conversational (and hence more persuasive) opportunities are opened up by assuming the other person simply has values other than yours, however well they’re articulated or even known to either of you.  Put another way, assume everyone acts according to principles and that, for the curious, it’s just a matter of patiently discovering what they may turn out to be.
  18. If things get heated, consider the possibility that maintaining the relationship may now be a greater priority than communicating the explanation.  Be especially aware of threats to the respect of all parties to the conversation, such as the temptation to engage in name-calling and insults.
  19. When you’re done explaining, listen.  Keep an ear open to the possibility you may not have explained well, that you used the wrong words, or that others’ equally valid experience produced complementary or even contradictory information.
  20. Be especially tuned in if you find yourself losing self-esteem or social status if your listener doesn’t agree with you more or less completely.  That’s often a sign, in my view, that what’s at stake here isn’t sharing information but reinforcing power relations.  If so, allow yourself a small chuckle at your expense, go back to the beginning of this list, and start over.

I’m sure I’m going to be revising this list and post down the road, so be generous with your feedback 🙂

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History and Critical Theory

One of my most vivid memories of high school was a beloved former teacher of mine saying, citing Thorstein Veblen, that education was a “leisure class activity.”

Whether or nor this is an accurate characterization of Veblen’s views, I remember howling at this statement. Sure, I thought, things like history and philosophy could be idle diversions for some. For others, however, especially (but by no means uniquely) those on the wrong side of a class, racial, gender, religious, sexual, or other divide, they were emancipatory disciplines, to borrow a term from Habermas (whom I didn’t hear about until college).

They weren’t leisure activities, I remember saying back. They were survival strategies. I only remember two other things: my classmates looking at me like I was from another planet, and my dear old teacher smiling at me.

Anyway, tonight I came across a quote that brought back that old memory in a wonderful way. Ostensibly about women, I think the point generalizes nicely across all forms of injustice rooted in inequality, as well as to those choosing the difficult but rewarding path of facing their family or personal history:

Re-vision – the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction – is for woman more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.

Until we understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.

― Adrienne Rich, On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978 (h/t @sacredflow)

Follow You, Follow Me

One of the first things you learn about Twitter is how to negotiate the delicate issue of “followership.”

For those who don’t know, Twitter is a form of social media where individuals create accounts and post 140-character messages to the world. Individuals have the option of following people whose messages they want appearing in their “feed,” which gives the “followee” the ability to send Direct Messages, or DMs, to the follower. DMs are confidential posts that (we are told) are private between the individuals in question.

If the followee decides to “follow back,” then this enables both parties to send confidential messages to one another in addition to posting public conversations. In addition, every user has a profile, on which the number of people you follow and who follow you are posted.

One thing that I learned very quickly on Twitter is the kind of social status attached to the follower number. The more followers, ostensibly, the more people want to read what you have to say, and thus the more “popular” (I think Twitter exerts a strong regressive undertow back to high and grade school, but that a post for another time).

The other thing I discovered very quickly was the number of different views (I hesitate to call them “philosophies”) of followership people have. Some expect you to follow them back if they follow you first – and will tell you so. Or they may just unfollow you if you don’t follow back. Others just follow and don’t seem particularly bothered if you follow back.

Different expectations come into play here as well. Depending on the individual, some are less inclined to demand reciprocal followership if the person of interest is famous and/or has a lot of followers. But here I’ve heard the thinking go two ways: one is that they follow so many people they can’t be expected to follow everyone who expresses an interest in their stream; the other is that given how many people they follow what’s the harm in adding just one more (i.e., me)?

Then there is the “unfollow,” where you stop following someone after a longer or shorter period of time. Once again, depending on the person and twitter relationship, unfollows varyingly raise concern, hurt deeply, are met with indifference, never come to the followee’s attention at all, or are even met with relief.

Here’s where it gets most interesting for me: how people react to being unfollowed.

Most people I unfollow either unfollow back or keep on following silently, which is far more often than not, for me, the best situation. Once in a blue moon I (or twitter) may have unfollowed someone by accident; if that’s experienced as deliberate (and reacted to in silence) that certainly has the potential to be a problem.

Far and away the best outcome to an unfollow began with the person I unfollowed simply replying back asking why. Keep in mind all this is on the public timeline, which means anyone can see this conversation.

I replied by giving my reasons for unfollowing (see below), at which point she replied with her perspective, in an unusually frank and non-defensive manner. It was both what she said and how she said it that convinced me I had misunderstood her earlier behavior. So I followed back and am quite glad I did, as our conversations have become all the richer since.

Most of all, I’m glad she replied as quickly and maturely as she did, otherwise none of this would have happened and I would have missed out on a fine twitter pal.

For me, one of the least pleasant parts of twitter are those folks who, in their response to being unfollowed, remove any doubt in your mind that this was a good idea. Interestingly, each and every one I’ve had thus far comes from the ranks of a particular political group.

One person I unfollowed replied back (in public, because you can no longer DM one another) expressing outrage that I had done so. She demanded that I remedy the situation at once or face her further wrath.

Needless to say, I was insufficiently charmed to do as she asked.

My favorite, though, is the person who tweeted me back just moments after I’d unfollowed, expressing his pleasure that I had fallen for his “trap.” Huh?

He had been deliberately agitating people of my political persuasion, he told me, with provocative attacks on a figure of some prominence. My unfollowing, he said, was proof of my “utter uselessness” to the movement of which he was (of course) a very, very important leader.

After suppressing my initial reaction to this news, I informed him that I was unwilling to engage in an exchange of insults with him, and wished him the very best in his endeavors (we’re ostensibly members of the same political party). He wished me well in return, which was nice, and I haven’t heard from him since.

Anyway, all this (and more) has forced me to think about why I follow the people I do and why I unfollow those I do. To be clear, these are my reasons; they may or may not be yours, and that’s fine. Hopefully they’ll at least give you something to react to and form your own ideas about, in which case I’d love to hear what you think!

I’ve crystallized them into the following (no pun intended) form, based on what I take to be the three key decisions Twitters have to make on a daily basis – whether or not to follow, keep following, or unfollow:

Bad Reasons to Follow Someone on Twitter
Their avi is very attractive.

Because they followed you.

Because other people you follow (or like) do.

To get them to follow you back.

You want others to know you care about a particular person or cause.

You think this might help increase your follower count.

They’re famous.

Someone else told you to (and you didn’t first read some of their tweets to see if you would have followed them absent the recommendation).

You want to get someone’s attention.

Good Reasons to Follow Someone on Twitter
You like what they have to say and want to hear more.

They provide important information that’s useful to you.

They’re important to you.

You both follow some people of mutual interest already.

They’re so different from you in so many key ways you’re certain to learn a lot about yourself and each other in the process.

Bad Reasons to Avoid Following Someone on Twitter
You don’t find their avi attractive.

They’re not a member of a group with which you strongly identify as a member (e.g., political party, nationality, religion, race, gender, sexuality, social class).

Their tweets force you to think or feel things it is not unhealthy for you to think or feel.

Good Reasons to Avoid Following Someone on Twitter
A representative sample of their tweets does not interest you in the least.

You can easily imagine scrolling past or ignoring their tweets if you did follow them.

You can easily imagine getting very anxious, depressed, or enraged if you read their tweets on a regular basis.

They repeatedly engage in twitter behavior that’s distasteful or repugnant to you.

Bad Reasons to Keep Following Someone on Twitter
They’re part of an important social circle you want to be a part of.

You want to unfollow them, but are afraid of upsetting them if you do.

You want to unfollow them, but are afraid of what others will say or think if you do.

Good Reasons to Keep Following Someone on Twitter
The thought of unfollowing them just never occurs to you.

They keep providing the information, perspective, relief, or good cheer you’ve come to expect from Twitter.

They engage you in good conversation.

They make you laugh, smile, or feel good about yourself.

They make you think or feel things agreeable to you.

They provoke you in ways that feel comfortable and respectful of you as a listener or conversation partner.

Bad Reasons to Unfollow Someone on Twitter
They didn’t follow you back.

Their tweets start making you think or feel things it is not unhealthy for you to think or feel.

You discover they’re a member of a group about which you have very strong negative feelings.

You’re angry at them and want to send them a message.

Good Reasons to Unfollow Someone on Twitter
They begin to engage in twitter behavior that’s distasteful or repugnant to you.

They post the same message over and over.

They use Twitter primarily to proselytize a religious, scientific, medical or other point of view.

They seem unwilling or unable to criticize positions rather than persons.

You’ve been filtering out their tweets for some time in the effort to avoid unfollowing them.

You discover they’ve lied about themselves or done something that undermines your trust in them.

Their tweets constantly make you unhappy or bring you down in a way you did not expect and/or do not like.

You try to engage them in conversation, feeling confident there’s a reasonable expectation that they do so, and they don’t reciprocate.

Their tweets, having captured your interest once, no longer do so.

So that’s my short list. As with anything I post, expect emendations and alterations. 🙂

Attention

Life is full of inconvenient truths. Galileo. Darwin. Climate change. The parts of our personal, national, and cultural history we barely admit to ourselves, would much rather forget, and never, ever talk about.

In every case, the core argument is the same: “thus-and-such couldn’t possibly be the case because what’s being proposed is simply an outrage.”

Now this is not to delegitimize outrage as a whole but simply to caution against using it as an epistemological device (are you listening, Tea Party?). To put the matter somewhat differently, things can’t be propelled into a state of inexistence by the intensity of the offense we take to them. If they could, they’d disappear each and every time someone got furious at them.

It follows from this that arguing against magical thinking of this sort isn’t the same as saying that something offensive should exist and/or that this is a good thing. No.

It’s simply, in the case of climate change, acknowledging the mountains of scientific evidence that point to the earth currently undergoing a major fluctuation in temperature that is not the result of a natural process and threatens the existence of humans. Of course the oil companies are up in arms about this, and of course they’re working round the clock to call it a “myth.”

In a similar way, neurologists, pediatricians, educators, and parents have been putting their heads together for a long time around something rather important. This is something that continues to gain definition, and something I argue is worth taking seriously instead of dismissing as based on a myth or exaggeration.

This is ADHD. What is it and why is it so controversial? In order to answer that question, we have to look at what the diagnosis is based on (what the aforementioned article disparages, diminishes, and dismisses): attention.

At least this way, if and when someone is still inclined to reject the notion of an attention span, they’ll at least have a better idea of what it is they’re rejecting.

What is Attention?
Science is full of analogies. Light is like a particle; no, it’s like a wave; all right, it’s like a wavicle. Same with attention: science is always looking for newer and better ways of describing a set of phenomena which have drawn a particular kind of interest. When your primary concern is helping a particular kind of child navigate through school and life, you ask certain questions that lead you to look at certain things with greater precision.

While the analogy isn’t perfect (no analogy really is), one of the best ways I’ve found to describe attention is as a beam of light. To use a light effectively, there are a few things you have to know or learn how to do in short order. They are: turning it on, keeping it on, holding it still, switching it from one thing to another (and back), and turning it off.

Initiate
Attention first of all has to be initiated. That means getting started with a task: taking the first step, sitting down at your computer, getting behind the wheel. This is easy enough for most of us most of the time. However, all of us know what it’s like to be so overwhelmed by a task that we don’t know where to begin.

Imagine looking at a messy room, messy house, or driveway full of snow. It can be dispiriting enough to postpone any action taken to make it better, and the more we postpone, the bigger the task becomes in our mind. The garage. The tax return. Ugh.

Now imagine that life itself felt like a messy room. Imagine everything feels like a chore, but not so much because you’re depressed (although you may also be), but because you have such a hard time identifying a time and place to begin.

Imagine also that, as for most of us, once you get started things flow smoothly. Once someone sits you down in front of the computer your novel or dissertation pours out; it’s just getting to your desk that’s the problem. Imagine that your taxes or billing do themselves once someone forces you to do them.

In many cases, you may even forget how burdensome the task seemed once you’re on a roll. What’s up with that? Why is it that all you seem to need in life is a nudge, a more or less gentle push to get going? Why is it that, in order to focus your attention on something, someone or something has to direct it for you?

You start to wonder, at whatever age, what makes you so different from everybody else.

Sustain
Once you’ve turned the attentional light on, your next job is to keep it on. For most of us, attention is like a flashlight with a full battery: once on, stays on. Recharge every so often, but no real effort is required to keep it going once it’s going.

Now imagine that instead of a solid-state battery you have a manual one. You know, the kind with a crank you have to turn by hand to charge a battery. Imagine further that your battery only holds charge for a few seconds, which forces you to crank and crank and crank just to be able to see where you’re going on a dark night.

All of us know how hard it is to keep focusing on a boring lecture, passage, or person. Now imagine the whole world felt like a boring lecture. No, you’re not sleepy, but everything seems to require so much mental effort.

Let’s say starting tasks isn’t hard, it’s just slogging through them that kills you. At any time of the day there’s any ton of things you’d rather be doing. Problem is, once you’re doing them, you want to be doing anything else.

You have a hard time explaining an odd paradox to yourself, to say nothing of everyone else: while just about every task feels odious enough to avoid at all costs, you’re not at a state of mental rest. Quite the opposite, you feel deeply restless inside.

And despite society’s reasoned judgment that you must be lazy, you know you have mental energy. How else would you, in many cases, have such a rich fantasy life?

What you don’t understand is why life gave you a crank-operated cell where everyone else seems to have a battery. Your task, growing up, is to find some explanation for this that doesn’t cost you your self-esteem.

Inhibit
As if things couldn’t get more complicated, you sometimes come into places where they tell you to turn that (at times bleeping) attentional light off. Don’t look! Or at least don’t be obvious about it.

Worse, there are times and places where you’ve not only managed to start a task, and are off and running with it, when along comes someone telling you to stop. Pencils down. Our time is up. Sorry, but I forgot to mention that I’m married.

Ouch. That’s when we find ourselves hitting the brakes, and surprise, surprise: not all of us have the same brand and kind of brakes. Some of us can bite our tongue better than others, not blurt out the answer or secret to the magic trick, keep from telling the semantically or socially inappropriate anecdote, or get dressed and shimmy down the fire escape faster than others.

People call you “impulsive,” and wonder why you can’t be like everyone else. You may or may not be fidgety. Depending on how old you are when people start noticing this, and depending on how much neuropsychology they know, you might start wondering what’s wrong with you, as well.

Shift
Let’s say you can do everything else with your light – turning it on, turning it up, turning it off – but moving it back and forth really kills you. Over here, no, over here – why are two people trying to have separate and simultaneous conversations with you in each ear?

For most of us, dichotic listening tasks are something we only encounter at parties or in laboratories. But imagine life being a series of relentless, contradictory, and incommensurable demands for an attention of yours that’s in constantly short supply.

Imagine you’re at the amusement park and you have to hit the clown’s nose with a water pistol in order to blow up your balloon. Now imagine you have to blow up three balloons: yours and your two neighbors’ and that time is running out. Ugh! You missed! You dropped the ball!

Imagine life being like that. Imagine that since you were a kid, you’ve hated transitions. One classroom to another, one car trip after another. You’re fine once you get used to it, but you’ve come to loathe the words “change of plans!”

Since you can remember, you’ve loved nothing more than sitting in a quiet, dimly lit room with a book, a phone, or your thoughts, but never the company of more than one. Imagine loving people but hating gatherings because being around more than one person at a time just drives you nuts.

Imagine being furiously jealous of and despising the person who can’t stop switching their gaze from you, the TV set, and the other people at the bar.

Imagine having to explain this to people over and over throughout your life. Imagine the toll it takes on you if this fact is brought to your attention by a teacher or parent in a less than compassionate way, at an early age.

Stay
Ok, now imagine you have the opposite kind of shifting difficulty. Instead of being unable to peel your light off one thing and attend to another, you can’t hold your light on one thing for more than a few seconds.

When you can’t, or have trouble doing so, here’s what you hear: “look at me, please,” “where is your mind right now,” “pay attention,” or “am I really that boring a date?”

All you know is that your mind is a grasshopper jumping around, and that it takes every effort on your part to keep your eyes or mind on one thing. You may or may not have figured out, or been told, that it helps to sit in the front row or take dates to the quietest, least visually stimulating places possible. You may or may not have found your way to nicotine, which really helps you focus, or to meditation.

You’ve known all you life you have a restless mind, but you wonder what could ever be done about it.

So here’s your handy-dandy acronym for the attentional functions: Initiate, Sustain, Inhibit, Shift, Stay = ISISS (n.b.: many folks leave off the last S for savings). Think light beam or spotlight and you’re off to the races. 🙂

Why is ADHD controversial?
Criticism of the diagnosis comes in many flavors. There are concerns about pathologizing ordinary differences between people, thus stigmatizing them, and an overreliance on medical solutions to everyday problems. There are also understandable concerns about the influence of the pharmaceutical industry in generating the science that medicine is based on.

There are also concerns about unfairly demonizing the video game industry. Today you may also encounter the belief that the diagnosis is entirely the result of poor teaching or classroom management, which suggests that its symptoms should disappear outside of the school environment.

ADHD can show up as impulsivity and/or one or more of the forms of inattention I described above. There are medicines one can take, as well as therapies that involves training the mind through meditation, mindfulness, or brainwave biofeedback.

So what’s the big deal?
The most common thing people face with attentional conditions is being labeled “lazy,” or “inattentive” as if it were a moral failure instead of a clinical condition. Of course the earlier this happens in someone’s life the greater the chance it will work its way into the self-esteem and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here’s a typical scenario: you’re told you’re of average to above-average intelligence, but that you don’t “apply yourself” in school. Nobody knows why they have to tell you or push you to do everything, or why everything overwhelms you. You don’t know why mental tasks that seem so easy for everyone else – reading a book all the way through, paying attention in class or in a conversation, revising an essay, checking your work – are all so much harder for you.

You don’t know why you can’t sit still, focus (unless you have a cigarette), keep from interrupting or blurting out the answers. All you know is that you act first and think later, and that this has cost you dearly throughout your life.

You may or may not get mad, at others, society, and/or yourself, and channel that rage in more or less appropriate ways. You could turn it outward and become an political leader or educator. You could also turn it inward and think less of yourself or your abilities.

Now because your society is still learning about all this, you’re at especially high risk for making the awful and incorrect assumption that your attentional challenges have anything to do with your overall intelligence. You may or may not act in accordance with what you’re being encouraged to believe about yourself, often by the people closest to you.

The easiest thing for your culture and you to do is assume your failure to meet cultural expectations with regard to output, efficiency, or focus can be remedied through exhortation and blame. The harder thing is to peel the pejoratives away, look at what’s happening, and suggest a solution.

A change of classrooms, some timely teaching tips administered in a non-threatening way, a more structured work or learning environment, medication, meditation, or a really cool new app for your phone all could be part of the solution and an end to your suffering.

But only if you believe that what’s happening to you is real, not a moral failing, and not just an inconvenient truth for someone else.

Am I Racist for Feeling X?

This is the question Bill Maher asks, answers in the affirmative, then says, “and I don’t apologize for it.”

Wow, what bravery on the part of that Bill Maher and Juan Williams.

First of all, unless we’re talking Archie Bunker (and often even if we are) it’s almost always better to refer to actions rather than persons as “racist.”

So are feelings “actions?” How about thoughts? I think they’re both “actions” but of a special kind; let’s call them covert behaviors to distinguish them from overt actions, things we can observe.

Now I think a lot of what we think and feel we inherit from our parents, one another, and the culture at large. I also happen to believe a lot of what we think and even more of what we feel is reactionary, in response to our environment. Think skin flushing, hair standing on end, or the human sexual response. Largely involuntary, in my view.

So I don’t hold people morally responsible when they say, “look, this is what’s in my heart.”

The moral question for me is, what are you going to do with it?

It’s one thing to say, “hey I have this biased thought or feeling and I struggle with that because I know it’s not true.” It’s quite another to say, “hey I have this thought or feeling and I’m going to proclaim its truth from the highest balcony.”

It’s one thing to say “I have this biased thought or feeling and I know it says much more about me and my struggles than anything else.” This, I think, is an act of humility and considerable social courage.

It’s quite another to say “I have this thought or feeling and I regard it uncritically as a fully accurate representation of a reality outside of me.” That’s an act of bigotry, as well as cowardice, in my view.

The bigotry comes from generalizing about others uncritically based on one’s own experience. The cowardice comes from refusing to stand up to social pressures that legitimize and invite us to hate the group du jour.

Just me.

Juan Williams & the Culture of Hate

I’ve been listening to a lot of the chatter that followed the firing of Juan Williams from National Public Radio. It falls neatly into two categories, but not the ones we’ve come to expect. And the party missing from the conversation — sidelined, perhaps — is all the more interesting for not trying to speak up.

Of course any conversation about culture has to involve the right – they’re the ones who invented the culture wars, after all. So the right is well represented by way of the steam they’re letting off.

The meme is familiar. Liberals — the source of all terrestrial evil — have once again conspired to infringe upon the civil liberties of good, patriotic, well-meaning conservatives. The victims, once again, are those poor souls who love their country so much they’re saying “what must be said,” trying only to expand the bounds of our civic discourse and thus improving our democracy. Their only presumable sin is to speak what is presumably on everyone’s mind.

These battered and wounded defenders of truth and freedom feel bludgeoned by the baton of “political correctness” under whose oppressive yoke they struggle to tell a very important “truth” — if only those evil liberals who control the media (and, presumably, the White House) would let them.

It’s enough to make you want your country back.

Eternally thoughtful (as only they can be) about the distinction between governments and private entities, the right doesn’t hesitate to describe NPR’s actions as censorship. Indignant and outraged over the firing, they are threatening to “stop watching” NPR and even calling for defunding it.

So much for the right. Now you’d expect the blowback to come from the left, no? No.

The other party to the conversation comes from those eminently calm, thoughtful, educated, mature, and responsible citizens who occupy the political “middle”.

You know these folks. They promise the light of reason where others provide only the heat of argument. They don’t shout. In fact, you’d get the impression reading or listening to them they’re not passionate about much at all (ok, maybe literature or the arts); certainly not about politics.

Here, in the “middle,” one finds not partisans (gasp!) but the understandable attempt to turn down the volume and analyze “the issues” in as dispassionate a way possible.

Here the sin is not to be liberal or politically correct so much as to have a horse in this race, to care enough to take sides in the culture wars. So yes, for them liberals also suck because they’re partisans, which makes them, for the middlers, equivalent to conservatives.

Middlers know and preach the truth of “there’s always another side to the story,” by which they mean each side is as good as any other. Thus standing in the middle expresses the highest form of intellectual, moral, and civic virtue. I like to call this the model of the citizen or journalist as jurist: dispassionate and unconcerned with “taking sides.”

In the “middle” one finds concern in the place of outrage, and thoughtful critique in place of diatribe. So while the right denounced the fact of Juan Williams’ firing, the middle turns its attention to analyzing the way in which he was fired, and what this means for the profession of journalism.

Both sides are united by more than a belief that liberals are bad, however. They share an assumption that there are things it is OK for a journalist to say on NPR but not on Fox (or perhaps even MSNBC). Most importantly, however, they both operate under the tacit assumption that Juan Williams was fired not because of what he said but because he violated the rules of an organization, in this case NPR.

The right, of course, finds no legitimacy in those rules whatsoever, while folks in the “middle” are trying to analyze or legitimate them. However, both the right and “the middle” seem to believe there is little to nothing wrong with what Juan Williams said. Jay Rosen, speaking on NPR puts it very directly at about 16:45 into the talk show:

“I don’t think that the specific words he uttered were really all that bad and deserved a firing in and of themselves.”

When this is taken as a given, without debate, it follows quite naturally that the attention be placed on NPR, its rules, and how it enforces them (or Fox’s, MSNBC’s, whoever’s). What I’m going to argue is that — whatever NPR’s stated reasons for the firing — it was perfectly appropriate to fire Juan Williams; not on journalistic but on moral grounds.

In order to do that, I have to point to the words I take to be grounds for firing, not just from NPR, but from any organization that claims to speak authoritatively on matters of political or public consequence:

“Political correctness can lead to some kind of paralysis where you don’t address reality. I mean, look, Bill, I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the civil rights movement in this country. But when I get on a plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they’re identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.”

First of all, I have to tell you, on a personal note, how reassured I am whenever anyone prefaces a remark with the disclaimer that s/he is not a bigot. “I’m not racist, but…” “Nothing against gays, but…” Whew. Looks like the idea occurred to at least one of us, though.

Kind of like when someone tells you a dream and then immediately says, “but it’s not about my mother.” But I digress.

Juan Williams prefaces his “truth” by establishing his bona fides as a non-bigot and as a civil rights warrior. Then this role model for us all tells us how frightened he is when boarding a plane and seeing individuals in “Muslim garb.”

As if each and every hijacker or terrorist, now and forever, wears Muslim garb.

As if he’s never heard of people being judged by their appearance, clothing, or the color of their skin.

As if we have more to fear from terrorists abroad than right here at home (I’m looking at you, Operation Rescue, Timothy McVeigh, and the Tea Party).

Think, Juan. That’s what they pay you for, isn’t it? To think before you speak?

What Juan Williams did, from the standpoint of someone on the left like me, is to legitimate hatred. He didn’t say, “I struggle with my fear of Muslims (that only benefits terrorists foreign and domestic),” he said, “hey, it’s OK to fear these people, I fear them myself.”

What he could have said is, “hey, the terrorists have won – they’ve gotten me to hate and suspect fellow Americans. Isn’t that great news for Al-Qaeda and those who benefit politically from ads like these?”

What Juan Williams did was give the green light to those who think it’s OK to ask Muslims to move their center out of TriBeCa. After all, we have a long history of Karl Lindners (always speaking from the thoughtful “middle”) asking certain families to move because of the “sensitivities” of the current residents.

Those sensitivities have to be respected, you see. And by respected we don’t mean listened to and understood but acted on.

Why? Because conservatives feel them, not liberals.

And of course, if you feel something, you have an obligation to say it. That’s a civic virtue known to every third-grader. Just ask yourself: where would we be as a civilization if we started keeping certain thoughts and feelings to ourselves?

Snark aside, and believe it or not, I’m actually quite down with honesty. In fact, I daresay I especially appreciate the unique courage it takes for people to confess a thought, feeling, or impulse they’re not too proud of, especially to someone they may barely know.

But that’s not what happened. What happened was Juan Williams consummating his years-long love affair with a network that spews hatred of liberals, gays, Muslims, Latinos, women, intellectuals, and the poor 24 hours a day. He consummated it with the words, “Oh, Bill, I hate too,” to which Bill replied, “of course it’s OK.”

“Come here,” said Sith Lord O’Reilly. I can hear Juan Williams crying into Bill’s arms even now. “You were right about those evil liberals, Bill.”

“Of course I was. There, there. Hey look, what about two million dollars?”

From my perspective, we don’t choose many of the thoughts and feelings we have. But we do get to choose our actions. Giving voice to hatred without in any way trying to suggest acting on it is wrong is, well, for partisan leftists like me anyway, just wrong.

The Difference Between Explaining & Apologizing Redux

To illustrate what I was talking about in my last post, here’s some excerpts from Carl Paladino’s “apology” for making some of the most homophobic comments I’ve heard out loud in a long time. I added my translation right under some of his choicer words.

“I am not perfect…I have made mistakes my whole life…”
I would like to begin by acknowledging my imperfections. It takes a big man to do so. I am such a man.

“I am a simple man…”
I am also not as formally educated as my elite critics. Therefore you should be cheering for me, because I’m clearly the underdog here.

“Yesterday I was handed a script…”
This simple man before you bears no responsibility whatsoever for anything I said. I was simply reading someone else’s words; probably someone with a whole lot more education than me. So if you’re upset (which you shouldn’t be), blame the folks who thought the words up, not me.

“I redacted some comments that were unacceptable…”
I tried, but failed, to temper their awful words.

“I did say some things for which I should have chosen better words.”
I spoke inartfully. That is to say, I meant and stand by what I said; I just should have chosen better words to say it. That’s all. Don’t blame the messenger, especially if he’s 1) a simple man 2) who acknowledges mistakes and 3) is the furthest thing from a bigot there is (see below).

“I said other things that the press misinterpreted and misstated.”
Once again, I am not to blame for any of this. It’s the elites in the media once again picking on a poor, simple, uneducated, working man like me. Again, working folks and those without much formal education, you should be on my side.

I sincerely apologize for any comment that may have offended the Gay and Lesbian Community or their family members.
I apologize, broadly and generously, but only if there was any offense. The legitimacy, validity, veracity, or even reality of any such offense is something which I’m trying to call into question by my use of the subjunctive (you see, I may be simple, but I’m not stupid).

The portrayal of me as anti-gay is inconsistent with my lifelong beliefs and actions and my prior history as an father, employer and friend to many in the gay and lesbian community.
I’ve already told you how pure I am by acknowledging my mistakes and my humble background. As further proof of my virtue (which translates into immunity from criticism, hello-o), let me remind my ignorant detractors what a compassionate and open-minded person I am.

Therefore, if there was any offense (which I still doubt), the problem must lie with the media or the listener, who is clearly in need of a reminder of what a virtuous person I am (hence my explanation – I mean “apology”).

I am a good man. Good people do not say the things you heard me say. Therefore, you heard wrong.

Besides, who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?

“I ask you for forgiveness on my poorly chosen words and the publication by others not involved with our campaign of unredacted script that did not reflect my oral statement or match my personal feelings.”
Please forgive the terrible scriptwriters and those in the media who are exclusively to blame for all the trouble I’m in, for which I once again take absolutely no responsibility for. None.

“Although I am not perfect, I do admit my mistakes.”
And when I make one, I’ll be sure let you know.

Upshot: rather than acknowledge the existence of bigoted beliefs or attitudes, express contrition, or make amends, Carl Paladino reminds us how immune he is from criticism. It’s all about Carl here, not the people he hurt with his remarks, or the climate they create, which has already cost the lives of countless children and youth.