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Twitter and the Trump Tapes (A Lesson Plan for Freshman Composition)

I recently had a successful class session which involved evaluating tweets made in response to the infamous “Trump tapes.”  I thought I’d share my lesson plan, in case any other teachers are interested.

Some background: I teach freshman composition at a large public university. The theme of our course is “thinking about thinking,” with the underlying premise being that this sort of (self-)reflection is necessary to be a successful writer.  We do a lot of activities which involve trying to understand the worldviews (or ideologies, you could say) which underlie certain claims.  This activity is in that vein.

Note: This is designed for a 75 minute class.

Background Material:

Prior to this class session, we watched and discussed this interview with Professor Nicholas Epley, a behavioral psychologist from the University of Chicago.  In it he discusses “egocentrism” and how individuals innately view the same event (he uses 9/11 as an example) in different ways.

My class also uses a standardized heuristic to critically analyze statements.  We created this together and have termed it “The DACO method.”  Here is a handout which explains this method and provides an example.  In short, it involves taking a statement or belief and tracing the Definitions and Assumptions which underlie it, the Consequences to which it could lead, and where it fits in a range of Other Opinions.  For this lesson plan to work, it’s not necessary that you use the DACO method.  If you do want to use it though, it may be useful to go over the above handout as a group.

Lesson Plan:

I began the class by breaking the students into groups of 2 or 3.  I then explained that we are going to watch a video that illustrates Epley’s point about the subjectivity of interpretation.  We then viewed this CNN report featuring the video in which Donald Trump is caught making various vulgar comments about women.  [Note: this version of the video is edited slightly, but still pretty offensive.  You may want to issue a “trigger warning.”]

After watching the video, I distributed this handout, which lists 8 tweets interpreting said video.  Tweets, of course, are very short, which makes them neat encapsulations of the writer’s worldview.  Using our DACO method, we then worked together as a class to interrogate the first tweet.  The goal was to try and understand “where the writer is coming from,” how they see the Trump video (and the world at large) and how we can learn to negotiate with such a perspective.

The first tweet states –> If you’re like ‘that’s just men being men’ after listening to the #Trump Tapes it’s seriously time you get some new male friends.

My class discussed how “men” and “friends” might be defined in this case.  We then discussed the assumptions at play, particularly how this writer likely views Trump’s comments as unusual and wrong, and anyone who engages in such talk as shameful.  Regarding consequences, we decided that this writer wants less vulgar talk because it’s “offensive,” meaning it upsets certain people.  Going deeper, we realized that the writer may believe that such talk leads to physical violence.  He or she may therefore view their tweet as a part of an effort to reduce such action.  Finally, we discussed a range of other opinions.  Opposing opinions can often be generated, we found, by challenging the writer’s premises.  For example, if an opponent could show that vulgar talk doesn’t lead to violence, the argument implicit in this tweet would fail.  Such a belief (that vulgar talk doesn’t cause physical violence) is an example of an “other opinion.”

After analyzing the first tweet as a class, each group worked separately to analyze the other 7 tweets.  After about 20 minutes, they were asked to present their findings to the class, facilitating another group discussion.

Conclusion:

Overall, I found this to be a fun and intellectually lively activity.  The tweets examined come from a variety of perspectives; through critical analysis the students had the opportunity to dwell in those perspectives, enriching their understanding of the other (and the way s/he thinks and writes).  Because tweets are so short, such analysis requires both creativity and attention to the nuances of language.  Also, by examining the intended consequences of each tweet– which I frame as “what the writer is trying to accomplish”—the students began to think about rhetorical tactics.  This are all valuable outcomes, in my opinion.

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Students ≠ Kids?

As noted many times on this blog, I work within the philosophic tradition known as American Pragmatism. William James proposed this tradition’s core principle—the pragmatic method– as a way to resolve seemingly intractable “metaphysical questions.” In short, it holds that to know an object, we should examine that object’s effect on other objects. I’ve found that this simple move—tracing the consequences of a belief or statement or action— can prove remarkably useful in clarifying my thoughts. In the following I’d like to demonstrate the pragmatic method in action. Specifically, I want to interrogate a commonplace I often encounter as a college writing teacher: students ≠ kids.

Before we begin, I need to clarify what I mean by “commonplace.” As I understand it, commonplaces are ready-made verbal formulas. They are the bits of distilled wisdom, imparted to us by our various communities, that help guide our actions.

Commonplaces are obviously important. They help us understand and interact with our environment. We therefore become very attached to them. This emotional investment can sometimes blind us to their actual nature. Me and my commonplaces get so close, James would say, that I start to see them as ontologically true. And that’s a problem.

Consider a US Marine, guided by the belief that as a Marine, she is “always faithful” and “first to fight.” These commonplaces shape the Marine’s actions. Hence, they’re important. If the Marine is a pragmatist though, she recognizes that “always faithful,” though it may (seem to) fit her to a T, remains a mere verbal formula. It’s been applied to her from without and therefore remains open to revision (or even rejection). It’s true, sure, but true only because of what it does in context. In other contexts, or for other Marines, it may be false.

Now let’s turn to a pedagogical example. College students are adults, not children (students ≠ kids). This is pretty much a truism among progressive educators, its utterance sure to garner a round of head nods at the conference or faculty meeting. Is it true or false though? Following James, we can find out by tracing its consequences.

So what does students ≠ kids do? Well, first it encourages teachers to “take the training wheels off,” to make students responsible for their own learning. A long line of progressive educators, from Maria Montessori on down, would suggest that this is a positive move.

So our example can do positive work. If we wish to follow James though, we must keep in mind that this statement is in no way ontologically true. We can’t, for example, prove empirically that college students are adults and not children. Instead, we must view this statement for what is it is—a community generated object acting on other objects. Among certain constellations of objects, its consequences may be other than positive.

Consider a common situation faced by writing teachers. It’s near the end of the semester. You’ve worked through a carefully designed syllabus, given your students every opportunity to think critically and learn and grow. Despite this, some students remain mired in bland thought and language, comfortably ensconced in the status quo. This is a frustrating moment. And for some teachers, reminding themselves that their students are NOT fully formed adults may be a potent ameliorative tactic. It can help the teacher read more generously, find new reserves of patience. In short, writing teachers can’t expect college freshman to think and write like Theodor Adorno. Conceptualizing college students as in-process, as plastic, in short, as children, may help teachers come to terms with this fact.

So, here we have a commonplace (students ≠ kids) that in certain contexts does positive work. In other contexts, the inverse (students = kids) does positive work. From a Jamesian perspective, we can therefore say that this commonplace is both true and false. To make this determination we consider the thinker, the context and what the commonplace does for that thinker in that context. In short, we must use the pragmatic method.

Admittedly, such an analysis makes an implicit moral claim. It suggests that it’s better (more logical, more socially useful) to think of our beliefs as tools rather than objective descriptions. As tools, we’re free to change said beliefs as circumstances necessitate. We’re free to view our students as both adults and children, for example. William James makes a strong case that this is the best way to approach our world. It forces us to stay flexible, makes us more generous thinkers. I too think this is a good way to live and to think. Use of James’s pragmatic method can help nudge us in this direction.

Trump, Sanders & The Violence of Idealism

With the classic Beatles’ track “Revolution 1,” John Lennon, famously (and controversially) sends a mixed message about his support for violent revolutionary activity.  “If you’re talking about destruction yeah, don’t you know that you can count me out… in,” he sings.  Aside from being a prime example of Lennon as proto-punk, I think this juxtaposition says much about the nature of far-left politics.  In short, it suggests that political idealism, especially of the far-left variety, always contains an element of violence.  Relating this to current US politics, the question becomes, will Bernie Sanders supporters embrace this violence and vote for Donald Trump?

As I’ve written about before on this blog, all human activity takes place in the shadow of ideals— visions, however vague, of the way the world should be.  Those who profess radical political beliefs are particularly intimate with their ideals.  Ideals though, by their very definition, are situated in opposition to the world of actually existing human affairs.  This means that to embrace an ideal fully, to long for it and work towards its realization in the manner of a true radical, is to wish for the destruction of the actually existing.  After all, the real and the ideal can’t exist alongside each other.  One must give way.

So some level of violence is inherent in all idealism.  Likewise, on a practical level, a cursory review of the historical record reveals that indeed all (or nearly all) instances of revolutionary change are occasioned by destruction.  That the failure of the old is necessary for the new isn’t a particularly novel idea.  It terms of human psychology, it makes sense that things must get really bad before people embrace new options.  Simply put, if the old system is working, you’re not going to get revolutionary change.

This brings us to current state of US politics.  Imagine you’re an idealistic Bernie supporter (or maybe you actually are).  You look at the world and see inequality and oppression.  Things are bad.  Unfortunately, as the outcome of the Democratic primary shows, most people do not think things are bad enough to require revolution.  Instead, they demand only a tepid incrementalism, a politics which leaves the current elites, and the system by which they benefit, in place.  In short, the majority of the population is still tied to the real, thereby rejecting the ideal (they can’t exist together, remember)

So what has to happen for the majority to embrace a (leftist) ideal?  The answer, unfortunately for most happy-go-lucky idealists, is destruction.  For radical political change to occur, the system must utterly fail.  The real world must be shown to be degraded, incapable of supporting human flourishing.  In short, for things to get better, things have to get much, much worse.

According to the this logic, we can see how a far-left Bernie supporter could make a rational case for voting for Donald Trump.  As numerous experts have opined, a Trump presidency would be an unmitigated disaster.  The economy would collapse, international relations would fray.  By all indications a lot of people would get hurt, yes.  I’d like to suggest though that this violence—this unmitigated human suffering—is part of the logic of the ideal.  A Trump presidency, by this thinking, is desirable simply because it would be so terrible.

Of course, much radical literature supports my claim.  Mao and Stalin (and ISIS and Al-Qaeda for that matter) recognize that the road to utopia starts with instability, with destruction.  John Lennon knew it too.  In the end though, he backed away from the ideal, choosing to live in the real world.  Like him, Bernie holdouts must make a choice: the violence of the ideal or the (slightly less intense) violence of the real.  I hope the above makes clear the necessity of that choice.

Diane Davis’ Breaking Up (At) Totality, Leslie Jones & Twitter Trolls

Continuing my summer reading, I arrive at Diane Davis’ Breaking Up (at) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter.  Though I’ve rarely seen it cited, in my opinion, this is a key rhet-comp text.  I’d like to give a quick summary, then apply Davis’ ideas to a recent media event— Ghostbusters actor Leslie Jones being chased off Twitter by racist trolls.  I find Davis’ work highly descriptive of the current media environment.  But does it offer a prescription to help us survive said environment?

For my money, Breaking Up, with its stylistic wordplay and utter rejection of foundations, represents the zenith of postmodern rhet-comp theorizing.  Following Derrida, Avital Ronell and Victor Vitanza, Davis argues that language is suffused with what she calls “laughter,” a form of erotic energy.  Reason and logic, along with conventional discursive forms, inevitably attempt to clean up this eroticism, to pin down meaning.  This project is doomed to failure though.  The result is that subjects and social structures (which from Davis’s pomo perspective are an effect of language) remain fluid, unstable.  Davis celebrates this sense of fluidity and excess.  “To be spoken by a language contorted in laughter,” she writes, “is to be spoken by language on the loose: no/thing is excluded, censored, or negated” (95).

I’m struck by the similarities between the discursive scene Davis describes and that which I encounter everyday on social media.  What is the meme economy but the unchecked proliferation of meaning?  New forms emerge, and with them new logics, only to immediately be submerged by newer forms and logics.  Reason, as embodied in traditional philosophical discourse, has no place here.  Same with morality.  The old rules—about who can speak, what they can say and how they can say it—simply do not apply.  Instead, laughter in its most primal and yes, erotic, manifestation rules the day.

Consider the racist trolls hounding Leslie Jones.  Working under the auspices of notorious alt-righter Milo Yiannopoulus, they swamped her Twitter feed with racist insults and forged screenshots suggesting she made homophobic remarks.  Here we see language wildly out of control.  There’s no demand for “facts” or “objective” referent, no limitations on what meanings can be conjured.  Jones is a comedian and actor?  Jones is the source of AIDS?  Jones believes we need to “gas dese faggots”?  Driven by a desire for “lolz”, and unchecked by either formal restrictions (rules regarding spelling and grammar, for example) or social/technological restrictions, meanings proliferate.  Language, pulsing with vulgar, grotesque human desire, really is on the loose.  No/thing is excluded.

So, in essence, what we have on Twitter is a world where anyone can say anything, think anything—and for many subjects, especially marginalized ones like Ms. Jones, this excess is terribly traumatic.  So what should be done?  The first impulse for many, as Davis suggests, is to try and limit potential meanings, re-erect some of the barriers postmodernity has torn down.  On Twitter, this typically takes the form of appeals to authority (demands that trolls be banned, for example).  According to Davis though, all attempts to limit meaning will inevitably fail.  Indeed, there seems to be a direct relationship between censorship and erotic power—the more we attempt to restrict certain meanings (the racism of the trolls, for example), the more erotically charged those meanings become.  Simply put, the more we protest, the more lolz.

So we can’t restrict meaning.  What then?  It’s a bit tenuous, but I would suggest that Davis does offer something like a solution.  Quoting Victor Vitanza, she suggests an “antibody rhetoric” capable of “enhancing our abilities to tolerate the incommensurabilities” which make up the postmodern condition (102).  As I read it, such a rhetoric demands a rejection of foundations, a rejection of even the pretense of objective reference.  In short, it means we must come to view language—even terrible, hurtful language– as a laughing matter.

Let’s put this vision to work.  In the case of Leslie Jones versus the trolls, we have competing desires—namely, to enjoy Twitter (Jones) and to cause pain in the name of lolz (trolls).  These desires are incommensurable.  And they fuel meanings which are also incommensurable.  Going back to the erotic power of censorship, perhaps the way to drain power from the latter is through a sort of radical acceptance.  Jones must come to “tolerate the incommensurabilities,” to laugh with the (admittedly pathetic) desire of the trolls.  If she can do so, perhaps the incommensurabilities will be rendered mute.  The desire of the trolls, and the accompanying meanings, will fade.

Breaking Up (at) Totality is a radical text, as I believe my attempt to apply it to a real-life situation demonstrates.  In short, thinking along with Davis, we come to the conclusion that marginalized, maligned subjects must somehow come to believe that words simply do not matter.  This is a hard position to accept.  Indeed, word merchants of all stripes want us to believe the opposite.  In a world without rules though—which for better or worse is the world of social media—it may be our only option.

Object-Oriented Ontology: Radical, Autistic or Both?

Like many academics, I’m using the summer holiday to work through my reading list.  As such, I just finished Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.  Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech, is at the forefront of the “object-oriented” philosophic movement.  Simply put, this mode of thought seeks to displace humans from the center of the philosophic universe.  It’s interested in things—radishes, VCRs and arrowheads, for example– rather than human interpretations of things.

Now, I don’t seek to present myself as an expert on Bogost’s work.  My only exposure to this thinker is through Alien Phenomenology and his online presence (I follow his Twitter feed).  That said, from what I’ve seen, it seems that Bogost presents a rather radical, even frightening, vision of what we should be doing as teachers and scholars.  Let me explain.

According to Bogost, at the core of the object-oriented vision is the idea that “everything exists equally” (6).  Within this “flat ontology… the bubbling skin of the capsaicin pepper holds just as much interest as the culinary history of the enchilada it is destined to top” (17).  Put into practice, such a view urges philosophers to engage in deep metaphorical description of object-being, to speculate, as the book’s title indicates, on “what it’s like to be a thing.”

Admittedly, Bogost’s methodology makes for fun reading.  His descriptions of the inner lives of peppers and engine parts are indeed poetic.  It’s important to remember though that every philosophic position makes an implicit moral claim.  To do philosophy (or theory or criticism) is to venture that the world is a certain way and to suggest that others see it similarly.  Bogost seems to agree.  “Flat ontology,” he writes, “is an ideal” (19).

So what sort of action does Bogost’s ideal portend?  How does it suggest we relate to one another and the world at large?  The best metaphor to describe his position, it seems to me, is that of the autistic.  The object-oriented thinker is he or she who is able to tune out the messy, noisy world of human affairs and focus solely, engaged in rapt wonder, on the garbage truck or video game.  Bogost indicates as much, writing that “being is unconcerned with… human politics” (99).

Philosophy is just verbal gymnastics, right?  It doesn’t impact our daily lives.  No, not necessarily.  Bogost, like most philosophers, lives his creed.  Exhibit A.  The past few weeks have been trying times in the U.S.  On July 5 the ongoing genocide of black men at the hands of the state was made sickeningly apparent in a pair of internet videos.  A few days later, police were targeted for assassination on the streets of Dallas.  Twitter, understandably, was abuzz with pain and confusion as people tried to make sense of these events.  Not Bogost.  During this time, when nearly every post on my Twitter feed referenced our shared trauma, he kept tweeting about the design of the Amazon website and oddly shaped cucumbers.  He’s interested in things, remember.

As for me, I like things, but I’m first and foremost interested in attunement.  As an ideal, attunement demands openness to the subjective experience of others.  This openness is achieved though attention to the affective, the embodied.  So what ontology underlies such a vision?  Well, it’s definitely not flat.  Instead, as I see it, the field of being pulses with energy– human energy— with objects growing or shrinking in size as that energy flows through them.  Over the past few weeks objects such as “systemic racism” and “state-sanctioned violence” have come to the forefront of my existence.  They loom large, while things like video games and capsaicin peppers recede into the background.

Under the ontology I propose, being is relative— it’s based on context and positioning.  It’s determined not by things-in-themselves, but things-in-relation.  These means that to be ontologically aware, thinkers must always be looking outward and upward, at the world of objects and subjects, at things and the web of conceptualizations which bind them together.  This dual vision inevitably entails (unfortunately, perhaps) a deep concern for “human politics.”

At one point, Bogost describes his philosophy as a “new radicalism.”  I agree.  If we take his thought to its logical extent it demands an equivalence between the blood soaking through Phil Castile’s shirt and the system of human relations which drew that blood.  That’s a truly radical idea.  And one as an embodied, affectively attuned human being, I can’t agree with.

Asking For It: US Warrior-Cops & Public Affect

As both a teacher and someone interested in public affairs, I’m continually looking for ways in which the classroom can inform society at large.  One idea central to my teaching philosophy—attunement– is particularly useful.

As I use the term, attunement simply means that much of what we learn, we don’t learn directly.  Instead, subtle cues from those around us give us direction on how to think, feel and be.  If you’ve ever noticed yourself mimicking the body language of a conversation partner, or caught the “vibe” of a room, you have an idea how powerful our attunement to each other can be.

Unfortunately, it seems that US law enforcement doesn’t take into account this very basic psychological principle.  The recent spate of police shootings, and the police response to the subsequent protests, both demonstrate this point.

Regarding the latter, all over the country we see waves of police, dressed all in black, with helmets and riot shields, facing off against crowds of protestors.  Think for a moment about the message such posturing carries.  It is certainly not one of respect and dialogue.  Instead, it signals to the protestors that the situation is volatile, dangerous, war-like.  Facing off against these squads of anonymous Stormtroopers, it’s surprising that more Black Lives Matter protests haven’t turned violent.  The police set the scene.  And the scene they set is one of confrontation.

The everyday posturing of the police is equally troubling.  Consider the amount of gear a cop hauls around: firearm, Taser, body armor, various gadgets.  Police departments likely think that such a display “projects power” and helps “protect their officers.”  I’d argue that this is completely wrong.  When police dress like Robocop, it sets the stage for confrontation.  Subconsciously, it tells members of the public that when they encounter a cop, they need to be ready to fight.  This makes for bad decision making.  Consider Phil Castillo reaching into his pocket while speaking of a gun….

I write this from China.  In years spent here I’ve seen many, many interactions between Chinese police officers and the public.  Compared to America, the difference couldn’t be more striking.  Chinese beat cops are typically older men.  They wear loose blue uniforms, not unlike US postal workers, and carry sticks instead of guns.  In tense situations—confronting illegal street vendors, for example—they act utterly passive.  They stand hands behind their backs, heads bowed, faces blank.  If anything, they give off an air of being sleepy, even as the street vendor, say, yells and stomps about in anger. The end result is to diffuse tension, to “deescalate” in police jargon.

Of course, China and the US are very different places.  The presence of guns in the latter does inevitably change the dynamic.  My argument is though that through aggressive posturing, American cops increase their own level of risk.  Through unconscious cues they make members of the public more likely to act in a violent manner.  In short, no matter what they say, their very physical presence—the “militarization” so many have spoken of lately—directs the public how to be.  And this way of being is one that no society should want to encourage.

Harambe and the Human/Animal Binary

“Human lives are more important than animal lives.”  This is the claim often offered as justification for the recent death (murder?) of Harambe the gorilla.  As with all supposed truisms, there’s a lot of unexamined assumptions at play.  Let’s take a look.

First, what we must avoid, if we want to think critically about this or any subject, is a simple reversal of the proposition to be examined.  To claim something like “nature is more important than the will of humans” in response to the above claim is banal, I’d argue, because it does nothing to escape the logic of the original claim.  It still posits: 1) “nature” and “humans” as concrete, divisible entities; and 2) the feasibility of somehow weighing one against the other. So, a “pro-nature” statement, while bold, isn’t particularly clever.

A more sophisticated analysis begins by breaking down what “human lives are more important than animal lives” really purports to mean.  First, as indicated, it suggests that human lives and animal lives exist in separate spheres, and that the good of the one must be weighed against the good of the other.  Second, it suggests that agreed-upon criteria exist for this measurement.  It is the application of these (invisible) criteria that make the statement “true” in some universal sense.

Once deemed true, the maxim is then brought to bear on particular cases.  What we must remember though is that maxims like this aren’t solely means of post-hoc justification.  Instead, they work to shape our understanding of events as they happen.

We can imagine the above statement as a kind of lens through which we view the encounter between Harambe and the young boy.  Belief in the validity of this statement, and the underlying logic, lead us to see the encounter between boy and gorilla in a certain way—as a zero-sum game, perhaps, as an interaction of opposed entities between which an accounting can and must be made.  This in turn influences our actions.  And the actions of the zookeepers who decided that Harambe needed to die.

Now, the above is not to argue that the keepers made the wrong decision.  (In fact, in situations such as this I’m inclined to respect the judgment of those closest to the action.)  It is to say though that we need to be aware of the ways in which language structures our world.  What happened to Harambe is a terrible tragedy.  My claim is that in this particular case, the logic of our beliefs, by drawing distinctions between certain elements of experience, may make such tragedies more likely to occur.