The Lesson of Nabokov’s Father

This summer I happen to be tutoring a young, upwardly mobile Chinese woman. In trying to explain to her, in the limited vocabulary of an ESL lesson, my understanding of democracy, I could do no better than cite the example of novelist Vladimir Nabokov’s father. With compliments to Richard Rorty, I’d like to share this story and my interpretation.

Nabokov’s father, so the story goes, was a nobleman and liberal politician in pre-Soviet Russia. He died defending his political rival from an assassin’s bullet. This, Rorty notes, is the action of a true liberal. How so? As I understand it, Nabokov’s father valued the democratic process above all else. He rather die than allow another’s voice (even that of his political rival) to be silenced.

What ideas about the world could underpin such a belief?   First, there’s immense faith in the wisdom of the community, i.e. a recognition that all knowledge is social and that open debate and discussion is the best way to generate such knowledge. There’s also a willingness, to use a term from my last post, to disavow the role of the “subject who knows.” Instead of dictating policy, Nabokov’s father, through the promotion of democratic institutions, sought to create an environment in which policy could be cultivated. The most important thing was to get the conversation going and to keep it going, even if it meant getting killed.

I think the story of Nabokov’s father, and the great epistemological humility which underlies it, are something everyone should consider. The core idea– of respect for process rather than per-determined product– can also be applied to realms of action far removed from politics. As an example, consider rhetorical ethics, a theme which underlies much of this blog. What is the goal when we speak or write? Do we seek to make our mark upon the world like some petty vandal? Or do we seek to work with others, through reflection, and careful, respectful listening, to construct new knowledges? Nabokov’s father would believe the latter. And I certainly agree.

Are Teachers Really Afraid of Their Students?

A lot has been written lately about hyper-sensitivity on college campuses. The latest entry in this genre is a long, rather complex analysis on, published anonymously by a professor at a “midsize state school.” This writer’s claim is that a reductive vision of social justice, one based on feelings rather than objective analysis, is making for a toxic learning environment and ultimately harming the progressive cause. Feelings can’t be wrong. So, this logic goes, the only way to win a debate is to yell really loud.

Ironically, this article resulted in something of a backlash, with a social media figure yelling about how she shouldn’t be quoted without her consent. That’s an interesting position. And seems to prove the writer’s point about hyper-sensitivity. On the internet. What about in the classroom though? Are things really as bad as they seem? Are teachers really afraid of students?

In my experience, no. I’m a (white male) teacher at a major public university. My (grad student) colleagues and I complain about a lot of stuff, but getting in trouble for offending our students isn’t very high on the list. Still, many teachers obviously feel differently. Perhaps they’re justified. Perhaps my colleagues and I are naïve. Still though, I can’t help but think that the hysterical online environment is unduly tinting their perception of the classroom situation.

Of course, as a teacher you will occasionally encounter prickly, hyper-politically correct (or politically incorrect) students. Part of being an educator though is learning how to negotiate with such people. As an example, let’s look at a situation described in the Vox article.

During a discussion of the 2008 financial crisis, a student voices his opinion that said crisis was caused by “Fanny and Freddy giving homes to black people.” This is a big, obviously problematic claim. Note how the Vox commentator responds though. Instead of seeking to engage the student, to bring out the causes and potential effects of such a belief, the teacher instead attempts to “state the facts,” telling the student that his view is “an oversimplification, and pretty dishonest.” The student feels disrespected and files a complaint, accusing the teacher of bias.

I understand the teacher’s frustration: the student hijacked his lesson plan. The administrative complaint could have been avoided though through proper pedagogical practice. Instead of positioning himself as “the subject who knows,” to misquote Lacan, this teacher should have sought to explore, with his students, the gap between their varying perspectives. In short, when yelled at he shouldn’t have yelled back. Instead, he should have practiced what he preaches in the Vox article.

My larger point here is that digital discourse seems to encourage a certain sort of rhetorical behavior. This, as the Vox commentator correctly notes, often involves yelling really loud about your feelings. Teachers must work to counter this influence. We need to cultivate listening, understanding and collaborative, critical exploration. And the place to start is with our own practice, both online and in the classroom. If we do this day-in-day-out, we have nothing to fear from our students.

On the Symbolic Power of “Nigga”

Chester Hanks (aka “Chet Haze”), son of Tom and semi-pro rapper, made news recently with a strident defense of his right, as a white hip-hop fan, to say the word “nigga.” His argument is basically that this word is a integral part of hip-hop culture, often signifying “camaraderie and love.”  Whether you agree or not, it’s clear that Haze has a deep emotional connection to this term. As someone who studies language for a living, I’m well aware of the problems associated with (mis)appropriation and license. Still, I think it’s useful to take a closer look at what feeds this connection.

Though its origin is almost certainly apocryphal, there’s a distinction floating around online, supposed made by Tupac, between the meaning of the words “nigger” and “nigga.” The former, Tupac says, is a black man with “a slavery chain” around his neck. The latter is a black man with a gold chain around his neck. This distinction, I think, neatly encapsulates the affective power inherent in the word “nigga.” This word implies a certain movement—from oppression to self-expression, from poverty to wealth, from weakness to power. It represents the speaker seizing control of the way he or she (but usually he) is defined. In short, there’s symbolic agency inherent in this word. In light of that, we can see why some outside the black community are so eager to appropriate it.

As Haze indicates, there’s also a sense of soldiery—both racial and economic—implied by the term. In saying, “my nigga” or “niggaz like us,” one is basically saying something along the lines of “fellow resistance fighters.” I know of no other English term that has the same semantic resonance.

So could this term become widespread among white language users without losing its power? I don’t know. At the least I suspect its force would be diluted. This is perhaps one reason why many African Americans are so adamantly opposed to what seems like benign white appropriation. Mindful of this, perhaps it’s best that Mr. Haze take Ben Westoff‘s advice and start using “ninja” instead.

On Bad Writing

In my last post I wrote about unsophisticated discourse.  Today I’d like to discuss some of the features of such writing.

It seems to me that one of the key features of “bad” writing is a reliance on dichotomies: liberal/conservative, good/bad, etc. Of course, every academic since Derrida has warned against the dangers of binary thinking. I don’t want to join that chorus. Oppositions, binary or otherwise, can be useful– they’re a form of abstraction which allow us to cut the world into manageable bits. Of course, as online trolls and lazy students demonstrate, the power of abstraction can also be abused. So then, what distinguishes good abstraction from bad?

One key, I think, is that the writer recognize, and signal to the reader that he recognizes, that oppositions are just tools for thinking. There is, of course, no such thing as “liberal” or “conservative.” These are just symbols we use to signal a certain web of political commitments. Such a web naturally has contradictory element. A sophisticated writer/thinker knows this. For example, instead of “all liberals hate America,” she may write, “liberals have a tendency to be critical of the dominant culture.” The nuance in the latter statement indicates that the writer knows that an abstraction is just an abstraction. The former writer, on the other hand, seems to fetishize his abstraction. The term “liberal” appears monolithic to him, and therefore, he appears simple-minded to us.

Unsophisticated writers also use a lot of insults. On the clickbait website I discussed yesterday, it seems that every other post refers to someone as “stupid” or a “moran.” Why is this? Are people with low literacy skills just jerks? No. Following my always generous sensei Dave Bartholomae, I see these writers as trying to express their experience using the limited linguistic tools available to them. There is pain in their world. They have named that pain “liberal” or “Obama.” And by writing, for example, that “Obama is a hommos muslim,” they are attempting to share their subjective experience of this pain.

So in short, as a writing teacher, when I see writers resort to petty insults I want to find out what’s really bothering them. They are undoubtedly feeling some complicated stuff (all feelings are complicated). They’re just expressing it in a way that users of SWE/SBL find simplistic.

Is Literacy Inherently Liberal?

Yesterday I wandered into a dark corner of the web: the comments section of some obscure right-wing clickbait purveyor. As a writing teacher and student of rhetoric and composition, I find such spots fascinating.   Some thoughts.

First, what is up with all the misspellings and crazy grammatical constructions? I ask this question in all seriousness. Let’s be clear– I am in no way a SNOOT. In fact, in my writing classes I make an exaggerated show of not caring about grammar. But still, on this particular website, almost every comment contains non-standard language. Why?

The easiest explanation is that the people attracted to right-wing clickbait (stories about hero police dogs, etc.) are simply not very “literate.” They are older, perhaps didn’t go to college. This lack of linguistic sophistication is reflected in both consumption (what they choose to read) and production (their commentary).

Let’s unpack this further. In this case, sophistication = socialization. Proper bourgeois subjects like myself (and most likely my reader) have been trained in certain habits of thought and action. These include linguistic norms and rules relating to evidence, logic and narrative coherence. We write in Standard Written English (SWE), understand the world via Standard Bourgeois Logic (SBL). Our click-baited friends, for whatever reason, have internalized different standards. To us, therefore, both their choice of reading material (“libtard teacher stomps on flag”) and language use (no distinction between your and you’re, seemingly random capitalization) seems alien.

The above is pretty basic stuff. A more interesting question is whether discursive practices and social/cultural/political values are linked. Does the internalization of SWE and SBL push learners towards a certain political alignment? Or in other words, if one can write a coherent paragraph is he or she less likely to be attracted to the ideas underlying “Obummer” clickbait?

This is a difficult question. Of course there are both left-wing and right-wing clickbait websites. And of course, one can be discursively sophisticated and hold right-wing views. It does seem though, at least from my admittedly bias perspective, that the least “literate” discourses lean conservative. Hence my titular question.