Tag Archives: conflict

The Verdict

We left the dinner table and turned the television on to public broadcasting—the stolid, unflashy journalism of non-commercial news. PBS allowed us to take a pass on the stacked rows of talking heads, the frenetic split screens, and the emergency-of-the-day theme music of the major media outlets.

We watched, heartsick, as the Ferguson prosecutor unrolled his strange presentation. My husband’s face growing harder, the kids trying to figure out—as we all were—what he was actually saying in his weird, meandering speech.

Eventually, we turned the television off. The family wandered off to their routine pursuits, I slowly worked in the kitchen, listening to radio coverage and pausing now and again to check the rage burning its way through Twitter.

My nephew, a journalism student at a university in Missouri, tweeted that he couldn’t pull away from the Ferguson coverage focus on his homework. In  his classes, he’s learning what journalism is meant to be; why it matters; how to be a good journalist. On this night he was applying those lessons to what he saw before him as Ferguson erupted in pain and disappointment on the television screen.

We tweeted back and forth a bit. He wrote about seeing history in the making, about his hopes that the turmoil would lead to change.

Our brief exchange reminded me of so many things.

I remembered the excitement of seeing history unfolding before me when I was his age, my eyes increasingly opened to the world outside my own small environment.

The Challenger Explosion — The Solidarity Movement — The Fall of the Berlin Wall — The Breakup of the Soviet Union  —  The AIDS crisis— Tiananmen Square — Mandela’s Release — The Invasion of Kuwait — The Dismantling of Apartheid — The Dayton Accords  — so many others.

I remembered the names of people. The change-makers becoming icons before our eyes  because they acted on their convictions or because they unintentionally became the face of a movement that changed things for the better.

Christa McAuliffe — Lech Walesa — Nelson Mandela — Ryan White — Randy Shilts  — Václav Havel —Desmond Tutu — the anonymous protestor who stood alone in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square — so many others.

I remembered beginning to understand that behind those familiar faces, those big names, stood many unacknowledged and unnamed people who worked alongside them to make change happen.

I remembered how their hard-fought optimism seemed to sweep the cobwebs away from the world.

On the night the Ferguson verdict was announced and I stood in the kitchen tweeting with my nephew I knew—just as I knew yesterday when the Garner verdict was announced—that my college self, that naïve, optimistic college girl, would never have believed this.

That optimistic college girl would never have believed  that in 2014 she’d find herself standing in the kitchen listening to the despair and rage of the protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, who have had enough of blatant racism and brutality by police. Or that a few days later another, similar verdict would set off more protests, centering this time in New York.

She would never have believed that she’d witness an important historical moment revealing not how far we’ve come, but how long we’ve stood still, looking over our shoulders at a past we haven’t come close to leaving behind.



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A Detour Into Pop Culture

I watched about 30-40 minutes of this year’s Grammy Awards, long enough to see Keith Urban’s performance with Gary Clark, Jr. (and then I lived through some performances I quickly forgot).  I watched Paul McCartney and the former members of Nirvana win the award for Best Rock Song, which they all claimed to have just thrown together in a two-hour jam session. When I listened to Gary Clark, Jr’s album the next day, I wondered if the McCartney/Nirvana folks won more by nostalgia than because they truly had the best song. I know how I would have voted.

In the days that followed there was a lot of talk about Macklemore winning the best new artist award, among others, and Kendrick Lamar, who many thought should have won the best new artist award instead. I don’t care that much about who won what, really, but there was an internet firestorm about whether Macklemore somehow robbed Kendrick Lamar of a well-deserved shot at a Grammy.

One article in particular, Brittney Cooper’s essay in Salon “Macklemore’s Useless Apology: Grammys and the Myth of Meritocracy”, took me back to many a conversation I had as a college student about racism, white privilege, patriarchy, ideology, and all the –isms that go along with those concepts. One conversation in particular came flooding back to me.

When I was a graduate student in English in the early 90s, my favorite writers were black American novelists, particularly Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Ralph Ellison. I wanted to specialize in African-American Literature. The obvious question weighed on my mind: What right did I, a middleclass white woman, have to research and teach African-American literature?

One day I had the immense pleasure to drive the distinguished professor Nellie Y. McKay to the airport after she gave the keynote speech at a literary festival on campus. What better person to ask? She was a pioneer in African-American and women’s literary studies. She was trapped in my car; we were taking a detour because I had taken a wrong turn. I nervously broached the subject. Did I have any right to pursue this?

“Of course you do!” She said. But she warned me. I’d have to be excellent. I’d have to know my stuff. I’d have to study the writers and all their works inside and out. I’d be challenged, especially by black students, who would ask how I dared to teach them about their experiences. “Tell them honestly,” she said. “That you cannot and will not try to teach them about their experience as black people. You will teach them about literature that happens to be written by black people.”

And she went on to say that if we were all limited to teach only that with which we had direct experience, then she as a woman, as a black person, would never be able to teach works by her favorite authors: Melville, Faulkner, Joyce, Eliot, Cather, Welty, O’Connor, and so on.

I thought of that conversation after I read the Brittney Cooper’s article and saw some of the responses to it. Yes, there’s a very long history in our country of black artists being bilked of monetary and personal artistic rewards for their hard work. Yes, sometimes we think there’s an imbalance in who gets the accolades (remember Kanye West’s reaction to Tayor Swift’s win at the VMAs?). There is a long and convoluted history of artistic influence that is enmeshed in our diverse and complex culture—often at the expense of artists of color. Though its origins are very troubling, this artistic influence—from the blues, from gospel, from jazz, from oral traditions–is incredibly rich and is so tightly enmeshed in the fabric of our country now, that we couldn’t untangle it even if we wanted to.

But I think Macklemore is being scapegoated a bit here in this current debate. He wrote and produced an album that has enormous appeal across demographics  and that sold millions and millions of copies. He didn’t vote for himself—others nominated him and gave him the wins. He tried to do the right thing by reaching out to Lamar and it backfired in the court of internet opinion, but if he’d stayed silent…?

My daughter’s 8th grade language arts class has been discussing this issue of white privilege (some would say Macklemore won solely because of this) vs. artistic integrity (some would say Lamar lost, but still has this) this week—at this point she’s ready to get back to Shakespeare. Her description of the kids’ discussion reminded me of how easy it is sometimes to believe that there are clear cut answers to the questions of race and culture and merit in this country. Should Macklemore’s hip hop be discounted because he’s white? Should Lamar’s hip hop be considered better because he’s black?

I think Nellie McKay would take a thoughtful pause before answering those questions.


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“I know you don’t like conflict”*

Long ago, I stood with a friend in someone’s kitchen engaging in a casual debate about a social issue. It was during the “welfare moms” era of the Clinton Administration. A few cases of misuse of public funds had been in the news and suddenly people receiving assistance, especially single mothers on welfare, were labeled “those kinds of people.”

This friend was on the bandwagon, I was decidedly not, so we passed the time batting our opinions back and forth. But every circular argument runs its course and finally I said, “Well, it looks like we should just agree to disagree on this one.” She wasn’t ready to give up. She kept going on until I said, “Honestly, I’m not going to change my mind. You’re not going to change your mind. So let’s just move on.”

“Oh,” she said dismissively. “Well, I know you don’t like conflict, so fine.” And that was that.

That “I know you don’t like conflict” comment annoyed me because she didn’t get the point. I enjoy a good back-and-forth debate. What I don’t enjoy is stubbornly retracing the same argumentative path over and over again with no end in sight. Those kinds of debates have no intrinsic value for either party. There’s no point in it other than hearing oneself go on and on and on.

Years before this kitchen scene with my friend, I came triumphantly home from college for Thanksgiving dinner. My eyes had been opened to the sorry state of the world by many things, not the least of which were my South African Literature class (South Africa was still under apartheid rule), my Martin Luther King/Gandhi philosophy class, and my participation in the fledgling AIDS Speakers Bureau on campus. I was full of new insights, a broader world view. I was a totally new person! It was not unusual for our family to engage in some debates at the dinner table, but this time instead of being the youngest spectator in the family fold, I was armed with enough knowledge to be a full-fledged combatant if necessary.

This is not to say I came home with the express purpose of indoctrinating the family into my new point of view, but I was primed for the soapbox. And when the conversation turned towards social issues I leapt upon that soapbox with gusto, delivered a passionate speech, got patiently challenged by some family members, and eventually stormed off to my room in a rage.

I stewed for what seemed like a long time, thinking about how clueless they all were and how unfair and how their attitudes were what was wrong with this country and how I couldn’t wait to get back to school.

And then came a knock on the door. It was my mother, my loving and very reasonable mother. She sat on my bed and said, “Honey, we are so proud of how well you’re doing in school and we’re excited that you are so passionate about what you believe in. But there’s one thing you need to know.”

“What.” I said, sulky and not particularly interested in what she had to say.

“You need to understand that no matter how passionately you feel about something, people won’t listen to you until you show you are willing to listen to them, too.”

The English 101 students always groaned when I announced the list of banned argument paper topics:

  • legalizing marijuana
  • lowering the drinking age
  • abortion
  • creationism
  • euthanasia
  • gun control
  • flag burning
  • death penalty
  • Affirmative Action

The protest was inevitable. “But that’s so unfair! Those are all the best topics! Why can’t we write about them?”

“This is why,” I’d say. “First of all, I can list, off the top of my head, this very minute, what your reasons for OR against any of these topics will be. Go ahead, pick one.”     

And they would test me. I’d recite the top three arguments for and against each topic to a mix of their laughter and groans. Then, I’d lay down my final point: “How many of you chose these topics for every argument paper you wrote in high school?” They didn’t need to respond; their sheepish grins were answer enough.             

When I listen to current arguments about politics (Oy, the government shutdown) or read what one side said about the other side (it doesn’t matter which, they all do it) or wonder for the umpteenth time why reasonable people pay any attention to photo op rants by politicians playing games, I think back. I remember my overzealous college self, my more considered post-grad. self, my naive students who weren’t yet sure what their opinions really were.

And then I wish for a moment that I could require masses of people to write a typical English 101 argument paper.

The Assignment:  Choose a very narrow topic that you care about and want to learn more about. Do not choose anything that is on the Banned Topics List, but you can look at them to see why they are examples of topics that are too broad. Figure out what your opinion is about your narrowed topic and then imagine how you would explain and defend your opinion to a reader who does not agree with you.

You should have 3-5 reasons for your point of view and provide concrete evidence to support each of the reasons. Be specific! Vague statements like “but it’s tradition” or “it’s always been this way” don’t count. Using source material is a good way to support your point of view, but be careful. Choose sources that are objective and have been well researched. Avoid sources that are vague or unsubstantiated. Only use source material that is reputable, but look at it with a critical eye.

Purpose:  Despite its name, the purpose of learning to write an Argument Paper is to hone your own critical skills and to present your opinions to an audience who may disagree with you, not to convert people to your side. Your goal is not to change your reader’s mind–chances are slim that you will–but to present your point of view so that the reader can say, “I still disagree with you, but I see where you’re coming from.”

Audience: Imagine a person who disagrees with you, but who you respect and like. Write your argument in a reasonable, thoughtful, and respectful way. Do not attack, insult, or belittle their point of view even if you disagree vehemently. Disagreement itself is fine. In fact, taking counterarguments and breaking them down is an excellent way to show your point of view is stronger. You can be strong, assertive, and clear cut without falling into ad hominem attacks. Remember, the fastest way to “lose” a debate is to attack the person who disagrees you with rather than focusing on showing the strengths of your own position. You can counter argue the reasons behind their point of view until the cows come home, but you may not insult the person who holds them.

I graded hundreds of argument papers over the years that I taught English 101. Many were well written, many were abysmal. I learned about issues I had no knowledge about and learned that for every naive and shallow 18-year-old student who didn’t have a clue, there were five more who were thoughtful, curious critical thinkers.

Never did I read a paper that personally attacked or insulted people who were on the other side of the argument. And for every argument I agreed with, I read another well-written argument that I didn’t agree with. But on those I was happy to write, in my ubiquitous purple ink, “Nice work!” all the while thinking, “Isn’t it nice to agree to disagree?”


*This essay first appeared on my book blog, Too Fond of Books, on July 12, 2012. Unfortunately, things are pretty much the same today in American political discourse as they were last year.

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