Last week, when the participants in the Digital Storytelling workshop began to share their stories, I could see that my plan for a distantly personal account of my own “digital footprint” was going to be badly out of place, as the other people were planning to create deeply personal and emotional works.
I was one of two men in the group; the rest were all women. To some extent, this raised for me some old questions about gender, voice, and emotional intimacy. This discussion comes up a lot around blogging for example: are women bloggers more comfortable with self-exploration, with self-revelation, and are they read and responded to differently as a result?
For myself, I know I feel what seems to me to be a masculine reluctance to get too personal or therapeutic when I blog or talk (or make digital stories). I think there are good things about that kind of male reticience, much as there are also good things about a stereotypically female kind of intimate openness. That these are stereotypes is important to remember: men and women can do both kinds of voices, prefer one to the other for themselves and the opposite in others, or blend the two selectively.
The hard thing is figuring out when it’s ok that a given occasion or venue or institution prefer one or the other kind of mode as a default or norm, and when it’s important instead to consciously make room at the table for multiple styles or modes of speech and representation. At a storytelling workshop, for example, it may be that to insist on the legitimacy of a much more reticient male voice is to suddenly make more emotional and personal stories feel like an exception rather than expectation, to put everyone on their guard. On the other hand, what if that is honestly the way that someone wants to approach the exercise?
One of the things I really dislike both about George Lakoff-style talk of “framing” and Deborah Tannen-style analysis of gendered discourse is that both approaches view the content of conversation or debate as inauthentic and irrelevant while also proposing that discourse is a zero-sum game of power, that one frame dominates any others, that you’re either at the margins or the center.
But sometimes, sometimes, they’re right. Some kinds of talk preclude other kinds of talk. Some discursive gambits dominate and silence. In more positive terms, sometimes only one kind of talk is productive or helpful or appropriate.
There were a lot of notes and gestures in President Obama’s inaugural speech that I loved, that spoke to my own frustrations with the last decade and pointed the way forward in ways that I really like.
I think by now it’s clear that he’s genuinely interested in building a big tent, to lead his “patchwork nation”, in crafting an inclusive vision for his Presidency. The invitation to Rick Warren has already suggested just how difficult it is to carry out that ambition in one direction. In another direction, the completely banal chatter of the punditry after the Inauguration suggests how hard it will be to simply surpass tired oppositions and hackwork political tropes to favor some kind of consensus pragmatism. Obama has shown a lot of personal and political discipline, but that will be tested even more strenuously in the weeks to come.
When Obama is functioning as a titular or symbolic leader, his patchwork can be at its most expansive, when he can be most like Mr. Rogers welcoming all the kids into his living room. All kinds of ways of talking are appropriate to those moments and contexts, and it’s important that the Presidency appears to acknowledge that range of talk, to know that it exists. If you programmatically exclude someone’s voice in this context, you’re excluding them from the national community itself, which is a gesture that ought to be used only in extremis.
When it comes to the business of governance, to its day-to-day functioning, Obama and the rest of the executive is entitled to a much more restrictive and filtered sensibility. But not too much so: it’s important to structurally build-in dissent, to formally review alternatives, to question the provenance and legitimacy of information, to subject everything to skepticism, and to puncture the Beltway bubble as much as possible. Day 1 of the Obama Presidency was promising on this score: making this kind of procedural culture work starts and ends with transparency, for example.
The hardest challenge, in many ways, falls in the space in between the titular, symbolic Presidency and its interior deliberative work, in the way that the President and his officers operate within the public sphere, in how they formulate and present and defend policy in front of and in dialogue with the public. This is hard because it requires a very fine distinction between the voices that authentically speak from a habitus or perspective that’s at odds with the worldview of the President and his advisors and much more calculated and cynical bids at “framing” that come from a well-oiled machine that approaches public dialogue as a pure instrument, as a zero-sum exercise which either advances or defeats narrow self-interests.
The distinction between the two is most easily glimpsed if you cultivate a taste for the unlike, force yourself to speak in unfamiliar and uncomfortable tongues, travel across ways of seeing and talking as one might travel across geographies. This commitment is not a safe, happy kind of venture of unity-in-difference, not a boat ride through “It’s a Small World”. Listening to the unlike, speaking the unfamiliar, can be draining, painful, frustrating. And at the end of any journey, you’re perfectly entitled to conclude that you like your established ways of talking best, that there’s something wrong with a stranger’s world and voice. But I think the person with the taste for the unlike can hear better the difference between a public voice that comes from somewhere real and a cynical attempt at framing that comes from some rag-and-bone shop think tank. If there’s anyone in public life whose personal journey has given him an ear for unlikeness, it’s Obama, so I have high hopes that he’ll guide his Administration through the narrow divide that will allow him to ignore tired old constructions, to make real the promise that “the ground has shifted beneath” the cynics, while never losing sight of ways of speaking and thinking that are authentically different from his own.
It’s not just his job. The same discretionary challenge falls on all of us. For example, in the context of debates about the inclusiveness of academic culture, there’s a crucial distinction between participants who are actually doing the work of scholarship in a different or unlike vein and demanding that it be included or respected and those who merely constantly complain of groupthink or exclusion without ever putting into practice the scholarship and pedagogy that they proclaim as excluded. If you demand a wider, more inclusive approach to institutional discourse, whether in national politics or in university life, then you have to demonstrate that you yourself are committed to inclusion. Which means, in any context, practicing that same taste for the unlike. If all you can praise is work which conforms to your own particular tastes, ideologies, and preferences, you’re not trying to inaugurate the institutional or political future which you ardently demand. It isn’t just Obama that has to go beyond the “stale political arguments”. Anybody who demands or values that kind of commitment in others has to try to live it out in their own practices.