There’s some way to stop this. It’s not like lightning or earthquakes. We’ve got a bad thing made by men, and by God that’s something we can change.Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
The three years I spent in college were characterized by the exercise of one theme more than any other: experience. One person, the prevailing idea goes, can never know the experience of another. It would be a fine topic for philosophy, but it was never really examined at that level. Nobody cared to ask what deep, intrinsic features make experience unsharable, which things about the rights of ownership of experience are de rigueur vs, de jure, etc. It was simply posited and accepted that all races, ethnicities, genders, and sexual preferences were irrevocably separated by the unbreachable uniqueness of their individual experiences. Individual, but immediately transferable, in uncorrupted perfection, to anyone who shares a skin tone or birth country, gender, etc. For instance, all gay people can immediately know and understand the experience of a single gay person. But no straight person can. Ever. Nobody but a black person can know the experiences of a black person, and all black people are privy to that single one. They can commiserate. Nobody else can. It can be broken down into more restrictive zones, based on birth place, country of origin, etc. It reduces all the way down to neighborhood and even family home, whenever that level of covetousness is required in order to guard against criticism and/or self-examination.
Shutting people off from one another is one of The University’s most refined skills.
But – If I cannot know the experiences of others, then why did I get ill a few weeks ago and turn away after watching the first video of someone being beaten by looters? Why can’t I handle watching the replay of an athlete breaking his leg? Why do those experiences of other people, black or white, male or female, physically sicken me, even through a computer monitor, if I can’t know or understand anything about them? Empathy, maybe. But I’m not sure that counts for much beyond being a nice thing to say.
I thought about this condition of experiential boundaries as much as anything else in college. I thought less about the experience, and more about the unknowability of it. The odd bubble around an individual that prevents me from knowing or understanding his experience, even when it is taught to me, or actually occurring right in front of me. The thing that came to me quickest, most frequently, and has never left me, was this: What are we doing, in college, telling each other that there’s things we can’t know? Things we can’t learn? What else is school for? I am not Pythagoras, but that didn’t prevent me from applying his theorem when I was building my patio. I was able to access and employ the experiences of a man who I am not, because, as a child even, I learned it. If Pythagoras were adhering to the tenets of today’s educated society, he would have copyrighted his theorem and demanded a stop to any construction using right triangles. When he said “you can’t possibly know this,” the absurdity would have been evident.
So – If I cannot know the experiences of others, why do I read? How am I supposed to react when a girl who grew up in poverty in Afghanistan stands at an open mic and reads a poem about her experience, if I can’t know anything about it? Why should she even bother? Why should anyone?
My God, the things that we would miss.
And of course, what of white privilege? After all, the concept of white privilege is the declaration of a perfect knowledge and understanding of the experiences of white people, by people who are not white. It’s an obvious contradiction, sure. And no doubt it’s the kind of rocky coast upon which essay after essay dashes itself without dislodging so much as a pebble. But honestly it isn’t much of an issue for me. I do not believe that my experiences are not commutable. People of all kinds are bright and capable, and can learn what life is like for me – even when they are not me – simply by asking and observing, and really by generally existing in the same world. The world is nothing, if not evidence for everything. I have no call to tell someone that because his skin is not white, he must look dumbly upon me and know only about me that which I am willing to tell him. I believe, in a word, that non-white people can observe and even share in the experiences of white people. All the time, and easily. They can cry “white privilege” and be right or wrong, but not dismissed on the grounds that it’s impossible for them to know.
I just also happen to believe that it works the other way as well.
I arrived here, eventually: any time you can convince someone that there is something he cannot learn, you can make him your slave. You can tell him anything about it that you want. Anything that serves you and silences him, because he is precluded from having any doubt about what you are saying, and strictly confined to doubting what he thinks he knows about it. You can build a prison of lies for him to live in, unable to protest, because his agreement is full submission to your mastery.
All of this language policing, all the shouts of racism and sexism where there is none; all the hoarding and walling-off of experiences and words as things owned and personal; it is about establishing that mastery, and gaining that submission. This is where it is easy to say it’s about power and control, in a sort of grand, state/national/global-level scheme, but I’m not convinced it’s quite so deep for most people. I think that the relationship – the arrangement – is sought as a means to arrive at a simple feeling of personal security, and is only carried further on its own momentum. That’s when it starts to dip into political waters, but I am not a very political person. I think about Steinbeck when I think about politics. I retrace my steps back to the humanity – the person – at the source. About “bad things made by men.” That’s what politics is. And like the tenant squatting in the disappearing top soil in The Grapes of Wrath, who believes that the men who built the bank-machine are still in control of it, I can’t shake the belief that that’s something we can change. I can’t grasp the notion that there’s something out there that is made by us but is beyond us. Run by us but not controlled by us. Made of us, but is not us. It’s logical but naive, sensible but stupid. That’s why it’s so easy to abandon.
So what I mean, somewhat obviously, is that politics is corrupt not because it’s politics and there’s something inherently, mechanically bad about it, but because of the people in it. The individual men and women using foul means to course-correct for personal shortcomings. Not because they are Democrats or Republicans, fascists or communists, but because they are individuals striving for small-scale salves for the wounds they suffer at the hands of their consciences. In short, nobody is setting out to make a city or state or country’s worth of people bow down to their whims. They are setting out to cover the holes in their armor. The things that make them feel small and vulnerable and, undoubtedly worst of all, mediocre. The shouts of injustice and privilege are not really about power – they’re about waking up in the morning feeling personally, individually unimportant, under the control of something outside of and bigger than you, and going to bed that night feeling you’ve done something about it. Like you’ve at least gotten your three dollars a day to drive the tractor, instead of impotently waving your rifle in the window of the farmhouse that the tractor’s running down.
College, by the way, deified the notion of vulnerability, while casting any skepticism to the lions. Once advanced, a person’s expression of vulnerability was never to be doubted or questioned. It was only to be supported and validated. It’s very nice at first, and as long as it is a voluntary revelation of weaknesses that we instinctively try too hard to hide, in almost every instance it’s a perfectly useful, pleasant, kindly and humane response. We can find a world of glad protection, outside of ourselves, when we dare to expose our soft spots. It’s beautiful. But ultimately grievance was made tantamount to vulnerability, so that anyone claiming any degree of victimhood also fell under the protection of the vulnerability tenet – that once uttered, it was not to be disputed. A case of good intentions wreaking havoc on the virtue of honesty. Soon every word is a wound begging for a bandage, and quickly slapping away the hand of any Thomas who dares to doubt. As for the vulnerability itself – it starts to ring shallow and measured, and offered only as a sort of unconscious habit, or tick, never left to be weathered by proofs. It is the robe snapped shut at the threat of the probe, with no soul noble enough to bare flesh and say “put your finger here.”
And more than than that, it’s about something that I’ve talked about several times before. It’s about getting something for nothing. About forgetting that it’s normal to have very little, and it’s exceptional to be affluent. That a life of being low-to-middling in just about every aspect is the common condition for minimal effort, which is how most of us go through life, and that anything above that bar is the result of having done something more. But for some reason we keep believing in the perpetual elevation of the minimum, that we are beaten if we are happy with what we have, and that there is virtue in an increasing gap between merit and reward. That while we shouldn’t be asked to do anything more, we should go on expecting to get something more. Perhaps if the United States is guilty of any injustice, it is guilty of spreading that particular optimism, poisonous as it may be.
All of which is about, of course, one thing: The refusal to accept reality. And most definitely the inability to be satisfied with it. Conflating contentment with submission has driven us to believing in an ethics of tantrum, wherein the intellectual creativity that we should be using for growth and creation is being exhausted in the pursuit of too-clever variations on the theme of “that’s not fair.” Our great capacity for belief is wasted in the notion that we are something that we are not, and that we deserve more than we’ve earned. And most perniciously of all, we believe that a person is defined by what is said about him, rather than what is known about him – the former being shamefully abundant, and the latter being dearly scarce. Any Monday morning cynic can prattle on endlessly about where that belief comes from, how and from whom that arrangement is learned, but that’s just another kind of witch hunt. Our obsession with blame over solution. The belief in progress through punishment. I’ve been a parent too long to believe that works.
Now, with this blockade set up around experiences, we’re able to claim a little territory. We’re able to tell people, at least in this instance, where they are not allowed to go. The tenant gets to stall the tractor and the owners have to get in their closed cars and go back to the bank, and everyone gets to believe for a while longer that it’s just a system. That it’s tractors and cars and banks and not people, until the tractor fills in the well and pulls down the porch and then it’s “were will we go” and “how will we eat” and suddenly it’s human. Now it’s time for a reckoning, because almost all of us want to – but almost none of us will ever get to – be the bank, and we don’t have the strength or courage – much less the capacity for contentment – to go on being the tenant. So we accept the bank’s offer, climb up behind the wheel of the tractor, spread our blameless arms to the horizons, and only have to try to keep the lines straight as we plow our old homes into the dirt. That’s powerful. It feels like getting something without having done much of anything. And that feels good.
It really does. I’m not saying this cynically or sarcastically. I have been in the military and have been on both ends of orders. Both sides of power and impotence. I have been arbitrarily prohibited from countless meaningless activities, even sometimes from speaking at all, for no other reason than that the person standing in front of me had the power to do it. I have also been that person, issuing the orders, the prohibitions, in the most trivial and ridiculous circumstances. And in every case, I enjoyed it. It felt good. Maybe that doesn’t speak well of me, and maybe it isn’t true of everyone, but let’s be honest in an era of equality, there really isn’t all that much difference between any of us. Winning always feels good, and in the absence of conscience, the Pyrrhic Victory doesn’t exist.
The military analogy is somewhat unfaithful, though, because to have the authority to shut someone up means achieving a certain rank, and achievement requires effort. You cannot become a non-commissioned officer without satisfying some number of requirements that require a level of input slightly greater than getting dressed in the morning. You do have to do something in order to get something. If, however, you are launching your authority from a platform of personal experience, claiming your promotions by birthright, then you are demanding to get something not from doing something for it, but simply by being something. It starts to look a lot like privilege, except you objectify and commodify yourself. You “earn” said authority through absolutely nothing more than being born in a certain place, or with a certain set of parents, of a certain skin tone or gender, etc. You are constructing an authority on nothing but sophistry and vain solipsism, making an arrangement in which you attempt to trade skin color or sexual preference for that sweet feeling that comes when you tell someone to shut up, and he has to.
Whenever I begin these things (begrudgingly, believe me, but I am sometimes compelled), I expect that I can do it well. Do it better. I expect that I can present my criticisms in a way that even the people I am criticizing will not take any offense. That they might even walk away thinking “there are some really good points in there.” I know that, first of all, I am not so deep and erudite that I can perform that particular miracle with the degree of success that I wish. Second of all, I know that it is the rarest of souls who takes criticism well, without rancor and resentment, and with a willingness to apply it constructively. The rarest of souls that takes a searching doubt by the wrist and guides the finger to the wound. Just as they teach in college, we don’t even believe that we ought to be criticized in the first place, and should immediately condemn anyone who does it. Irony’s a weird trip.
The third thing I know is that I am not supposed to care. That I am supposed to refuse to tiptoe around anyone’s sensitivities, and to outright dismiss the reactions of anyone who can’t handle what I have to say. That if I am right, I am right, and the cries of the offended are not my problem. If I were a more popular writer, I’d have a dozen comments in an hour telling me to stop being such a baby and not apologize, ever, for “telling it like it is.” But if you think about what I said earlier about politics being made of people, and not necessarily by people who are setting out to rule over whole populations, you can start to see how it gets that way. You start by thinking “I’ll post this essay, and damn anyone who can’t stand reading it,” and then realize that when you carry that attitude through a winning political campaign, you wind up applying that personal philosophy to your governing philosophy, and that’s what tyranny looks like. That’s when man becomes machine.
So think about the girl from Afghanistan reading her poem. I asked why she should bother, if I can’t know anything about growing up poor under a different sun, a different God, a different war. If her experience really is so singular and remote from me that I can do nothing with it beyond being told. The answer is that she should bother for the same reason we all bother: because we want each other to know. Every time we speak about our experiences, we act against the supposition that no one else can know them, and we do it in order to gain something that has, for a change, a grain of nobility. We do it not to win, but to win over. We want understanding every bit as much as we want allies (the latter without the former is a very weak tonic), but are struck by the disquieting feeling that every time we share something personal we lose ownership of it. We want to somehow both give it away and to keep it, to tie it to a string so that we can let it out when we’re feeling lonely, but yank it back when all the sharing feels like dilution, and we’re losing our claim to uniqueness. Without a way to reconcile those needs we’re very confused. Very vulnerable. And generosity of that sort – the giving away of something personal, the the gifting of some part of the soul – is always hardest to do because it means giving up a measure of something you have, to someone who can never care about it as much as you think it deserves.
One of the most worn-out cliches expended in praise of someone is the one that says “if you tell her she can’t do something, she sees it as a challenge and won’t quit until she proves you wrong.” Usually the premise is a lie, anyway – nobody ever said “you can’t do that,” in the first place, but it makes for a much prettier arrangement if we say it, and it is accepted. It sets up conflict, which we absolutely love, because we are at our most excited, most elevated, when we are triumphant. Especially over someone or something that can be shown to be mean, base, or cruel. Over someone who said “you can’t.” We celebrate victory uber alles, but triumph is only possible when there is an opponent, so we keep our lives as full of them as we can.
Well maybe it’s just me, but the fewer opponents I see when I look around, the more harmonious I feel. And maybe it’s just my experience, but the more often I’m told that I can’t know something, the less inclined I am to try, because all my efforts start to feel like submission to manipulation by some lilliputian force, and it becomes very appealing to just get away from that exclusion and stay closest to the things that are most like me. To spend less energy trying to assemble a gossamer affinity for a stated impossibility. In other words, this covetous ownership of experience has the only effect that it possibly could have: it pushes us apart.
The good news is that there isn’t very much that needs to be done to correct any of this. We’re already contradicting our covetousness by sharing our experiences every chance we get. It’s most of what social media is. It’s nearly everything produced in the arts and literature. Everyone’s experiences are everywhere we look, and everywhere we listen. The only thing that needs to be done differently is to cut the string that we keep using to yank them back from the brink of recognition in order to preserve our sense of ownership. The string that’s so clearly labeled “this is mine.” And for those of us being told that we can’t possibly know, it’s our job to reassuringly object. To insist that we can understand, and that we have something of equal value to share in return. As it is, we are doing ourselves the disservice of offering acquiescence in place of understanding, and losing the distinction between familiarity and enforcement. In a world where mutual respect across any discernible boundary is rarely expected, wilful servility is being proffered as an adequate substitute. If we could simply respect each other enough to believe that we can be responsible stewards of one another’s souls, we’d find out how natural an impulse sharing can be.
But still, and importantly, sharing does confront us with disharmony. It taunts us with imbalance. The possibility of giving something away only to watch it be mishandled can be very discouraging. That’s why we make of personal experience such an insular entity, and protect it so dearly. What we fail to realize is that sometimes we will lose a little something of ourselves, but that loss is a valid experience, too, and one that is every bit as sharable as the rest. So we have to just keep going. And if, at the end, we find that the world’s run off with all of our experiences and there’s nothing left of us to share, that’s how we know that we’ve done something right.
So please, tell your stories and read your poems out loud. Just resist the impulse to snap the cover shut when it looks like the audience is getting too close. Let the world take them, and run with them, and bring them back improved.