Why Press the ‘Publish’ Button?

In thinking about ways that the internet is changing writing, Colin Walker asks: what exactly happens in a person’s mind when they push the ‘publish now’ button? Why make one’s words public?

Writing privately, as a way of life, might be a means of self-development. Maintaining a personal archive of thoughts for future reference is a way to grow and hone my understanding. But why am I posting this text publicly, for all the world to see?

(Hold on: this is about to get real meta. Only continue if you are ready to ingest yet another blog post in the overly saturated genre of writing about blog posts!)

The reason I made this text public, so far as I can reckon, has something to do with you, the reader. These words are here — and not in a private journal or encrypted file — because I want to share them with you. If this were text intended for my purposes alone, it wouldn’t be here. And there are untold rough drafts and iterations of these paragraphs that I am inclined to keep private.

I think we must acknowledge the performative, ‘recipient-oriented’ dynamic of any public action. As Maria Luisa commented earlier: a dancer who says, ‘I don’t care what the audience thinks of my performance’ seems to be making an incoherent statement. Why perform in front of an audience at all if audiences are nothing more than fake brain ornaments, propped up in rows of chairs like mannequins? If the thoughts of audiences are categorically void of all meaning, why bother climbing on to a stage at all?

To me, this is why the grand declaration of selfie culture — “This is my identity, and I don’t care what you think of me!” — boils down to a non sequitur. “I don’t care what you think of me” dissolves into a self-contradictory statement. As humans who have opinions, it seems nonsensical to act under the pretence that the opinions others do not matter.

I made this text public because I want your attention. Like a performer preparing for opening night, I have spent time in private orchestrating these words into a (hopefully) coherent structure. And, like a photographer who has toiled with light, I now present my creation to you. The culminating question of our inquiry is, therefore: now that I have your attention, what do I want you to think or do? This question might not only be applied to this blog post, but to every public presentation. Why post a picture of my dinner? Why share a status update that places me at a specific event or with particular people? What am I hoping that you will think or do as a result of me posting a picture of the skyline on my way to work?

How do we separate the performer from the performance? What is the dance without the dancer? What are words without the writer? How are thoughts distinct from the thinker? What is beauty without a beholder? We do not share our photos, dances, and blog posts as disembodied, discreet objects: we share them to share ourselves. We press ‘publish’ to inform the way others think, and I purpose this act is indistinguishable from seeking to inform the way others feel about us as individuals. It does not make sense to separate the act of publishing from the desire to engage other people. (There is a much longer discussion to be had here about individualism, the renaissance, and whether the reliefs Pharaohs and self-commissioned oil paintings of nobility count as ‘selfies,’ but I digress.)

A creator might envision limited directionality (I post, you ‘like’) or a multidirectional interaction (here’s my book to contribute to the discussion in a particular field, and thus an invitation for others to debate or refute my ideas), but in either case the project sets out to intersect the attention of others. ‘Publish now’ presumes that human brains could or should connect or influence one another in some way.

In follow up to my earlier Writing versus Posting? article, David Ashworth speculates that “posting is about me and the space I live in” and therefore amounts to a diary that one intends to be read by others. A monologue for an audience, as it were. (I like the theatrical description of a soliloquy here.) On the other hand, “writing [in contrast to ‘posting’] is about us and the space between us.” Writing sets the stage and invites dialogue, which is distinctive from broadcasting the personal details of one’s life for an audience that may or may not be listening. One activity tends toward fishing for validation, and the other tends toward courting variant perspectives. (Corporate social media has excelled in incentivizing the former largely at the expense of the latter.)

At the bottom line, my motivation for publishing this blog post and another person’s reason for sharing a selfie with their breakfast cereal is the same: we are both looking for engagement. It is the same reason dancers perform, and painters exhibit their work. The kernel of difference between our publications and presentations rests in the kind of interaction we hope to galvanize or inspire in others. The distinctive ways we frame these ‘terms of engagement’ in our public activities reflects something about how we define value versus minutiae.

So, what do you think? Does pressing ‘publish now’ boil down to a desire to engage with others?

What was your experience of reading ‘Brother’ by David Chariandy?

For a second year, London Public Library invites the community to a massive, virtual ‘city-wide bookclub’ by proposing a book to read and discuss together. This year the title is Brother by David Chariandy. As many of us have discovered, this little book punches far above its weight class in size. It is concise, paced, and courageous. Set in housing complex in Scarborough in the summer of 1991, Brother weaves together a story about identity, family, and masculinity. Questions about the experience of immigration, criminiality, racism, poverty, precarious employment, and housing fill in the margins. In a very short and accessible read, Chariandy weaves together a story that is worthy of everyone’s attention.

In this discussion, four community leaders join Curious Public at Central Library to share their experiences and reactions to reading Brother.

The Panel

Melanie-Anne Atkins is the Wellness Coordinator at the Wellness Education Centre at Western University.

Kristen Caschera (@librariankris) is a Librarian at London Public Library. She is a program coordinator for the One Book One London initiative.

Marcel Marcellin (@MarcellinMarcelis the Director of Organizational Strategy at the City of London. He previously served as a Sergeant for the London Police for over 20 years.

Anaise Muzima (@anashakyss) is a Master of Laws graduate from Western University and is currently a settlement worker at Collège Boréal.

 

 

 

The Politics of Inevitability and a Generation Without History

“By embracing the politics of inevitability, we raised a generation without history,” writes Timothy Snyder. The politics of inevitably is a confidence trap — a lulling sense of a security in fixed trajectory laid before us. It’s society on autopilot. To the extent that ‘progress’ becomes the assumed course, the necessity of teaching history diminishes, and in the decline of a historical consciousness comes the decline of progress itself.

In this complacency, history is forgotten. It is made to seem useless, irrelevant to ‘modern’ concerns. Indicators of Snyder’s “generation without history” are rampant. In a recent talk, The Swindle of the New, Terry Eagleton proposes: “The fact is surely that any society which only has its contemporary experience to live by is poor indeed. And that surely is becoming increasingly the case in our own time, where the past has been reduced to spectacle, packaged heritage, consumable commodity, or recyclable style.”

A critical mark of a “generation without history” is the prevalence and commercialization of authenticity. Adherents to the cult of authenticity, in Eagleton’s words, “hold the unconscious conviction that [they] are self-authoring, self-generated, sprung from [their] own head, and thus entirely entirely autonomous and self-determining.” Only in “generation without history” can one imagine themselves as capable of total self-definition, which is the cornerstone assumption of the authenticity value system and identity matrix. “The modern age is the only one I am aware of that regards authenticity as involving a clean break with the past.”

In what ways do online spaces co-opt personal expression?

In a sense, digital social platforms homogenize personal individuality as much as they amplify and incentivize it.

One of the most interesting contradictions of the ‘digital revolution’ is how big tech endlessly promise better tools to express our creativity, individuality, and unique voice in the world…

…as we are happily baited into using platforms and devices that funnel an increasing scope of our human experience into the homogenizing, universalizing portfolio of a ‘user.’

The Good, Great, Bad, and Terrifying: adapting to the world of social media

When we weigh all the pros and cons, does social media come out as a net good or as a liability for society?

…does it bring people together to mobilize for their rights? Or just give corporations and governments the ability to track our every move?

…does it introduce us to new ideas and different perspectives? Or does it surround us in “echo chambers” of our own voices and beliefs?

…does it spawn innovation, creativity, and collaboration? Or is it a psychological liability that leaves us addicted to our newsfeeds and notifications?

On Monday, I hosted a panel in the Curious Public at Central Library series to explore some of these questions. My guests were Tim Blackmore, Emma Blue (@EmmaJaeBlue), Carmi Levy (@carmilevy), and Rowa Mohamed (@RowaMohamed).

My Human Rights vs. Your Human Rights

Canada is full of legal examples where the rights to be free from discrimination based on creed, sexual orientation, or gender may be perceived to be at odds with one another in different circumstances. Whose rights ‘win’ when rights are in competition? In Canada’s increasingly diverse society, the question of competing human rights comes up often. Join us as we pick apart some legal cases to see how these conflicts are resolved in the court system.

  • Street preachers pronounce condemnation on passerby pedestrians — free speech versus freedom from harassment? One person’s right to express themselves versus another person’s right to not be verbally assaulted?
  • A Greek nursing home refuses admission to a non-Greek applicant who claims policy is discriminatory. Can you reject someone from an establishment on the basis of their ethnicity?
  • The child of same-sex parents is refused enrollment to a private Christian school. Religious freedom or discrimination? Which right supersedes the other?
  • Currently before the courts, Trinity Western University, a private school seeking accreditation for law degrees, simultaneously requires enrolling students to sign a statement of faith that says marriage must be between a man and a woman.

To help us navigate these cases, our good friend Susan Toth (@TothSusan) returns to the podcast. Susan is a partner at Polishuk Camman & Steele and serves on the board for the Urban League of London and the London Police Services Board. (Listen to her previous visit to the podcast, wherein she investigates the Oakes Test.)

[In this discussion, it struck me that ‘identity politics‘ could be seen as amplified and galvanized when human rights compete with one another. It raises an interesting question: do human rights inspire or incite a culture of identity politics? If you are curious to explore the topic of identity politics further, come to Discussing the Identity Politics Debate on Monday, December 4, 2017.]

A Critique of Multiculturalism – Heenal Rajani’s Poetic Harvest

If you listened to Monday’s Curious Public discussion, A Critique of Multiculturalism, in its entirety, you discovered a surprise at the end: a poetic harvest recited by Heenal Rajani. The 3-minute poem reconstructs the hightlights, architecture, and flow of the hour-long conversation. So, if you haven’t listened to the whole conversation yet, Heenal’s poem might just provide the intrigue and provocation to hear the entire dialogue that inspired it.

Be Your True Authentic Self (and other doctrines of capitalism)

Let’s think of capitalism as a religion. If capitalism is a religion — if it needs disciples to adhere to and pass on certain doctrinal truths to survive as an ideology — what are its foundational precepts? For the sake of the thought experiment, let’s hypothesize that clues are found in some of the dominate secular tropes of capitalist societies.

In this post, I contemplate the idea that the so-called, unofficial ‘State Religion of Capitalism’ has evolved four central tenets:

  1. Be your authentic self
  2. Do what you love
  3. You only live once
  4. Follow your dreams

It is important to acknowledge that most adherents of this creed are inadvertent disciples. Devotees to this religion are not ‘born again’ so much as they are ‘born into’ the cult. Their beliefs are as invisible and ‘natural’ as they air they breathe; the truth of their tenets is as self-evident as the wind.

Be your authentic self

First, Be your authentic self serves as the basis for the whole religion. Capitalism requires a population that conflates consumption with identity. Stuff must equate to status. Nothing is more precious to capital than a population in need of differentiating themselves as distinct individuals. Therefore, as in most religions, disciples of capitalism are required to believe that they possess some special inner spirit seeking expression in a physical world. Accordingly, activities and purchases become the holy indulgences that give manifestation of this inner self.

Above all, a devoted follower of this religion must seek to find their ‘true self.’ This pursuit is paramount — the holiest of pilgrimages. The ambition to ‘know thyself’ and ‘to thine own self be true’ must be elevated to the status of spiritual conviction. To second-guess the presence of one’s inner deity amounts to doctrinal heresy and threatens to pave the road to hell itself: a psychological crisis of identity.

(The apex of religious indoctrination is achieved when supposedly avowed skeptics of capitalism signal their counter individuality through consumption — consumption that is branded to advertise opposition to capitalism itself.)

In the religion of capitalism, authenticity is the golden rule. To find and express your true self is the highest call. (Is your ‘true self’ the ‘self’ who does the searching or the ‘self’ you find? Ignore this blasphemous the doubt! Just keep searching! You’ll find the ‘authentic you’ eventually.) Your self-actualization is your promised land. Your nirvana. Your heaven. But until you reach it, you should try buying something else to see if it helps you express or uncover some ephemeral kernel of your essence. Individuality is the kool-aid. In the final analysis, the quest to find and express your ‘true self’ is mostly corporately-sponsored nonsense.

Do what you love

This holy preoccupation with self — its passions, its identity, its expression — leads to the second tenet of the religion: Do what you love. Once you have internalized the myth of an invisible, indivisible, sacred self, you must do what this inner god commands. After all, to do anything otherwise would be inauthentic — and nothing could be more sinful than inauthenticity.

The oxygen of capitalism thus becomes a mass neurosis: the desirability of some occupations above others. This cultural dogma declares that you can’t possibly live a happy and fulfilled life as a janitor or barista. No, you must do something more: you must do something you love. You must do something that rings true to the spirit of your inner entity. Failure to do this is failure to live fully.

The treadmill of capitalism is fuelled by insoluble discontentment. Chronic dissatisfaction gives power to the myth of eventual self-fulfillment. In this religion, you are not only compelled to find your imaginary, make-believe inner self, but you must also find a career that is worthy of your divine royalty. This goal, of course, impossible for everyone to achieve: at least as long as someone still needs to clean the toilets and spread the manure. If ‘salvation’ means crossing the finish line having achieved the promised nirvana of self-actualizing career, then the religion is a sentence to futility and purposelessness for far more people than for whom it serves as the liberating promise of equality and opportunity.

You only live once

The third doctrine in the canon of capitalism: You only live once. This statement, of course, is descriptively true, but capitalism turns the assertion into a value-laden, normative teaching. There is no objective reason why paying someone to jump out of an airplane with a parachute is necessitated by the fact that you only have one life to live. But slapping the #YOLO hashtag on the activity now gives it transcendent value. This attribution of spiritual meaning is the power of religious practice, and #YOLO is spiritual practice par excellence.

To survive and thrive, capitalism must co-opt #YOLO. In truth, there are an infinite number of ‘once in a lifetime opportunities’ that arise every day — more potential opportunities than can be experienced in any lifetime — and there’s no reason why missing any of them somehow makes the rest of life any less worth living. In fact, one might see such ‘lost opportunities’ as salient reminders of one’s temporality and impermanence, pointing to the inherent limitations of existence itself. And this might lead one to contemplate the finitude of ‘experience.’ Capitalism can have none of this. Capitalism exists to commodify, package, and sell experience to us. Ergo, experience must be detrivialized in the name of self-identity. #YOLO thus becomes a currency to increase the net worth of the authentic self.

Follow your dreams

The final tenet of this religion is to Follow your dreams at all costs. At first, this doctrine seems benign — if for no other reason than for its sheer ambiguity — but it has startling implications.

If you were an alien explorer, investigating planet Earth for the first time, you might justifiably conclude that the Walt Disney enterprise is some cult, too. At the heart of all things Disney, you will find admonishment to believe in your dreams, no matter what. “If you keep on believing,” sang Cinderella in 1950, “The dream that you wish will come true.”

A few years ago, my family made the pilgrimage to the Disney World shrine in Florida. To be a guest of the Disney corporation is to be reminded at every turn that you are ‘a very special person’ and that you should ‘never give up on just being yourself.’ From the rides to the stage attractions, the clear mission of a Disney theme park to wrap you in a blanket of positivity before herding you through the turnstiles of endless souvenir shops. The idyllic and surreal design of everything manifests the Disney doctrine through sheer repetition: if you keep believing in your dreams, one day they will come true.

But is this true? What evidence supports this claim? What do we accept as evidence? More importantly, should we repeat this mantra to children as if it is gospel truth?

I might pray to God for my dreams come true. The fact that my dreams have not yet come true does not prove that God doesn’t exist. It just means I’m still waiting on God to answer my prayers. The Disney creed is equally unfalsifiable: there is nothing empirical that can disprove Cinderella’s dogmatic belief in the inevitability of her dreams, either. The lack of fruition means nothing.

Capitalism requires me to believe the same thing. My dreams are the promise that this religion sells back to me. If my dreams have not yet come true, it is only because capitalism hasn’t delivered yet. As long as I am willing to believe that my dreams will come true — despite any and all indicators that nothing is changing — I will continue to reverently chase my own tail through the holy of holies. For as long as the religious order requires that a majority of us minions to do our menial tasks obediently, the system will continue to promise us that our work will set us free.

Doubting the religion

For most of us, denouncing these doctrines of capitalism amount to something like a crisis of faith. We are equipped with an array of neurological defense mechanisms, ready to thwart any attack on the institution of our convictions. Besides, most of us are already now so invested in the religion — our meanings, our careers, our identities — that to question the cult now seems dangerously destabilizing. As with most religious brainwashing, the cost of leaving the faith seems higher than the cognitive dissonance that comes with saving face.

I should confess that I remain a believer in many aspects of capitalism. In fact, I still cherish the freedom, innovation, and creativity that is inspired by the religion. But I do not buy the underlying mythology that corporate priests preach about the nature of personal identity and value. Beyond religion, we find a world is that is not so binary, either/or. Capitalism, like most every other religion, wants you to believe that it is the only means of salvation. But it has plenty of dark corners, too.

Perhaps the next time your television, magazine, or social media network tries to leverage and exploit your authentic self, your passion to do what you love, your devout commitment to carpe diem everything with a hashtag, or the unique sanctity of your dreams, perhaps you will think to yourself… “When did I explicitly sign up for this religion? When did I declare my adherence to this doctrine? Who is selling me the supposed ‘self-evident’ truths of this belief system?”

Who is served by the reconciliation agenda?

On Friday, March 24, 2017, I heard a lecture by Glen Coulthard at the Organizing Equality conference.

Coulthard’s thesis is that the contemporary colonizing nation-state (in this case, Canada) lives in a contradiction. On one hand, the state is sovereign over its the people, resources, and land. On the other hand, the state simultaneously recognizes the presence and rights of indigenous peoples, its historical role in colonization, and the treaties it has signed along the way. Now the nation-state, the Crown, has a dilemma: how does it continue to extract the resources it wants or requires to compete in the global arena of nation-states? At the end of the day, posits Coulthard, the state can march in and overtly take the resources it wants by force, or it can manufacture a narrative of reconciliation that functions as a political distraction to its inherent economic/resource agenda.

From another talk (November 16, 2011) by Glen Coulthard on YouTube:

Since at least the early 1990s a global industry has emerged promoting the issuing of state-orchestrated apologies, advocating ‘forgiveness’ and ‘reconciliation’ as an important precondition for resolving the devastating social impacts caused by intrastate violence, state perpetuated mass atrocity, and historical injustice.

Coulthard and others argue that the proliferation of so-called ‘Reconciliation Inc’ has a systemically negative impact on indigenous rights. Referring to the work of Leanne Simpson, Coulthard writes:

In the end, the optics created by these grand gestures of recognition and reconciliation suggests to the dominant society that we no longer have a legitimate ground to stand on in expressing our grievances. Instead, Indigenous people appear unappreciative, angry, and resentful… (Coulthard 2014:153-4)

Coulthard et al argue that the politics of indigenous recognition, as trumpeted by liberal democracies the world over, ultimately serve the political interests of states, not indigenous people.

All this raises some provocative questions we all need to wrestle with, like whose agenda is served by reconciliation? Perhaps the only way to begin answering the question is to investigate who is driving the reconciliation agenda. Power is power — and the principal interest of power is maintaining its power — even when it shows up tenderly announcing its heartfelt concern for your identity and apologies for its legacy and history. What better way to keep power centralized than to remind everyone dispensing reconciliation is the prerogative of whoever owns the power in the first place?

Is there any equality without economic equality?

Take a few minutes and watch/listen to this clip of Francis Fukuyama discussing the relationship between economics and identity politics. What follows is a brief synthesis and reflection.

Fukuyama’s premise is that political left in the United States has shifted from the traditional liberal concern for economic equality and is now scattered a million directions à la identity politics.

…gay marriage, feminism, whether we elect a woman to the White House, ethnic politics, multiculturalism — all of these things are much more preoccupying, but they are also divisive because the left doesn’t really agree on a common agenda. And economic inequality is just one cause in addition to all of these other identity politics issues, and I think that’s been a distraction.

For Fukuyama, the vacuum of a shared vision for the left explains in part why Occupy — and movements like it — have not been able to acquire adequate social traction. (There are echoes here of Kenan Malik’s critique of identity politics that I shared recently.) The central observation here is about the role of the economy in political movements. At the current trajectory, the left’s capacity to mobilize effectively is stuck in a stalemate with itself until an economic shock or crisis pulls all the disparate identity actors around a common, shared goal.

Now it may be that over time inequality will get so bad people will refocus on this, but I think for the time being the energies of the left have been dissipated on a lot of other kinds of issues.

Taking it one step farther, Fukuyama seems to entertain the possibility that identity politics is even a predictable outcome of economic success in a democracy. When the masses are starving for the scraps of the elites, we all know why the revolution needs to happen. When it comes to practicing middle-class politics from our sofas and smartphones, the temptation is ripe for turning political action into an expression of individual identity. Hence the theory: only increasing hyper inequality is an adequate force for reuniting and galvanizing liberal political action.

If you can take prosperity and democracy for granted then the terms of the debate shift to a different set of issues having to do with identity. And in a certain sense identity is the Achilles heel of modern democracies…

This line of thinking yields several interesting questions to me: to what extent should we think of equality (generally) and economic equality (specifically) as synonymous or distinct concepts? To what degree was economic inequality the animating force behind our constitutions and charters? Does our capacity as a society to care about equality diminish the wealthier our society becomes?

Identity Politics v Universalism?

On Sunday I read a fascinating blog post by Kenan Malik about identity politics. As usual, Malik raises some fascinating perspectives. The piece is worth reading in its entirety. What follows comprises of my notes, personal interpretation, and a question.

First, Malik traces the history of identity politics to a time before it was even called ‘identity politics.’ He draws attention to critics of the Enlightenment, who decried the universalizing ideals of the movement. These original champions of identity-oriented politics were those who felt that the calls for equality would strip away the safe, ethnocentric nationalism of the status quo. In other words, the original ‘identity politics’ was grounded in attitudes and agendas we would define as ‘racist’ or ‘supremacist’ today.

By and large, the 18-19th-century defenders of equality took a wholly different approach: they advocated for universal rights. This notion of universality — especially when practiced politically — stood in direct contrast to the reactionary ethnic/identity-based politics standing in defense of the status quo.

In Malik’s view, the original iteration of ‘identity politics’ dissipated after the Second World War. The Holocaust effectively made the notion orienting one’s political agenda around an ethnic identity unpalatable. But in the wake of the war — and amid the hyper identity-conscious restructuring of borders — the role of identity in politics shifted dramatically. The transformation was slow but significant.

The most crucial change, argues Malik, is our definition and practice of solidarity. Identity politics “stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture,” whereas solidarity “draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal.” Ironically, identity-based politics makes forming mass political movements increasingly difficult. The number of large-scale solidarity movements that have drawn people together across distinctive backgrounds, ethnicities, and cultures has declined significantly. It is arguably easier to galvanize people into direct-action solidarity over shared values — such as a common conception of justice — than it is to make the distinct identity and experience of an oppressed group the focal reason for engagement.

In other words, we’re collectively spending more time asking ourselves, “Who are we?” and less time thinking about, “What kind of society do we want to build?” But we can’t equate identity-building with nation-building. To change the structural and institutional landscape of a state — that is, to address power — requires a coordination of ideological values (the Zeitgeist, so to speak) that must by definition transcend any particular camp of identity.

But perhaps the most chilling point of Malik’s account is the idea that the ‘mainstreaming’ of identity politics has paved the way for the way for white identity politics:

as the new anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements and the rise of the identitarian right reveal, the reactionary forms of identity politics has returned with a vengeance. If other groups can protect their particular history and heritage and cultural identity as essential to their social being, runs the argument, why can’t whites? Many liberals now defend ‘racial self-identification’ as simply another form of identity politics. One of the consequences of the mainstreaming of identity politics is that racism has become rebranded as white identity politics.

The question for all of us who value the hope and dream of living in truly equitable societies boils down to this: are universalism and identity politics fundamentally at odds with one another? For Malik,

Contemporary identity politics is less about confronting injustice than about rebranding it…only by challenging identity politics can we truly challenge inequality and injustice.

What do you think?