Monday, April 29, 2013

Unsightly

After a crazy-busy, totally productive weekend, I'm gearing up for yet another crazy-busy week.  It's that time of the year: classes are winding down, grading is pouring in... in short, spring is here.

I've been reading Susan M. Schweik's The Ugly Laws.  Published in 2009, Schweik's book examines a pivotal moment in disability law in America: the creation of "unsightly beggar" ordinances (more colloquially known as "ugly laws") in various US cities in the late 19th century.

San Francisco passed the earliest known ordinance in 1867.  Chicago's traces back to 1881, New Orleans enacted a similar kind of legislation in 1879.  New York attempted one, with little success.  As Schweik points out, the ordinances were more successful in the Midwest, in towns connected by the newly-emerging railway lines.

They were also imposed more successfully in cities marked by increasing racial and ethnic diversity.

The 1881 Chicago City Code reads as follows:
"Any person who is diseased, maimed, mutilated, or in any way deformed, so as to be an unsightly or disgusting object, or an improper person to be allowed in or on the streets, highways, thoroughfares, or public places in this city, shall not therein or thereon expose himself to public view, under the penalty of a fine of $1 for each offense."
Schweik offers the following photograph of one person arrested under the unsightly beggar ordinance in Cleveland in 1916.

The "Cleveland Cripple Survey." (Welfare Federation of Cleveland, Education and Occupations of Cripples Juvenile and Adult: A Survey of All the Cripples of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1916.  New York: Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men, 1918)
As you can see, "unsightly" was definitely a matter of opinion.  This man is clean, he's publicly presentable, he's smiling, he's employed.

He's wearing a tie, for heaven's sake.

Schweik uses this photograph as an entry-point into the complex motivations behind the "ugly laws" and their enforcement in cities and town across America at the end of the nineteenth century.  On the one hand, a world-wide economic recession (or depression, depending on how you define it) spanned the years 1873-1879.  Another economic "panic," known as The Panic of 1893, occurred in--you guessed it--1893, and sparked a recession lasting for 4 more years.

(Has the US economy ever NOT been on the verge of collapse?  Just wondering...)

At the same time, the 1870s were the decades marked by the aftermath of the Civil War.  Wounded veterans and amputees were not uncommon, and in many cases, these soldiers displayed their scars and injuries with pride.  And they were viewed with patriotic admiration by many of those around them.

As Schweik points out, it is difficult to ascertain how stringently the unsightly beggar ordinances were enforced (although it is clear that they were in fact enforced).  Although they existed on the books, police officers reportedly faced "ugly crowds" when they tried to implement the ordinances--people who objected to the cruelty and unfairness of the acts.

The final decades of the 19th century were also marked by a second Industrial Revolution.  More and more people worked in factories and workplace safety was non-existent.  It was also what is known as "the Gilded Age"--marked by the vast wealth and conspicuous consumption of a handful of entrepreneurs.

If you were a Vanderbilt or a Carnegie, you might not want to see the unsightly side of your business when you were strolling down the street: unemployed, maimed and injured workers.

More importantly, if you yourself were an injured Vanderbilt or Carnegie, you would not necessarily be deemed "unsightly"--as Schweik points out "Unsightliness was a status offense, illegal only for people without means."

The "lumping together of crime, poverty, and disability" marked by the "ugly laws" is the focus of Schweik's investigation.  How and why did the United States respond to socioeconomic and political crisis with an aesthetics of the body?

As Schweik points out, the ordinances fit squarely within an American rhetoric of individualism: remove each and every unsightly beggar and you will eliminate all vestiges of social turmoil.  Charitable organizations thus focused (at least ideologically), not on donations, but on spiritual uplift.

The source of the "problem," as the "ugly laws" defined it, could not be "fixed" by money or economic stability, since it was strategically relocated to the mind and attitude of the disabled individual him- or herself.  The "problem" was allegedly testified to by his or her "unsightly" body and its presence in public.

Schweik also explores the rhetoric of "good intentions" that surrounds the figure of the "unsightly beggar."  While other forms of racism and stereotyping might only indirectly invoke the idea of "helping" or "doing what was best" for the oppressed others that were being targeted, the idea of "benevolence" largely shapes the public perception of disability--both then and now.

It is, in many ways, a rhetoric of pity devoid of empathy.  "Their" experience is not "ours" (although, at any moment, it might be), so we assume we know what's "best."  Why would someone who "looks bad" want to be out in public anyway?  Won't they just wish they looked like everyone else (whatever that means)?  "We're" "only" thinking of what's "best" for "them."

Ultimately, Schweik's fascinating historical analysis suggests that the many categories inflecting disability studies in general and the phenomenon of the "ugly laws" in particular, are rife with ambiguities, assumptions and unspoken intentions.

These categories and their ambivalence shape both how we view ourselves and how we envision the spaces we occupy, both public and private.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Liar, Liar

I spent the afternoon reading a really interesting book by Pamela Meyer, entitled Liespotting (2010).  Liespotting is the practice of--you guessed it--learning to spot the lies that other people tell us before they do us harm.

I was drawn to Meyer's book after seeing her TED Talk.  Her research draws on techniques used by law enforcement and corporate agencies to sort the lies from the truth in our seemingly lie-infested world.

The point, Meyer argues, is not to be able to point out the liars among us and call them out on their behavior, but to navigate our own lives in such a way as to minimize the presence and the (potentially disastrous) effects of lies and the people who tell them.

She points out general tendencies that can help to alert us to the fact that someone may be lying: facial cues and verbal clues that tend to characterize people who are engaging in deceptive behavior.  The ways in which people move, look and speak change when they are lying, and these patterns transcend specific cultural differences.

For example, people who are lying won't use contractions: "I DID NOT have sexual relations with that woman."  They're making a point of emphasizing their (less than truthful) point.  Under normal circumstances, you wouldn't need to do this--you'd just say, "I DIDN'T sleep with her," because you didn't, you know you didn't, and that's that.

Liars deploy language in order to create distance--for instance, through the use of euphemisms: "sexual relations" instead of "sex"--but also through more overt cues.  "That woman" instead of "Monica."  "Miss Lewinsky," instead of "Monica" or "Monica Lewinsky."

When people who are engaging in deceptive behavior are asked a question, they will repeat the entire question.  So if you say, "What time did you get home?"  They'll say, "What time did I get home?" instead of simply repeating a portion of the question ("What time?"), the way you normally would if you were simply asking for clarification or creating verbal emphasis.

They're stalling for time and they're setting up the conversation strategically.Their verbatim reiteration of your question signals the possibility that they're positioning themselves to mislead you.

I encountered this situation recently: I sent an email asking a question that really required nothing more than a "yes" or "no" answer.  It could have been answered quickly and simply over email, but the respondent said, "Can I call you?"

I told him "yes," but in fact, in his email, he'd already told me something more important than "yes" or "no."  He'd made it clear that, whatever his answer was, he didn't want to put it in writing.

Now, plenty of people will tell you there's nothing wrong with that kind of hesitancy, since "things can be misinterpreted," but I will tell you what my dad used to say to such claims: "Then don't write things you don't mean or that aren't true, to the best of your knowledge. If it's the truth, you won't mind being held to it."

When I subsequently spoke with the person on the phone, he began by referencing my initial question.  In fact, he started to answer it, but then said, "Wait, I want to make sure I get your question exactly right.  You asked..." and he proceeded to read my question to me over the phone so that he could answer precisely that question.

This is a red flag for deceptive behavior, and as I later learned, this person was telling me things that may (or may not) have been true, and casting them in a way that would serve his own interests, not mine.

Similarly, melodramatic overemphasis on one's own truthfulness is a hallmark of its exact opposite.  Ironically, it's usually a pretty blatant indication that the person is lying.  The bedraggled Scarlett O'Hara declaring, "As God is my witness..." while clutching a clod of dirt in her upraised fist, back-lit by a blazing Georgia sunset, is the stuff of fiction.

And so too are the real-life words of people who indulge in such gestures.

If you're telling the truth, you just are. Yes, you too will get angry when you aren't believed, but as Meyer points out, that anger will be consistent and constant. It will not be marked by sudden, dramatic flareups that die down as soon as you get the impression that you're being believed (and thus being let off the hook).

Because ultimately, that's always the liar's objective: not to communicate the truth, but to persuade you that they're telling the truth so that you'll either go away and leave them alone or let them continue what they're doing (screwing the bejeezus out of you, perhaps). Most liars aren't cold-blooded sociopaths: they're just regular people who make mistakes and get themselves into (stupid, senseless) dilemmas that they then have to get themselves out of.

As Meyer points out, even Koko, the gorilla who famously learned language and won the hearts of millions by nurturing a pet kitten, was caught in the occasional lie.

When confronted with a bathroom sink that had been ripped from the wall, Koko claimed, "The kitten did it."

We lie to make ourselves look good (or, at the very least, better), we lie to protect ourselves, and we lie to protect others.  "Wow!  Those jeans really do make your butt look big--how much did you pay for them?  Holy cow.  Well, you must feel like a real idiot right about now."  No one would go around saying things like this, because it would be a surefire way to ensure that you never, ever have a single friend.

Similarly, when a three-year-old brings you a crayon-scribbled, glitter-covered, glue-encrusted creation, you don't say, "What in the HELL is that?"  You say, "I LOVE it!!!! It's beautiful!!!  Thank you!"  Because the truth isn't always necessarily all that important: context is crucial.

And this is a key component of Meyer's argument as well.  We need to pay attention to context and to how people act under authentic, non-stressful, truth-filled circumstances and situations.  Put anyone in a high-pressure situation and suggest that they aren't telling the truth and their tone and body language will change.  Their sentences may become more formal and defensive.  They may fidget and look like they wish they were anywhere but where they are right now because, honestly, that is exactly what they wish--and this will be true whether they're lying or not.

If we pay attention to how people behave when we know they're telling the truth, Meyer argues, we can establish a "baseline" for a specific individual and we can be more attuned to the fact that something is "off" when we're being lied to.

We may want to believe the other people in our lives--friends, spouses, co-workers-- in situations in which it may be obvious to a complete stranger that we shouldn't, and the very fact that we want to believe them will make it difficult for us to assess their behavior accurately.

As Sheryl Crow once sang, "Lie to me.  I promise, I'll believe."

And this brings me to Meyer's most important--and to my mind, my useful--point.  Liars don't lie all on their own.  You have to collaborate in the lie, and you are more likely to do so if you are unaware of what your own desires are.

For my own part, I spent a two-year chunk of my life entangled in a network of relationships marked by lies, and when I was finally able to extract myself from that situation, I decided to think about how and why I got entangled in them in the first place.

I was a collaborator in my own deception, and I've been able to not only admit that to myself, but also figure out why it happened in the way that it did (and to feel immense relief that I extricated myself from it, in the end).

My hope is that this knowledge will help me the next time I encounter a less-than-honest individual--because let's face it, sooner or later, it will happen.  With any luck, by taking the time to take stock of my own desires and vulnerabilities and look at the way in which they might well be shaping my perceptions, I can avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Look and Think

I had a chance to attend a really fascinating talk yesterday afternoon about the role of race in the perception and construction of childhood.

In her June 26, 2012 article in The Huffington Post entitled, "The Death of Black Boyhood," Cassandra Jackson explores the impact of the police practice of "stop and frisk" on young black and Latino boys.  Jackson's essay begins by reflecting on Julie Dressner and Edwin Martinez's June 12, 2012 Op-Ed Doc, "The Scars of Stop and Frisk."

Young black and Latino boys are, in many cases, being routinely stopped and frisked.  Tyquan Brehon, the subject of Dressner & Martinez's video, estimates that he was unjustifiably stopped and frisked by police more than 60 times before his 18th birthday.

Jackson's essay, like her talk yesterday, looks to widen the scope of the debate, to look at the way in which childhood and adolescence are shaped by phenomena such as "stop and frisk," the violent imagery associated with hip-hop, and the legacy of discrimination.

Can hip-hop imagery that invokes the violence of slavery, Jim Crow lynchings, or contemporary gang warfare serve as a form of social protest?  Does it risk becoming part of the bloody and voyeuristic spectacle that fuels contemporary attitudes towards black and Latino boys and men?

As Jackson points out, Americans live and endorse the "dehumanizing" "myth of the black male predator" on a daily basis.  It is an assumption that underlies our perception of the world around us in ways that we are all-too-unaware of.  Jackson notes,
"the very characteristics that we so often find tolerable and even desirable in white male adolescents -- exuberance, willfulness, and impulsivity -- could get a black boy killed. There is no such thing as black boyhood in American culture, and black boys' imaginary manhood is being used as an excuse to bully and brutalize them."
What struck me as I listened to yesterday's lecture is, how easy it is to succumb to the lure of simplistic imagery and linear narratives.  The myth of the black male predator and the stories and images it evokes to justify its promulgation are precisely that: voyeuristic images accompanied by repetitive, one-dimensional narratives.

And over time, they have an effect.  We give ourselves the luxury of thinking that we've "moved beyond" the issues and injustices of slavery and racial discrimination, and yet we have not.

We need to look differently, perhaps, when we look at others and at ourselves.  As I mentioned in a previous post, I recently read Brent Staples' autobiography, Parallel Time.  Staples begins his account of his own boyhood, adolescence and manhood with a description of himself looking at his brother's autopsy photos and reading the court transcripts of the trial of his brother's murderer.

His brother was unable to escape the legacy of poverty, violence, alcoholism and drug use that characterized the environment in which Staples and his brothers and sisters grew up.  He became a drug-user and a drug-dealer, and he was gunned down one night in front of a nightclub.

Staples looks at the photos with a potent mixture of grief and identification.  Although he never says as much, the reader can't help but realize that Staples is seeing himself in his brother.  He admits that he fled his past: he did not attend his brother's funeral.  This return to the legal documentation of his brother's death and his decision to position it at the outset of his own autobiography would seem to mark his recognition of the fact that he cannot understand himself without looking at what happened to his brother.

What he sees when he does so is a complex process of refraction and reflection upon his own experiences as a black man in America.

I wonder whether this could--and should--be a starting point for all of us: to question the stories we are told and the narratives we are presented with before digesting them.  We need to look differently when we look, both at ourselves and at others, and to establish intellectual and emotional roadblocks that force us to question our perceptions before we accept the biased images and narratives that so constantly and so consistently work to feed and endorse them.

Don't "stop and frisk."  Look and think.  And then look again.  And think some more.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Out of Hibernation

It's funny how, the minute the weather gets warmer, all things are easier.

Yesterday, I finally caught up with a friend I haven't talked to in ages and ages--as in, last summer.  (Okay, maybe fall.)

I've known him for nearly two decades now, and he's always been a huge champion of my work.  So when we chat, it's a flurry of ideas and brainstorms and philosophy.

We have plans to talk again soon, and perhaps involve food this time around.  Everyone should have a friend who's an intellectual sounding-board.

Today, I'll be spending some time with another friend that I haven't seen in ages and ages--as in, last summer.  She's an emotional and intellectual sounding-board.  And brilliant.  And beautiful.

And, in a few weeks, I'll be spending quality-time with my best friend and her little guys.  Mere words can't describe what she means to me, so I won't even try.

Whenever I feel down about the fact that I don't get to spend tons and tons of time with my friends--the way friends in high school or college do--I remind myself that this is a good thing.  Because it means my friends have rich, full, busy lives.  They're engaged in social causes, intellectual pursuits, relationships, creative projects, travel.

We inspire each other.  What better way for friends to be with one another?  That kind of connection trumps physical presence, in many ways.

And yet, we have to see each other.  At some point, it needs to happen.  And we always make it happen.  And when we do, it's like we simply pick up emotionally from where we left off.  Time has passed, but the years change nothing in what we mean and do for one another.

I've been very lucky, needless to say.

I had another stroke of luck this spring.  I managed to reconnect with someone I met long ago, in the months before I graduated from college.  I went off to grad school and he went on with his life, and we didn't keep in touch.

And that was my fault.  He tried to stay in touch, and I dropped the ball.  It was the result of some serious immaturity on my part, and I always regretted it.  He's a kind and loyal person: people like that aren't easy to come by.  All of my life experiences in the intervening months and years had made me all-too-aware of that fact.

Last fall, I found a way to contact him.  I didn't know if he'd get my message or if he'd want to have anything to do with me, since he hadn't heard from me in about... twenty years. 

He did and he did.  So that felt like a stroke of luck for me, that I was able to own up to my own regrets about how I handled things between us, and that I was fortunate enough to be met with the same trademark kindness and consideration I had always been shown all those years ago.

Regret is a funny thing.  People often say that you should live in such a way that you don't have any--which isn't really possible.  So when you do, people often say that you shouldn't dwell on them, because it won't do any good.

And usually, that's true. 

But in this case, I had a chance to express my regret and apologize, so I took it.  I decided that, if I died the next day, I wouldn't want him to wonder what had happened or what I had thought of him, so I told him.  I decided that, even if he didn't receive it kindly after all these years, I wanted to say it because in retrospect, I knew that he had deserved better all those years ago.

Moments like that repair our souls, I think.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

"The Girl Who Got Away"

I've been looking forward to this weekend for the past week, and it hasn't disappointed.

I think the best thing about weekends like this is, they restore faith in your sense of peace and productivity.  You can get things done, and not be stressed out about it all.  Everything isn't a mad scramble.

It's funny how, when you aren't running around trying to get things done, you end up getting a lot more done.  I can't speak for others out there, but I don't work productively when I'm feeling pressured and frantic.  (I actually kind of resent it when people create that feeling in me.  It makes me want to grind to a complete halt and take a moment to just flip them all off.) 

I need to set a reasonable pace, get to cruising altitude and then I can work.  Reasonably and systematically.

And when that happens, it's a self-fulfilling cycle.  


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

"Parallel Time"

I've been reading Brent Staples' autobiography, Parallel Time: Growing Up in Black and White (1994).

I'm always a sucker for an amazing opening sentence, and Staples' text has one: "My brother's body lies dead and naked on a stainless steel slab."

Staples is a writer for The New York Times, and his articles often focus on race and American societyParallel Time describes Staples' childhood and teenage years in Chester, PA, a series of reflections sparked by the sight of the autopsy images of his brother Blake's body in the files of a Roanoke attorney. 

As Staples matter-of-factly relates, "Blake was a drug dealer; he was known for carrying guns and for using them.  His killer, Mark McGeorge, was a former customer and cocaine addict" (5).

Staples' reflections on time and memory are particularly compelling.  He notes that, "As a child I was never where I was" (9).  Staples claims, "Mine was a different childhood.  I paid endless dues for sorrows that were yet to come" (10).

This intermingling of past and future is an interesting commentary on--and undermining of--the ways in which, as Staples' autobiography unfolds, it becomes clear that the trajectory of his life is in many ways determined by race.  He isn't expected to advance and achieve--and yet he does.  In some cases, as he openly admits, he does so in spite of himself.

As Staples observes, "Time was sneaky and elastic, not at all what it was cracked up to be" (11).  And in a sense, the future that Staples carves out for himself transcends the constraints of the time and space in which he lives.

I think Parallel Time's strongest chapters are those that focus on Staples' childhood and teenage years; ideas and elements of later chapters, dealing with his graduate work at The University of Chicago have appeared elsewhere--most notably in his 1986 essay, "Black Men and Public Space."

Staples reflects on the way in which his identity is shaped by race--in particular, by others' perceptions of what it "means" to be black--and on the way in which his sense of self is also the product of his own upbringing and experiences, and his reactions to those experiences.

He also questions the extent to which family determines destiny.  The concluding sentence of Parallel Time muses on the family portrait taken shortly before his brother's death: "I stand apart from this portrait, studying my family from a distance.  This is the way it has always been" (274).

At a distance, however, Staples offers a particularly compelling image of his family and his relationship to them--one which leaves the reader to wonder whether such a perspective would be possible if he had found himself more enmeshed by these relationships.  He stands outside in order to better understand the interactions that both separate and connect.