“Get over it! You’re too sensitive!”

September 29, 2009

annie Inspired again by you in Visual Rhetoric, I want to leverage the blog to explore what is perhaps a widely shared view: That individuals and groups who feel slighted or offended should just get over it, that they are being too sensitive, that we shouldn’t be so concerned with what we might call ‘political correctness.’ This grew out of our examination of the Popeye’s ad featuring the four college students.

Before I ask for your reactions, a few thoughts:

First, as I shared in class, a general principle holds that if a group sees that there is the possibility that they are being insulted by another, it will. This is how we are hard-wired. We are always on guard. We like to think the best of FILL IN THE BLANK HERE (Northerners, white people, the French, whomever), but we don’t.

I will default to my worst fear. For an African American viewing the Popeye’s Annie, he or she will fear you are perpetuating Aunt Jemima. Consider if Annie were white. The black stereotype and historical antecedent disappears. The default fear is gone. (We still might think about the portrayal of gender.)

So if we think there is any chance of intent to slight us, we will feel slighted. We live in a culture of indignation. Some are hacked off because we got it wrong. Some are hacked off because we got it right. This is the key: We should care about the first; we don’t necessarily have to lose sleep about the second.

Second, is it up to us to determine when another people group should or should not feel insulted, regardless of intent? When we don’t share that group’s history, culture or even language, how can we judge? We do not relinquish our own “right” to decide when we’ve been slighted, I wonder how it is that we are so quick to decide for others.

Third, our goals in the course are ethical decision-making, ethical image-making, ethical communication. And ethics requires a process. We need diverse people in the room. We also need a process for systematic dialogue and conversation, so we can be deliberate, thoughtful and persuasive. So we can say what we mean, not something else. To discuss how a group or groups might be unintentionally offended, alienated or even victimized by our messages costs very little before the message goes out. As we’ve seen in our in-class examples, it can become quite costly after.

Perhaps a good guide for us is the Keith Woods quotation on the board Friday: ‘Appreciate my uniqueness, but treat me the same.’ This gets to the universal sameness of difference and diversity. Don’t we all share this sentiment?

So how do we better appreciate difference? We all are guilty to some degree of staying in our comfort zone, of failing to notice much less engage with the ‘Other,’ with those outside our group, whoever that might mean. I have a trio of exercises that will help us better appreciate difference and what it means to be on the outside looking in, exercises that get increasingly difficult. Don’t worry; all of them should be fun, if you buy into the point or ‘takeaway’ here.

So, to get us started, the first exercise:

Write a response to this post that tells the rest of us of a time when you were the ‘Other,’ a time when you didn’t fit in, when you were excluded. Say something about what that felt like, and about what you wish the dominant or ‘in’ group knew or considered or valued. This exercise is required.

Deadline: Friday afternoon, or when Mountain Day begins.

Some reflections on writing

September 3, 2009

I’ve pushed through nine of the class writing samples so far. Today proved a good day, in part because of low humidity, temps in the 70s and a big shade tree just outside my office here at Berry. I sat with five of you on an oak bench under the big tree, and I brought a Romeo y Julieta robusto and a glass of sweet tea.

So I am prepared to pass along some carefully considered advice. These reflections don’t indicate frustration or disappointment at all. I’m very pleased with your work. But this is my job, to help you improve. To push you. To demand better. You will be different writers in December, and no one will celebrate your development more than me.

So here goes.

First, I am announcing a general ban on dashes. I mention in the textbook that they typically indicate laziness, and the evidence of this past week proves me right. Dashes in combination with parentheses? Not on my watch! This ban will force us to more carefully consider our punctuation and, therefore, pacing in our writing.

Second, a temporary ban on the word “was” and “were.” Nearly everyone is falling into the passive voice trap described in Chapter 1. Banning “was” and “were” will force us all to use strong action verbs and to write in an active voice. Just try it for a few weeks and judge then whether this “was” a good idea or not.

The most urgent advice I have is for us to show rather than tell. Rather than vague, general, vapid statements about “big influences” or “being changed forever” or “remembering vividly,” take us to a particular event, a singular moment, and describe the heck out of it. Take us there. Help us see what you saw, feel what you felt, hurt like you hurt. This takes rich, multi-sensory detail. One vignette or anecdote or richly recounted moment is worth a thousand general statements. Some wrote of terrible loss. What did the person delivering the terrible news look like? What did he or she wear? What were you doing when you heard the doorbell or picked up the phone? What happened next? What did you do next? Who did you share the news with first? Why?

Most of you need a hook in your beginning to invest your reader emotionally in the story you are about to tell. We (the readers) do not want to feel like we sat down on a bus stop bench next to Forrest Gump. We have things to do, so you will have to reel us in. This takes time. Remember that we don’t care about your childhood, at least not yet. Your job is to stir that care and persuade us into sharing your perspective.

Think about your ending when writing (or revising) your beginning. You are looking for a narrative arc or circularity in your story. This requires knowing your theme and great discipline in sticking to that theme. This also means ditching the straight chronology, which is the easiest way to organize your writing but is rarely very satisfying. Organizing thematically takes work.

Most also struggle with comma usage, which is no surprise. It is why I require everyone to have a writer’s handbook nearby at all times. Independent clauses require commas to separate them, so look in particular for these little devils. Almost all of us need to review the comma rules.

If your piece lags or stalls a bit, consider some dialogue, which immediately injects energy and personality into the narrative. Even internal dialogue can do this.

Well, that is plenty for now, and I’m about out of tea. But please take these suggestions to heart. This is what tough love feels like.

To writing well.