A Rotten Apple in a Poisoned Orchard
A critique on American liberalism and individualism, a call to lead with listening
In memory of George Floyd and the recent Derek Chauvin trial, I thought I’d take a moment to share some thoughts.
Since last year when the murder of George Floyd reverberated throughout the news, I felt outraged and heartbroken. I don’t think I am alone in this feeling, but the shopping-mall textures of the digital environment can sometimes make one feel as if they’re lost in a sea of crowds.
Historically, as you may know, Western civilization has mapped out ideologies that have rendered Black bodies as unintelligible as human life. Though these ideologies have been challenged, they have infiltrated our ideas, histories, and institutions. Determining the frame in which we make sense of human life, these ideologically laden ideas and histories govern the operations that take place in our institutions. In other words, the result is that our institutions render Black lives as non-human. They lack the capacity to apprehend Black bodies as humans who are alive and worth grieving. To understand how this happens, I want to take you on a short detour into theory. In her book Frames of War, Judith Butler offers the concept of grievability, which is the capacity to apprehend that a particular life matters.
“One way of posing the question of who “we” are in these times of war is by asking whose lives are considered valuable, whose lives are mourned, and whose lives are considered ungrievable. We might think of war as dividing populations into those who are grievable and those who are not. An ungrievable life is one that cannot be mourned because it has never lived, that is, it has never counted as a life at all. We can see the division of the globe into grievable and ungrievable lives from the perspective of those who wage war in order to defend the lives of certain communities, and to defend them against the lives of others—even if it means taking those latter lives.” - Judith Butler
She connects grievability to our degrees of precariousness and how we frame the identity of a “We.” While all life is precarious, this relationship between precariousness and grievability allows us to consider the ways in which we organize lives into groups of belonging and how that determines the distribution of investment in community programs, schools, neighborhoods, or social nets. History and ethnic studies have shown us that the Western world has organized and divided us based on the color of our skin.
Thinking strategically about these divisions, one might think the answer is to remove these differences and divisions. This approach can otherwise be known as the colorblind approach, the “We Are All Human” approach. A more realistic approach might say we need to acknowledge differences and learn how people have been historically treated differently because of the identities we take on or ascribe to others. This way of thinking comes from the process of socialization, which is the process of learning how to navigate the world and how to act according to a particular society. In other words, we are always already informed by something of the past. The moment we are born, we learn how to navigate through the existing spaces and we rely on the ideas that were passed on to us.
The consequences of socialization in American liberalism and individualism
Acknowledging these differences, we need to find a way to communicate across differences. This requires us to learn about others and the perspectives in which they enter conversations.
Returning to the Derek Chauvin trial, I remember feeling an instant urge to voice my opinion once the verdict was released. I took to Twitter, shot out a few tweets, and texted friends, family, fellow activists, and coworkers. I felt angry with how our technologies of communication (defined as the systematic craft, skills, methods, and techniques of communication like speech, writing, historiography, coding, surveilling, etc.) have been weaponized against Black bodies.
Then last night as I started scrolling through my Twitter feed, I discovered many different perspectives to the guilty verdict of Derek Chauvin. In one camp, people felt that justice was served and that there should be celebration, joy, and relief. As I watched the jury disclose their verdict, I became a part of an affective intensity in the online Twitter community and felt the same way. But quickly, more critical perspectives began to emerge. I then wondered, how did I arrive at a different conclusion? As someone who identifies as very politically progressive and even liberal at times, I did some reflection and realized that it is connected to some of the ways I have been taught to think in American society. But before I get into that, I will contextually lay out some of these different perspectives through a shortlist of Tweets:
To sum up some of these perspectives, people tweeted:
That Chauvin is a puppet of a larger broken system of puppeteering (or Chauvin as a rotten apple in a poisoned orchard)
Critiques against the possibility that convicting one bad cop could lead to false narratives like “restoring faith and trust in that the police and justice system is working”
About what justice means (e.g., calls to wait for the sentencing before calling it “justice,” reminders that accountability is not justice)
The ambivalence between making space for people who feel relief in this decision and the fear of losing momentum in the Black Lives Matter movement
In reading these responses, I am reminded that being an ally is not about empathizing with the experience of being Black in America. Showing solidarity and standing up for Black lives is not synonymous with being Black in America. If you are not Black, you can never fully understand what that experience is like because you are not Black. So, this morning, I took a step back to reflect on what this means for someone who is not Black. And unfortunately, I don’t have a coherent answer. But I know that it starts with listening.
In America, we have been indoctrinated into the ideologies of liberalism and individualism. Ideas of self-reliance, independence, and freedom of action over collective control have circulated as common sense. While these concepts can lend to a larger discussion, I bring them into this conversation because we have been conditioned to become producers, workers, laborers. These ideas assume that success is dependent on hard-working, genius entrepreneurs. While these assumptions are not entirely good or bad, our prioritization of the individual over the collective has consequences.
Our over-emphasis on liberalism and individualism also seep into the way we communicate. We often hear the problematic trope, “a good communicator is an eloquent orator.” This makes communication an individual experience. But this trope is misleading because of the obvious fact that communication is a social experience. It depends on relationships.
As another perhaps more dire instance in which communication is seen as an individual experience, let’s look at the way the logic of individualism penetrates into our digital technologies of communication. On many social media platforms, algorithms and codes individualize, personalize and tailor our online spaces to each person. Governed by liberal understandings of how our markets should work, these platforms were designed to separate, fragment, and divide us into filter bubbles through the personalization of our notifications, news feeds, and timelines. Informed by liberalism and individualism, Big Tech companies have built a business model to sustain these so-called free platforms, in which they create data through surveillance of our behavior and experiences and extract our attention as a raw source for profit-making. And the biggest irony is we don’t really have a say, that is beyond “Accept All Cookies” and reading the Terms & Conditions. Digital technological advancements has plowed ahead without regulation and without proper understandings of how they work both because of the intellectual property law of algorithmic designs and also because even Big Tech sometimes doesn’t even know how their AI/algorithms/codes work. This is only one example of the effect our liberal and individual ideologies can have on social relations. Alternatives, if you’re curious, could be peeking at the few Big Tech companies operating in China.
In any case, my point is that communication is relational and social. We understand ideas because of their relationship to other ideas. And these ideas in America are shaped by particular ideas of the past (e.g., liberal and individualistic ideologies). Surrounded by the sonic acoustics of the digital environment, I was so quick to “produce” and “speak” my truths. As a subject of liberal and individualist thinking, I wanted others to listen to me. But after seeing so many different ideas that didn’t even register in my mind emerge, it made me realize that our society often leads with speaking. We lead our social lives under the assumption that to communicate only means to speak. So, this is a call to rethink communication as a process that also includes listening, and even to perhaps lead with listening before speaking.
Leading with Listening
It sounds silly. Another odd proverb that I used to hear as a kid in Sunday School was “God gave you one mouth and two ears so you can listen twice as much as you talk.” And now I’m realizing that I literally wrote this whole essay to tell you that. But I suppose, the advent of new inventions and our displacement of history and socialization distract us from the application of this idea.
So, as an example of how this might look in practice, I recall an activity from one of my undergraduate group dynamics classes many years ago, in which we practiced active listening.
In this activity, one participant would be required to give a speech to another participant in parts. Instead of responding with their own beliefs or opinions, the receiving participant would be required to only summarize what the speaking participant said. This activity slows down the process of thinking, but it allows us to better grasp our communication partner’s ideas.
Perhaps this is more of a note to self, but I suggest that you join me. The next time you see something trending on social media, observe before you participate, read before you comment, listen before you speak.
Of course, these are all just ideas and questions that I have been ruminating on. If you have any recommendations or want to chat, I welcome the conversation. Thanks for reading. :)