We’ve had three straight days of record breaking high temperatures here. Given that we are talking about NC in August, record-breaking has meant three days with triple-digit highs and high humidity to boot. This the major reason why I’ve been a bit quiet these days.
Today was our big opening session. As always we had a big assembly of faculty and staff. Our president gave us a motivational and informational talk. Then all the new employees were introduced to the group – including the two very cool women who have joined my department.
Then we recognized a truly remarkable member of our staff who is beginning her well-earned retirement. As Faculty Senate President it was my job to present her with one of a series of limited edition prints of the main art and sciences classroom building on campus and then to say a little something. I totally bungled and forgot to get the print, but luckily for me there are people around me who pick up my fumbles – and I like to think I occasionally pick up some of theirs (my use of a football metaphor here is incredibly strange for me and requires some reflection on my part.) This is one of the things I like about the place I work. We have our problems but there is a real sense of community. In any case I had the print and didn’t spoil the moment and managed to think of something to say when the microphone was passed to me. We also passed out certificates for everyone who was nominated for our excellence in teaching award. Again, this was partly my job. Since I’m really loud I was calling people’s names and helping hand them the certificates as they came up. That went fine. Then we had another informational thing (we’re making plans just in case we have our own version of the shootings at Va. Tech. – I have a theory that all such plans are in vain but I still see the need for them.)
Then it was time for the main event. Two older white guys (and I’m entering my mid-40s) were going to tell us how to become “Totally Responsible Persons” (TRP). They have trademarked that. I’m not kidding. This went on for the next four hours – until 2:30 with a rigidly enforced 30-minute lunch break.
My good friend over at Semiotikos was also in attendance. You can read his reactions here.
The gist of this thing was that we all need to take total responsibility for our actions and our emotional state. The whole thing was presented via numerous homilies worthy of Dr. Phil. The thing is there were several ideas I agreed with.
It is certainly common to place agency about one’s emotional state elsewhere – “She made me angry” – and then use that to justify actions – “so I smacked her a good one.” That is wrong. You cannot control your emotional reaction to something, but you can almost always exert control over what you then do to express the emotion. Fine. My grandmother taught me that. My father used to frequently say “engage brain before starting mouth” – and to himself as often as to others. His point was to think before acting.
Our attitudes are reflected back by the people around us. Again one of Dad’s little aphorisms – “if you look around and see nothing but assholes, you are probably looking in a mirror” – sprang immediately to mind.
Every single thing these guys said that I agreed had some validity was also something I learned as a child. I do not think I am unusual in this. Why in the hell did I need two corporate rah-rah types to waste four hours of my life telling me this? I became very angry as this drew on (actually, to be “totally responsible”, I was rather ticked going in.) First, I had perfectly serviceable parents. They taught me things. Second, I am quite capable of a certain amount of self-awareness and self-criticism. Third, it is NOT the place of my EMPLOYERS to interfere in my personal moral and spiritual development. Fourth, why in the hell should I give credence to “personal” advice given to a group of 150 people? Advice given by two guys who hawk “no whining” watches and signs on their website?
A few people from our faculty and staff had attended the full six-hour version of the workshop and raved about it. Hence the college ponied up the money to pay these guys (but will not fund the Scholar’s Program). I wonder if this is what they LIKED so much about it. They had already heard all of this before so it just confirmed what they already thought. Different wording makes it seem all new – like a discovery that tells you you were right all along. It works in writing best-selling books and national politics, so why not here?
I was also repeatedly struck by certain things about the rhetoric being used in this presentation. One of my colleagues summed it up well when she wrote me a note saying “Subtle racism and sexism is alive and well.”
I agree with her summation…
… except, maybe, the subtle part.
In talking about choosing one’s reaction to emotional stimuli these guys kept going back to a “straw girl” they built starting out. They talked about a mythical teenage girl who argues with her parents and gets very emotional but then immediately switches states when she gets a call from “the cute boy she likes.” They then “validated” this with an appeal to the vox populi infomercial-style – “Parents, am I right?”
Hmmm… Using a teen-aged girl as an example of false emotional reactions. Repeatedly.
In fact any time these guys wanted to illustrate a person “letting their emotions take control”, it was a woman.
Then there was the story about the Latina woman who wanted to slam the door in her house to show how angry she was but couldn’t because it was a sliding door (point – her physical manifestation of emotion was simply a “victim ploy”). This was told by a 60s-ish white guy doing her dialog with an assumed accent.
Let us not pass unnoticed the “skit” they performed where the shorter one wrapped a piece of plastic around his head like a scarf and they then had a “domestic spat.” The gender stereotypes were flying thick and fast. The three women I was sitting with became quiet and stone-faced during this and I felt moved to proffer an apology on behalf of my gender – which they were nice enough to accept.
One of the presenters told a story about how Colin Powell was told he was the “best Black lieutenant in the Army. ” He responded by saying nothing and striving to be the best lieutenant in the Army period. I have no right to judge whether that was an appropriate response to subtle racism (for the time) or not – neither do those two white guys. They argued, however, that another response – such as direct confrontation – would have been succumbing to a “victim mentality”
They wrapped things up be talking about Jackie Robinson. The same point was being made as in the Powell section – direct and angry confrontation in response to injustice would have been “being a victim” whereas accepting abuse with grace is not.
Oh, and a little rhetorical point for my fellow white guys. We do NOT get to repeatedly use the phrase “keeping his eyes on the prize” while praising how black people handle our racism.
I’m not arguing that the Powell or Robinson response was “wrong.” I’m arguing it is A response and that there are other ones just as valid – including an immediate confrontation. My real point is that there was a constant suggestion that those facing injustice and oppression in our society should respond by continuing to obey the rules. Don’t challenge the system but change how you choose to react to it.
Their fawning praise of the parasitical Warren Buffet also fit into this.
As my friend points out in his blog this whole thing was a celebration of the mythologies of the American Dream. You are an autonomous individual. You can free yourself from any outside control by deciding that those things don’t control you (they used Viktor Frankl talking about how the Nazis could never take away the freedom of his own mind in support of this.) Add this to their quotes about how complaining about being poor is just buying into victim mentality and you have a psychobabble justification for economic inequality. It isn’t that the system is unfair – that is just taking the victim role. Grab them bootstraps and pull yourself up boy! (you can do the cooking, little lady.)
Finally, we also had a long thing about “victim language” – like “you hurt my feelings”. Then there were the enablers and the rescuers. The enabler responds with sympathy and the rescuer tries to fix the problem for the victim.
Again, there is some truth here. Too much sympathy or support can be an attempt to rob a person of their own agency. They can be about the power of the enabler or rescuer rather than the problem of the victim.
Still, the ham-fisted presentation basically said that any offer of empathy that wasn’t based in individualized problem-solving is victimization.
The response to everyone else’s problems should be “Cowboy up and deal with it yourself.”
Compassion is for the weak.
I was struck shortly after escaping this place by the idea that this all seemed very familiar. Then I realized where I had seen this played out recently – I watched the dvd of 300 a few nights ago.
Anyone for a Totally Responsible Spartan?
I could simply go on for hours – but I’m sure we will all be doing that around the office next week.