Friday, March 31, 2017

Writing, "okayness," and the limits of learning by listening

Okayness is a sedative.

Okayness makes your lids drowsy, your thoughts slow down, your focus turn intwards.

Okayness is an outrage. It shouldn't be -- it should be normal, universal, an inheritance that comes with being born. But that isn't the world we live in.

Okayness is an irritant. I'm sure many of you don't want to read about it. Goodness knows that in 42 years, I've become pretty sick of reading and listening to and watching stuff about people who have this kind of okayness, and I know that lots of you are way more over it than I am. If that's you, feel free to click on something else, search for cat pictures, read some fanfiction, find some deep analysis that centres you, whatever you need in this moment. But for the rest, particularly those who experience the kind of okaness I'm talking about: read on.

Okayness, as I'm using it here, means something very specific. I don't mean contextual okayness, the kind of okayness that comes and goes with the vagaries of fortune. I don't mean I didn't burn my breakfast, my bus came on time, no-one I care about died recently, I'm okay. Nor do I mean the okayness of making do, the okayness of surviving or even thriving despite -- there's no shortage of people who manage to rock that kind of okayness without any access whatsoever to the kind of okayness I'm talking about here. No, I mean the kind of underlying bedrock of okayness upon which some of us get to build our lives, while others do not.

It's a hard sort of okayness to talk about, because it doesn't necessarily feel very good on those days when we did leave our toast in too long, when the bus splashed a puddle on our pants as it sped past the stop, when we are grieving, when we are in pain, when it feels like nothing will ever be good and fun and happy again. It's a life-isn't-perfect, tragedies-happen, good-luck-and-bad-luck, hard-work-usually-pays-off, it's-up-to-you realistic expectation of okayness as your default. Fate will tackle you and punch you in the gut, but this okayness means that is a deviation from what the world has promised you. It's an okayness that you can't always feel, but that lets you have faith down to your deepest fibre and your smallest cell that, on balance, unless you're unlucky or you make bad choices, you'll likely be okay in the end -- and even if the dice don't go your way or you make a series of serious bonehead moves, it all might be okay anyway.

That is the kind of okayness that is a sedative and, because it is denied to so many, an outrage.

I say that it's a sedative because it gets inside of us and interferes with our ability to feel things and to know what's going on. But that's a pretty limited metaphor, because it makes it sound like it is only inside of us, rather than something about how our lives and communities are organized that gets inside and manifests there too. Because really, our experience of that sense of bedrock okayness or the lack of same is about the extent to which we get steered away from or towards the sharp jagged edges of the social world. If we never encounter them, they don't show up in the internal picture we build of the world, or do so in a minimized and distorted way. Those who have little chunks of flesh torn out by them every day, however, have no choice but to know that they are there, and to do some work towards figuring out how they operate. The sedative of okayness means we end up with a shallower and less accurate understanding of how the world works, and we get attached to this distorted vision and resist attempts to dispell it.

Of course it isn't simple. There isn't a clear binary, a division of the world between okay and not-okay. There's all manner of nuance, complexity, and gradation, and many different sorts of sharps and points and blocks that target different people in different ways and end up producing different combinations of knowing and not-knowing about the social world. And individual path matters, so there's no absolute and simple correlation between who we are and what we know, or who we are and how we act in the world, or even between who we are and what we know and how we act today, and what that might look like a decade from now.

Even given all of that, however, there are ways of generalizing about this that are useful. Maybe you do have that bedrock okayness and you've gotten the sense your whole life that you belong and that you are entitled to be okay. Or maybe your access to that okayness is shakier or sharply proscribed, but you're close enough to it and you've been told often enough that you should be just as able to feel belonging and to access the limited supply of okayness as the cis straight non-poor white guys of the world and so it shapes your vision for your life and for how things must change. Or maybe the world has made crystal clear from when you were born that there is no way you will ever access that kind of okayness, barring a fundamental transformation of the social world. These fault lines matter to who we are, what we know, and how we act, even if that mattering isn't always simple or direct.

Learning by Listening

A lot of the work that has filled my life over the last twenty years has involved writing and other kinds of media-making, all of which is premised on the possibility and value of learning by listening. For that kind of work to do anything at all in the world, it depends on a reader (or listener, or viewer) finding it, engaging with it, and learning from it. In a lot of what I have created, from my rather disastrous dabblings with short stories to various kinds of grassroots journalism and blogging, that has mostly been intrinsic to the form but not discussed. For some important pieces of it, though, I'm pretty up-front in the work itself about the epistemological and pedagogical importance of listening: My two books of social movement-focused Canadian history-from-below briefly theorized a way of thinking about the past that is explicitly organized around listening across differences in experience and beginning from there to figure out how the social world we all share has produced those differences. And in my largest ongoing project, Talking Radical Radio, I begin each weekly episode in part by describing the show as a "chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they're doing, how they're doing it, and why they're doing it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in stregnthening all of our efforts to change the world."

If viewed in a certain way, what I mean by that premise -- the possibility and value of learning by listening -- is so broad that not only is it not controversial, it isn't even very interesting. Any time we learn about the world through someone else narrativizing their experiences and analysis, we are learning by listening -- whether that is in a one-on-one conversation, a YouTube recording of a lecture, a newspaper article, a book, a radio documentary, or any other sort of live or recorded textual (in the broadest sense) account of the world. So this encompasses basically any learning about the world through which we come into contact with experiences and ideas via words or other sorts of symbols put together and delivered by someone else. Without that, we would know very little about anything beyond our direct experience, so of course it is possible to learn that way and of course it is important.

Even so, we don't generally think very carefully about how learning by listening happens. If pressed, we probably concede that it is more complicated than this, but often we act as if we believe it is as simple as encountering some sort of account of the world as a written or video or audio text, and either learning from what it has to say or not. Once we think through a little more carefully how we ourselves learn and how we experience the learning of others, it becomes clear that there is more going on and perhaps we should be shifting our expectations of what our work as makers of written or video or audio texts can do in the world.

Consider a stark but illustrative example: Let's start from someone who grew up with the kind of bedrock okayness I described at the start. They live in Canada. They've been led to feel so completely like they belong here that the very idea of questioning whether they belong here feels weird and inapplicable. Their life has its ups and downs, but they have no reason to doubt that if you work hard and catch a break or two, you'll be okay. Their parents have or had decent jobs, the people around them have decent jobs, and they either have one or can be pretty sure they can find one. They are utterly confident that if they really need help, there are places they can go to get it. They've never had to feel concern that the state might take away their children. Crossing the border is no big deal. Nobody bats an eye when they speak the language they learned growing up. If they face some sort of interpersonal violence or harm or loss, they will have not a moment of hesitation in going to the police, and if they are just walking down the street minding their own business, the police will be unlikely to interact with them in any way. This is how they have come to know the world, and their knowledge reflects, at a very deep level, a sort of generalizing of the lack of sharp edges in the social world that they have experienced themselves, which sets the ground to attributing any collective experience of not-okayness by some group or other as about their inadequacies rather than about how the social world is organized. This is not just individual "facts" in their knowledge that reflect this bedrock okayness in which they exist, but the entire framework of how they think the world works.

Now let's consider some sort of text or combination of texts that would challenge that view, and that would present in a relatively brief and accessible way a mix of analysis and first-hand experience illuminating at least some of the ways in which violence is socially organized into people's lives -- the violence of police and jails and courts, the violence of borders, the violence of colonization, the violence of war and empire, the violence of patriarchy and the gender binary, the violence of capitalism and the poverty it creates.

First of all, people whose lives are built on bedrock okayness aren't terribly likely to encounter that kind of material just by chance -- the kinds of media that get organized into mainstream lives, the kinds of content these media valourize versus marginalize, and the way socially produced but individually held inclinations and preferences shape choice within what's on offer all play a role in this. When they do encounter such material, in many cases the source will be a priori dismissed or at least rated as less weighty or reliable, whether that's because it gets tagged as "radical" or because the source is Black or Indigenous or otherwise Other. And even if that effect is minimal in a particular instance, the likely lack of fit between existing and new knowledge can feel uncomfortable or even threatening, and our usual default in such situations is to stick more closely with what we already know. And sometimes, the conundrum of what to do with new and uncomfortable ideas is just too much work to be bothered with, so we just stop thinking about them. There are, therefore, lots of reasons even aside from specific choices based on specific points of content that some or all of the new knowledge might be dismissed or otherwise subordinated to exsting knowledge.

Perhaps what is least appreciated, though, is the limit to our capacity to integrate new knowledge even under ideal circumstances. Even if there is little or no dismissal because the source is "too radical" or Other, even if there is an active commitment to navigating the lack of fit with existing knowledge and its associated discomfort by prioritizing the new knowledge, even then we can only do a limited amount to reshape how we now the world in response to any given instance of learning by listening. We have, over our lifetimes, built a whole edifice around making sense of a spectrum of experience that has largely kept us from the social world's jagged edges, and the entire edifice reflects that. It is entirely possible, and in fact entirely likely, to genuinely and earnestly accept one or two or several core points about the jagged edges out in the world and the injustice that steers some of us away from them and others towards them, in a way that will manage to simultaneously accept those points while leaving the edifice built upon the presumption of their opposite largely intact. One encounter with a text or a voice, or several, will not reorient or re-build the whole interconnected structure of my knowledge, or of yours.


I want to emphasize again that, in saying this, I am not claiming that people don't learn and don't change, including in ways that are informed by listening; I'm just claiming that it often fails to happen when it (practically) could and (politically) should. And when it does, it happens slowly and gradually through ongoing commitments and repeated instances of learning by listening and reflecting rather than all at once. It is a process of discipline -- of self-fashioning through repeated practice -- rather than of revelation.

So what can we learn from that?

Well, some of the implications are, or should be, unsurprising, particularly those for learners and teachers. In our role as learners, this way of thinking about learning by listening reinforces some pretty standard pieces of advice: Do so with humility. Don't assume you know more than you do just because you read something in a book once or heard someone talk about it. Treat learning about experiences and aspects of the social world that don't target you as a lifelong project. And so on and so forth. Similarly for teachers, there are vast fields of literature on various kinds of critical and radical pedagogy that amount to wrestling with this very phenomenon -- others know much more about this than I do, and I won't try to even summarize it here.

What I'm most interested in but also most unsure of, is what this understanding of learning by listening means for writers and others who shape content in various mediums and send it out into the world -- that is, for people who make texts but who aren't, in constrast with teachers, involved in shaping the circumstances of their uptake.

If your goal is to unsettle the default knowledge of people who grew up in bedrock okayness -- and I'm not saying this is the most important goal out there, or even a very useful one a lot of the time, but for those of us who grew up in bedrock okayness I think it's at least one element of our political responsibility -- how do you do that work given the limits to what any one text can achieve, and any one encounter with a text can achieve? Really, how do you engage in any effort to convey complex substance about underlying features of the social world that lie counter to some aspect of dominant commonsense, particularly anything that people are likely to be personally invested in?

Given how we learn, how and what should we write?

I mean, I can come up with a few things. It means we need to let go of the illusion that simply revealing some truth or other in what you write will catalyze some dramatic change. Mostly it won't, because people just don't work that way. It means we should probably take a look around ourselves at how people come to be who they are, and recognize that the practice of deliberate self-fashioning through engaging with texts may have been important for us but is actually pretty weird and rare in the world more generally, and is of no greater (or lesser) value than any other way in which people get shaped. And I think it also points towards a need to deliberately act in relation to movements, which are social forces that shape how texts are taken up. I'm not sure quite what I mean by this, because I'm certain I don't mean that the only valid work is directly meeting needs of organizing efforts for written, audio, and video material -- we also need a more complex and lively millieu of ideas and images and stories that has its own rhythm yet is in relation to struggles for justice and liberation.

But, really, these don't feel like enough. When I sit down at my keyboard or with pen in hand, when I consider how to put together next week's radio show or how to write something engaging and substantive based on my years of doing the show, what do I say to maximize what can be accomplished through learning by listening?

Given how we learn, how and what should I write?

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