Synthesis & cigarettes

My students are too young to remember a time when smoking was permitted in public places. They’ve never seen cigarette ads in magazines. While a few of them do smoke, all of them are well aware that smoking can be dangerous. Most 18-year-olds seldom even see people smoking in movies; few celebrities flaunt a cigarette in their promotional shots anymore.

And none of them are aware of the history of anti-smoking campaigns: the legal wrangling, lawsuits, longitudinal studies, public service announcements, warnings, shaming, second-hand smoke claims, discrimination against smokers, tobacco industry lobbies, or the length of time it took to convince the general public that there were genuine risks involved in the addicting and heretofore glamorous habit. Yul Brenner died of cancer in 1985, long before my students were born, so his posthumous anti-smoking public service announcement–which was big news at the time–is not even a blip on their radars. They never saw the famous “Johnny Smoke” cartoon (which terrified me as a child) featuring the frightening and authoritative voice of James Earl Jones.

Why should they know–or care–about the combined efforts of state governments (cigarette taxation), non-profits (The American Lung Association and others), medical researchers, and health advocates…and why should the fact that this process took decades matter to them? Well, maybe they could learn something from this kind of history.

Like the actions of Civil Rights protesters, who employed social advocacy for the stated purpose of changing the expectations and behaviors of citizens, “awareness campaigns” such as those created to reduce smoking offer important lessons about how long it takes to influence large communities and which methods are most likely to be successful. Cass Sunstein notes that most legislation officially becomes the law of the land after the majority of citizens are already practicing the behavior, having individually and privately decided that, say, refraining from cigarette smoking is “common sense.”

An instructor at the college where I work recently assigned his students a synthesis paper in which they were to analyze and consider a JAMA Mozaffarian, Hemenway & Ludwig article–about using public health campaign strategies in an attempt to reduce firearms deaths in the US–along with another source (or two) and then derive, from their expert sources, an approach of their own that might be a step toward decreasing the number of gun-related deaths. His students are freshmen: he did not ask them to anticipate constitutional stumbling-blocks, censorship issues, or other complexities that would–naturally–arise. He did not tell them to propose gun control at all (and only some of them did); he wanted to see what they would come up with and whether they could infer, from the JAMA article, that there are methods other than federal legislation through which social changes can be implemented.

It is a valuable assignment because his students have trouble understanding it. They show up at meetings with me and the peer tutors in writing and they complain and question and wrestle with what the professor wants. What he wants is simple: he wants them to think. He won’t judge their ideas as right or wrong as long as they show that they understand the texts and can think about the complexities.

johnny smoke

Johnny Smoke

Here’s what I love about his assignment: students have to infer, reflect, analyze and synthesize, in the process of which it dawns on many of them that there are no easy answers; the issues are not black-&-white but depend upon perspective and social attitudes–not merely upon individual moral values, parental decrees, or civil laws. In other words: there are many other people in the world. Think about what you, the student and citizen-of-the-globe, can say to those people, respectfully, with some facts that you can convey.

It can be more than an argument. It can be a conversation, from which all of us learn more than a confirmation of our own correctness.

 

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Continuing the discussion

The semester is almost over, and my students and I have spent a few weeks doing writing that relates to Cass Sunstein’s book Why Societies Need Dissent. As it turns out, this semester coincides with considerable current-event attention on protest, conformity, stereotyping, and other issues Sunstein explores in that text. Social media pushes the herd mentality, the “troll” mentality, and the ease of using shortcuts in thinking: justification through bad analogies, irrational responses, barely-considered ideas, culturally-entrenched concepts, knee-jerk reactions.

In other words, the gamut of human social psychology in 140 characters or thereabouts, with links, memes, and dudgeon.

A case in point that appeared on social media last week is a photo of a black man holding a sign that reads, “No mother should have to fear for her son’s life every time he robs a store.”

That was a photoshopped “joke” in which someone altered the last line of the protester’s poster. The intent was to assert that Michael Brown had robbed a store before walking down the middle of a Ferguson street, and the intent was clearly meant to suggest that Brown deserved to be shot by police–or, at any rate, to suggest that he was not “innocent.” I agree with the poster even in its altered state because I propose that none of us are innocent, and that none of us deserves to be killed. A suspected robber should be tried by jury and should be considered innocent until proven guilty because that is the way US law reads.

I do not claim that “It’s that simple.” Indeed, the situation is far from simple, which is why it feels so fraught and inflames such exertions of logic, law, and character defamation, and so many conflicting opinions–not to mention Facebook “purges” and irate newspaper columns and public protests. These are reasons that discussion can be useful. We need to continue the discussion, even though it is awfully difficult to do so.

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If only we could listen to other perspectives. If only we could engage in discussion. I listened to two of my male students talking about being stereotyped. One claimed he was seldom troubled by harassment and not really bothered when people tried to stereotype him. “You’re not black,” his friend responded, “You’re Latino, or whatever.” The first man held up his arm: “Hey, man, I’m darker than you. What makes you black and me not?”

“Neighborhood. Money.”

“Look at you, bro! You’re wearing $185 shoes and new jeans. Dollars to donuts your family has more money than mine.”

They continued in this fashion awhile, sometimes asking me what I thought. If it was history that made them different, couldn’t the black man put it behind him? And he didn’t even really know much about “his” history, it turns out. If it wasn’t skin color that made one man feel less sure of himself on the street, warier, even in a “good” neighborhood, to what could it be ascribed? Was it just a personal issue? A neurosis? Was the Latino man clueless, or oblivious? Or just lucky up to now? Are these issues of confidence, self-esteem, bravado, or fear? Social issues or private ones? All of the foregoing?

And how does all of this relate to how young people of any background, religion, or color comport themselves in the world, deal with society and its assumptions, codes, expectations?

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I teach writing. My job consists in instructing students in the perhaps arcane code that clear, concise, informational, and persuasive writing requires if they are to succeed in writing for academia and, later, the world of business information. I tell them: “This is what you should expect others/authorities to expect of you. It’s your choice to follow the conventions or not to follow the conventions, but you need to at least know what the conventions are.”

Meanwhile, I hope they recognize that they should follow the conventions of the rule of law; and if they choose to oppose the law, they should do so with forethought and initially, at least, within the structure of the law. But bad laws do need to be changed, and bad protocols need to be changed, and unarmed people should not be killed for brooking authority; and stereotyping–a very natural and automatic human behavior though it is–should be consciously questioned, even though yes, that can make the discussion difficult.

Local vs. National

Election season is upon us, and this being a non-presidential voting year, US citizens tend to avoid the polls in droves. I’ve been talking with my students about herd mentality, informational cascades, and the pros and cons of non-conformity recently; local elections make a good example of the theory that people tend to do what they think others are doing (see this post for more on conformity and dissent). Which may include not doing what others are not doing, such as going to the polls.

This train of thought got me thinking about poetry, oddly enough. Years ago, when I was more ambitious for myself, I spent considerable time and effort trying to get my work published in national journals. There was, for me, a sense that the cachet of publication in certain “top tier” magazines would somehow confer legitimacy on my work (vocation or avocation, depending upon how one defines being a poet in the USA). But I am not strongly suited to the organization, persistence, and promotional oomph required to get my work into the limelight; also, I may have lacked the required talents as a poet. At any rate, during that time in my writing life, I was advised to avoid ‘local venues’ of publication because these were not top-tier and might devalue my work.

To which I now say: humbug!

Annshumbug1

Humbug by Steve Barr, cartoonist

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Local voting is crucial to a democratic society. Local politicians and local legislative changes affect a voter’s life more immediately than national elections do.

By the same token, local arts potentially have more impact than nationally-known artists and art events; yet citizens are often rather clueless, and often woefully unsupportive, of regional arts and artists. (To visit Steve Barr’s website, click on the humbug.)

I am no longer a young, ambitious poet who aspires to national prominence. My ambition revolves more around becoming the best poet I can be given my abilities, education, and circumstances. Furthermore, I now firmly believe that local is a crucial step in global: the two can no longer be separated, as parts of the environment, the social and economic and cthonic ecosystems that are intricately dependent upon connections and relationships.

I am happy to report, therefore, that I am one of three regional, if virtual, “resident poets” for the autumn season of the online e-zine Lehigh Valley Vanguard–a local journal devoted to the “subversive arts.” Several of my poems will appear among its posts over the next three months. Please check occasionally for poetry postings! The first of these is “Post-Exodus,” although an earlier poem, “Regional Conflicts,” appears here.

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My ambitions for my own poetry center, these days, on what I want the words and the work to accomplish regardless of status or publication. My aesthetics have perhaps changed along with my assumptions…and my evaluations of the value of local and national and global recognition.

Local is where I live. Local’s good. Check out the Vanguard, and take a little time to find out what’s happening wherever it is you reside.

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Here’s another bug. 🙂

Dissent, controversy, & opinion

It may be obvious that, in this blog, the writer tends to shy away from highly controversial contemporary issues–with the possible exception of my occasional strong views on education–even though philosophical and critical arguments are part of my job and integral to my life interests. One possible explanation is that I am, as Charles Schultz memorably popularized, “wishy-washy.” (This strip is from 1952, © Charles Schultz):

Peanuts

And a little destructive criticism from 1959….

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Indeed, my students sometimes get annoyed with me because I do not take sides during class discussions of controversial topics. “Don’t you have an opinion?” they ask.

Why, yes, I do. It is not my job to share my opinions with students, however, as much as it is my job to make them think more than once about their own opinions. It is also my job to help them navigate the complexities of critical thought, weighing “both sides” (and pointing out that many controversies have many more than two sides), and learning that perspective can deepen understanding and sometimes even alter opinions. This approach is far from wishy-washy; it is courageous. It can be risky to analyze rationales and points of view that differ from your own, and risk takes courage.

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A good book that explores the courage it takes to analyze and, often, to dissent from the normative view is Cass Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent. Sunstein argues that truly free societies need to permit dissenters room for expression and criticism; he provides evidence that without dissent, societies fail to thrive through change. Because growth is a change process, societies that resist change too rigidly fall apart.

This year, my class and I will be exploring Sunstein’s text in an effort to recognize the kind of thinking and evidence needed before one writes an essay. I hope they apply these ideas in their freshman Philosophy course.

I hope they apply these ideas in my course, for starters…

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Argument has a negative connotation in American English, so many critics substitute the word discourse. I have no problem with such a substitution: the term discourse seems to connote politeness and respect, behaviors necessary for useful dissent and analysis of alternative perspectives. The philosophical argument, whether taking place in philosophy class, conference hall, or koan, operates most productively and insightfully when predicated upon mutual respect for differences.

Dissent as discourse may not be the most natural behavior for human beings, but it is something we can demonstrate and coach in the university classroom.

With any luck, both students and teachers may be able to apply the techniques to other areas of our lives. Along that vein, here’s an easy-to-interpret Buddhist explanation from New Lotus on how to approach argument in the Buddhist way.

GFS2