Random Thoughts from a Restless Mind

Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

Cape Cod

Posts Tagged ‘culture’

Tyranny and the Culture of Grievance.

Thomas Sowell, an American sage, laments the “huge degeneration” in America toward “the grievance culture”. Indeed, I have written on this before. The near reflex response to be aggrieved, to be offended first, and to ponder and reflect later, if at all. There is a certain and definite lack of goodwill, a reluctance or refusal to extend goodwill, or the assumption of goodwill, on the part of others. Rather, the culture of grievance mandates that we impugn malintent in the deeds and actions of others, especially if in some way those others (them others) have values or beliefs that don’t completely and consistently line up with those of the aggrieved.

On CrossFit.com, especially in a prior “Wild West” era, this phenomenon could be seen every 4th day with the publication of a libertarian-leaning article, or something that ran counter to the progressive drumbeat in the halls of academia or government. The simple act of speaking against the orthodoxy of a group sent said group into a paroxysm of aggrievement. This is no different from what we see in the now limitless wilderness of the internet and social media. Context is irrelevant. Intent is irrelevant. The provenance of the offering is irrelevant. Once unleashed the only thing that matters is the bleating of the aggrieved, however large or small their numbers might be, however trivial the insult, if it can even be called an insult at all.

While away at a professional meeting this weekend a new ad campaign for a product in my professional world dropped. It is irreverent and funny, and it was conceived and created by members of the same group that is on the receiving end of the joking. There were three reactions, as is probably typical of something like this. One group thought it was clever and funny, and realizing that it was the first in a series this group looked forward to seeing where the campaign was headed. By far the largest group saw the humor, realized what the intent of the campaign was, acknowledged that the humor was harmless and without intent to harm, but cringed at what was a rather large misstep. Seemingly in love with the joke both the creators of the campaign and the company that authorized its launch failed to see that, while funny, it was in very poor taste. This second group shook its collective head at how tone deaf the company was.

The third group was mortally wounded by offense. The aggrievement was existential. A firestorm was unleashed upon the company. The agency and its employees were excoriated despite their inclusion in the group supposedly aggrieved, saved only by their anonymity as individuals from a very public shaming among an influential cadre of the advertised company’s customers. That ire was directed at the CEO of the company, an exec known quite personally by a majority of his/her customers. The attacks were pyrrhic and personal despite an obvious lack of malintent. There appears to be no amount of shame that can possibly atone for the sin of humor without intent to offend that misses its mark and does just that, regardless of the size of the cohort offended.

The grievance culture allows progressively smaller and smaller numbers of individuals who care about narrower and narrower issues to hijack larger and larger institutions and paralyze them. One need only look at the tragicomedy that played out 2 weeks ago at Middlebury College in Vermont to get a sense of what this means. A (pseudo-) scholar was invited by a conservative student organization to speak. Mind you, this speaker’s ideas have been so roundly disparaged that even the members of that conservative club did not support them; they invited him in order to have an opportunity to debate the ideas. Alas, other members of the Middlebury community were offended by the mere presence of on campus of one who could hold ideas that are so antithetical to their own. This group declared that their grievance superseded any and all rights and privileges of every other individual or group, including the group that invited the speaker and whose members largely shared the opinion (but not the aggrievement) of the offended.

This small minority drove the speaker from the stage. They attempted to drone out an internet broadcast of his speech with repeated pulling of fire alarms. In the ultimate expression of their grievance they assaulted a faculty member who was driving the speaker out of town after the event, sending her to the hospital. It is particularly instructive that the group of the aggrieved chose this course because the speaker’s ideas and positions have been so roundly and completely debunked that it would probably have taken less effort and have been more effective to simply simply hoist him on his own petard on the stage and watch him swing.

I find myself in group 2 in my professional example (amused but somewhat astonished that experienced business people could be so tone deaf) and similar to the group that invited the faux-controversial speaker (contemptuous of pedagogy that cannot be supported with anything other than belief). Mr. Sowell is a true A-list man of ideas and letters, while I am a C-lister with B-list aspirations. Nonetheless I share with him his sorrow at this degeneration of American culture, this insistence that a difference of ideas begets a grievance that supersedes not only the rights of those who disagree, but also the very possibility that other ideas might exist. Replacing a culture of ideas and ideals with a culture a grievance is a step backward for society, perhaps for civilization.

The tyranny of the minority begins with a tyranny of ideas, waged with the weaponry of grievance.


Sunday musings 6/14/15

1) Droll. Troll who spent some time at Second City.

2) Pressure. “Pressure is a privilege.” Billie Jean King.

Perhaps Ms. King means that “pressure” is felt only by those who participate in an activity by choice. Those who have no choice feel no pressure because they simply do what they must. War. Poverty. Disease. Little or no time or energy for pressure. One must simply do.

Lots of layers to explore in that little gem.

3) Joy. “Take a chance on joy.” Saw this about 7 times in the last 24 hours in 7 very different places, 7 very different ways. Must be a sign.

Seriously, why not?

4) Profit. We ought to understand that the first priority of any business is to stay in business. The overarching priority of every business man/woman is to keep their business open. We should never be surprised when the true owners of a business make this the desired outcome of their strategy, and IMO we have no standing to criticize any legitimate business that does so.

We are, however, free to be surprised by their tactics.

5) Authenticity. Several friends and acquaintances checking in from travels afar this morning have me thinking. What constitutes a culturally authentic experience? Serious question. The follow-up, of course, is who gets to decide on behalf of a particular culture whether or not said experience was indeed authentic?

There are more questions in this bucket than answers, at least from me I’m afraid. As one not of a particular culture, is it even possible to have an authentic experience? Is the simple fact that one is without cultural “chops” nullification of authenticity? At a distance, reading about a particular culture for example, what makes it possible to have true empathy with a character? To have an authentic experience by proxy, as it were?

I am by nature a curious being, constantly on the prowl for knowledge. As I age I find that my thirst for knowledge is quenched more by experiences gained than by the acquisition of skills with practical application. It’s a search for enrichment, I think, more than a skill set. Perhaps adding a requirement of authenticity is unnecessary, even a bit precious or presumptuous. Is it even possible for a child of the unoppressed, barely burdened American middle class capable of experiential authenticity? Dunno.

In the end it probably doesn’t really matter, eh? The take home message, at least for me, is simply to seek experiences that are outside my own cultural silo. To do so respectfully, and in a way that they are as close to authentic as they might be, in order that I may then expand my understanding of cultures ever further from whatever may be my own.

Maybe–just maybe– that’ll make the experiences authentic enough.

I’ll see you next week…


Sunday musings 2/15/15

Sunday musings (from the tundra)…

1) Climate. Why is it no longer called “Global Warming”?

2) Stroll. I could walk to Toronto in a straight line. 57 miles, direct. Except for the fact that it’s presently -3 degrees.

See #2.

3) Godwink. Someone who comes into a place or a life at exactly the time their arrival was needed and makes everything better. First encountered in reference to Joe Madden, new manager of the Cubs.

I like that. Gonna ponder it a bit while I stay on the lookout for Godwinks in the wild.

4) Paleo. “I’m on a low duck-fat diet.” –Kim Gordon

Now that’s just funny. It reminds me of a line in “The House of God” when the street savvy intern who saved the life of a chocking patient by removing the foodstuff obstructing the airway. When asked by his supervisor how he would treat the patient going forward:

“Well darling, that’s easy. I’m putting her on a low broccoli diet.”

Sonic Youth in the gym for me today.

5) Culture. “When you decline to create or to curate a culture in your spaces, you’re responsible for what spawns in the vacuum.” –Leigh Alexander

Nature abhors a vacuum. In all ways and in all places. While I have never seen this immutable law applied to group culture that only speaks to my own lack of imagination and insight, and by extension Alexander’s surfeit of both. I use “spaces” a bit differently, preferring the term as a reference to internal or personal geography (timespace, brainspace, emotionalspace). Alexander’s choice of “space” rather than “place” adds to the brilliance, the “aha”-ness of the insight in that it specifically includes the virtual as well as the physical.

Some people exert, or could exert, enormous influence over very large spaces by either actively tending to the culture or by standing aside and simply observing what fills the vacuum. The CEO of our local medical behemoth has imposed his will at a very granular level on an organization that employs 10′s of thousands. Rules and regulations abound there. Here, chez CrossFit, the culture arose primarily from the founder’s philosophy and worldview. Pretty freewheeling, rough and tumble, then and now.

Think for a moment about your own spaces, maybe looking initially at the ones over which you might have a bit of control or influence. Work. Home. Box, whether owner or member. What has your role been in the creation and ongoing curation of the culture of those spaces? It’s a rather Taoist proposition, I think: to act is precisely equal to not acting, because one or the other course must be chosen. At my day job we actually did go about the task of creating a culture (A Tribe of Adults), and we knowingly curate that space by culling the tribe of those who don’t, won’t, or can’t acculturate.

In the end this is probably just another entreaty to consciously examine your own spaces, your world, and seek to exert whatever control you can wherever you can in order to live well. Whatever “well” means to you. Again, the Tao te Ching gives us some useful vocabulary, imagery we might reference. In the end we are all more like the pebble in the stream than the reed in the field. We may aspire to live as the reed, flexible and ever able to flow with whatever breeze may blow through. The reality is that an untended culture surrounding us flows so powerfully that it, like the water in a stream, eventually reshapes us as it inevitably sculpts the stone in the stream.

The difference, as both Lao-tse and Leigh Alexander teach us, is that you have the ability to control the flow.

I’ll see you next week…

Posted by bingo at February 15, 2015 6:50 AM

When Cultural Norms Collide

It takes very little effort to observe the intersection of cultural norms. Indeed, it takes a substantial effort NOT to notice them when they collide, as they must, in the polyglot that is the United States. Physicians, it’s been noted, are little more than paid observers; I see these collisions daily. What are we to do when cultures collide?

Now, I’m not talking about the “old as eternity” cultural divide between teenagers and their parents; in the end the teens will either hew closely to the cultural norms of their heritage or fall more in line with those of their present address. What I am interested in are those cultural norms that remain an integral part of the fully formed adult one might encounter in a rather typical day, and by extension whether and how one should respond to any cultural dissonance. Or for that matter, WHO should be the one to respond.

It’s the tiny ones that catch my attention. Personal space for example. The typical American personal space extends one arm’s length between individuals. Something shorter than a handshake, more like a handshake distance with bent elbows. The Mediterranean space involves an elbow, too: put your hand on your shoulder and point your elbow to the front and you have measured the personal space of a Sicilian. Asians on the other hand occupy a much larger personal space that can be loosely measured by a fully extended fist-bump. Something which would be anathema in polite Japanese company, but no matter. Gotta leave room for a proper bow, after all.

My favorite little example of the variety of cultural norms that swirl in the soup of the great Melting Pot is the affectionate greeting. You know, what most fully acclimatized Americans would recognize as the “bro hug” shoulder bump and clasp, something that would be appalling to a Parisian or Persian, or indeed even to a Princess of the Antebellum South. Yet even here there are differences. The Princess, joined by legions of Housewives of Wherever and Junior Leaguers everywhere are ninjas in the practice of the single-cheek air kiss. It should be noted that ~90% of men are NOT ninjas in this particular art, and are expected by its practitioners to bungle the act.

Persians and Parisians, on the other hand, find the one-cheek air kiss to accomplish only half the job. They, and others who share centuries old cultures, warmly greet each other with a two-cheek kiss. I am sure that there are nuances involved here that remain unseen and unknown to both most men and certainly most (all?) who don’t share the heritage. (As an aside let me just say that I am a huge fan of this particular cultural norm because it means that one of my very favorite colleagues, Neda, always arrives bearing TWO kisses).

And please, don’t even get me started on kissing hands. I’m pretty much O-fer life on that one. Come to think of it, as a nation of men we are winless on the kissing the hand thing.

So what’s the point here? Two, I think. First, there is a certain boorishness in the failure to observe and recognize the existence of these cultural norms when they are encountered. Some, like those I’ve mentioned, are the relative equivalent of a soft breeze, neither strong enough to fill a sail nor de-leaf a tree. Recognizing them, even in the tiny manner that one tries not to trample on them even if they will be ignored, is a tiny gesture of kindness, respect, and courtesy.

The flip side, number two, is deciding which of these norms is the default setting. Here things get a bit stickier, especially when cultural norms run afoul of SOP on the particular ground they occupy. Think air kiss between a man and a woman in Afghanistan, for example. Bowing in the boardroom of Samsung in San Clemente. There are more, and bigger examples, but you get the idea. Here I think geography holds the trump card: “when in Rome” should be your guide, especially with cultural norms where the collision may be substantially more impactful then whether or when you turn the other cheek, a tornado to the above’s tickling breeze.

Every land has culture; there’s culture here in the land of CrossFit for example. Personal space? Roughly one Pendlay bar apart, at least in the gym! Bro hugs with the guys, one cheek air kiss with every girl! Fist bumps all around, most especially with the CrossFitter who was DFL (if you have to ask…). The only thing that could be better would be if we could all agree on the two-cheek greeting thing.

Maybe if I could get my friend Neda to do CrossFit.