The Universal Lie

Education and journalism often are similar windows into the power of bias in the U.S.

Consider first a somewhat innocuous media report about sports:

Much more disturbing, also consider the media coverage of the Las Vegas mass shooting:

As the news broke, major outlets across the country wrote headlines that humanized [Stephen] Paddock…

Past mass shooters who were nonwhite or Muslim have been depicted quite differently ― and so have people of color who were victims of gun violence.

“There’s a clear difference in the way this kind of incident is treated and the way it would be treated if it were actually associated with Islam or Muslims,” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesperson at the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told HuffPost. “It would be instantly called an act of domestic or even international terrorism; it wouldn’t be individualized, but collectivized to the entire Muslim community or faith of Islam.”

The seemingly harmless report about U.S. soccer and the mainstream coverage of Paddock expose how the media works in ways that establish men and whiteness as the norms, the given, and thus somehow the most important (or only) statuses.

As many noted, U.S. soccer has had tremendous success in the women’s team—essentially rendered invisible by the coverage of the failure of the men’s squad this year. Paddock, as white man, floats above corrosive myths about Muslim terrorists and violent black men—both of which are statistically far more rare than violent and abusive white men, who constitute the largest percentage of mass shooters.

Now, let’s consider education.

Sarah Donovan, who blogs at Ethical ELA, posted a question on social media: “Teachers, scholars, authors, please weigh in. What is the value of the plot diagram in literature instruction? Is the language of rising action, etc. relevant, important?”

My first response to Donovan’s question was to point to Kurt Vonnegut’s mostly satirical but also illuminating “Shapes of Stories”[1]:

Vonnegut is an interesting and contradictory steward of both the modernist and post-modernist periods of so-called “Great Literature”:

Instead, the female characters [in his short fiction] are furniture or bouncing, pink operators. Of course you can’t blame Vonnegut for society’s sexism (in the 1950s, or now) but if these are indeed moral stories, it’s a male, white, affluent morality. Vonnegut himself, as Wakefield writes, puzzled over his inability to “do women well.”

Similarly, the dialects of some black waiters and soldiers and the poor will induce groans. As for the five stories from the archives, “City” has a lovely back-and-forth alternating point of view between a boy and a girl meeting on a bus, but the rest might have stayed lost.

As a white male, Vonnegut was afforded gender and race privileges that likely allowed him to be a somewhat rebellious writer who flaunted and broke the rules handed down by the New Criticism gods, blurring fiction and non-fiction as well as making himself a primary character of his genre-defying narratives.

Since I have examined before the power of mechanical evaluations of literature, often about New Criticism, and how the canon is mostly a white, male mythology, I next turned to a recent examination of the Nobel Prize in literature, awarded in 2017 to Kazuo Ishiguro:

The Nobel is the premier institution of elite literary prestige, conferring authority on what is already taken to be worthy of acclaim within the literary field….Conferring the Nobel also solidifies Euro-American cultural power (members of the adjudication committee often have American graduate degrees), as the Nobel institution positions itself as naturally authorizing and emboldening, in its own dispassionate assessment, what is inherently worthy of commendation. It’s a classic case: an institution of elite cultural power that hides its biases in claims to universality.

So if we consider plot diagrams as “dispassionate assessment,” we can begin to unpack how the concurrent concept of universality is, in fact, a lie—a sort of god creating “man” in “his” own image.

Like the flawed five-paragraph essay template that induces both bad writing and bad thinking in students, mechanical scripts for how fiction (or poetry, or any form) works are misleading but also perpetuate the inherent biases of the formulas.

The fathers of New Criticism were in many ways self-serving—arguing for prescriptions and structures that they themselves then followed in order to create the circular reasoning of “Great Literature.” Along the way, of course, mechanistic traditional education—mostly in English courses—provided a powerful ally in that process.

From plot diagrams to the literary technique hunt, mechanical approaches to texts are reductive and thus fail the critical literacy test: How is this text positioning the reader and in whose interest is the text working?

Let me close by nudging a bit beyond the narrow question about plot diagrams for fiction (usually the short story), and ask that we consider how the universal functions to mask and distort through W.B. Yeats “Leda and the Swan” and Adrienne Rich’s “Rape.”

In most traditional English/literature courses, Yeats likely is taught far more often than Rich, and then, his poem retelling a classic myth carries the heft of being a praised structured form (sonnet) and by an oft-anthologized white male Great Poet.

Rich, however, tends to be swept aside as a free verse poet who is too political, often code for “just a woman” (see Anne Sexton).

Yeats’s poem uses rape as a plot element, seemingly “dispassionate,” while rape in Rich’s poem is a confrontation about the physical terror women face in a man’s world (is that not universal?) and the concurrent metaphorical assault women must suffer to seek justice for the actual rape.

Ultimately, there is something insidious about allowing the normalization of the powerful to sit beside the marginalization of the powerless—calling the experiences of one (white men) “universal” and the experiences of the other (women), “political.”

So what do we do with Donovan’s question?

Critical literacy guides us here as we must be diligent in making our students aware of traditional structures and approaches to literature and writing, but also we must go beyond that awareness and invite them to unpack critically why those structures exist—again, in whose interest do they work?

 


[1] See also Vonnegut’s essay included in Chapter 3 (“Here is a lesson in creative writing”) of A Man without a Country.

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