Free Speech, Free Market, and the Lingering “Rigid Refusal”

In the documentary Corridor of Shame, which explores the historical inequities of school funding in South Carolina along lines of race and social class, Senator (R, SC) Lindsey Graham claims while speaking at MLK Day in 2005: “We have a disparity of funding in a region of our state…. The reason we have disparity in funding is not cause we are prejudiced at the governmental level. It’s because we collect taxes based on property value. And our property value in those counties are pretty low because there’s no industry.”

Graham’s denial of systemic racism represents what Ta-Nehisi Coates called “elegant racism” while confronting the “oafish racism” of Cliven Bundy and former L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling:

The problem with Cliven Bundy isn’t that he is a racist but that he is an oafish racist. He invokes the crudest stereotypes, like cotton picking. This makes white people feel bad. The elegant racist knows how to injure non-white people while never summoning the specter of white guilt. Elegant racism requires plausible deniability, as when Reagan just happened to stumble into the Neshoba County fair and mention state’s rights. Oafish racism leaves no escape hatch, as when Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s singularly segregationist candidacy.

Elegant racism is invisible, supple, and enduring. It disguises itself in the national vocabulary, avoids epithets and didacticism. Grace is the singular marker of elegant racism. One should never underestimate the touch needed to, say, injure the voting rights of black people without ever saying their names. Elegant racism lives at the border of white shame. Elegant racism was the poll tax. Elegant racism is voter-ID laws.

Graham acknowledges inequity, but uses “prejudiced” instead of “racist,” and casually rejects systemic racism.

As Coates explains, whites in the U.S. are more apt to acknowledge oafish racism while almost always employing elegant racism, such as denying systemic racism; therefore, Graham’s obfuscation is a powerful and effective political ploy, especially in the South.

In the matter of a few days recently, this distinction has played out in a public way with the NFL instituting a new policy about players protesting during the National Anthem and Roseanne Barr having her ABC sit-com canceled after a racist outburst on social media.

The NFL Anthem policy and Barr’s show cancelation have two important elements in common: what they represent in terms of how the U.S. confronts and understands racism, and how many in the U.S. have a deeply flawed understanding of free speech.

First, when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick initiated protests during the National Anthem, the public and political response has tended to misrepresent the actions. Kaepernick and other players were protesting systemic racism, inequitable policing of blacks often resulting in death, during the Anthem.

Notably, Barr’s oafish racism, comparing a person of color to an ape, has resulted in a similar outcome for Barr and Kaepernick—the loss of work—although the former is a racist and the latter is protesting racism.

While Kapernick and other protesting NFL players have been condemned for being political (disregarding they are taking credible stands against a reprehensible social reality), Barr has a history of being bigoted.

Writer Roxane Gay has examined that history and then the recent cancelation, in fact.

Also significant about these two situations is that the new NFL policy does in fact limit when and how NFL players can express themselves, but Barr was perfectly free to share her comments, with an incredibly wide audience.

That comparison leads to the now common aspect of the public discussion of Barr’s cancelation, claims that they are about free speech: Since the NFL and ABC are not the government, neither of these situations is an issue of free speech.

As Katherine Timpf explains:

First of all, this is in no way a free-speech or First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects us from facing consequences from the government over our speech, not consequences from our peers or our employers. Yes, what Barr said, although abhorrent, absolutely was constitutionally protected speech, and, of course, it should be. After all, giving the government the power to decide what is and is not “acceptable” speech would be giving the government the power to silence whatever kind of speech it felt like silencing, which would be very dangerous indeed. Anyway, the point is, a free-speech-rights violation would be someone trying to, say, arrest Barr for her comments, not firing her for them. Her rights were in no way violated in this case. ABC simply exercised its own rights as a private company to decide whom it does and does not want to associate with, and it’s my view that no one should blame its executives for making the decision that they made.

Therefore, the NFL policy on the National Anthem and the cancelation of Barr’s sit-com are not about free speech but the free market. Both the NFL and ABC are hedging that their actions preserve their audiences, their bottom line.

And what those concerns about their audiences reinforce is that the public has a much lower tolerance for oafish racism (Barr) than for confronting elegant racism (NFL protests). The NFL believes its audience either denies or cannot see systemic racism, and thus does not support the so-called politics of NFL players who protest while ABC feels that continuing to give an oafish racist a major platform will erode their audience.

Here is where we must confront the problem with trusting the free market since doing the right thing is linked to the moral imperative of the majority, the consumers. Currently in the U.S., that majority remains insensitive to systemic inequity and injustice; therefore, elegant racism survives—even bolstered ironically when oafish racism is shamed and seemingly blunted.

When each oafish racist is given their due, those denying systemic racism have their worldview confirmed since they see individual punishment as justice.

These actions by the NFL and ABC reflect that in the U.S. whites are still in the early adolescent stage of racial consciousness. Being able to confront oafish racism isn’t even fully developed yet.

Many in the media called Barr’s slurs “racially insensitive,” showing the same sort of refusal to call a lie, a lie that now characterizes mainstream media. But a few in that media are calling Barr’s words “racist,” and ABC folded under the weight of that fact—although we should be asking why Barr had this second chance considering her history of bigotry.

As a people, white America is not adult enough, however, to move past finger-wagging at oafish racists and to acknowledge systemic racism because, as Coates recognizes, “to see racism in all its elegance is to implicate not just its active practitioners, but to implicate ourselves.”

James Baldwin’s “Lockridge: ‘The American Myth'” remains a chilling warning then: “This rigid refusal to look at ourselves may well destroy us; particularly now since if we cannot understand ourselves we will not be able to understand anything.”

That anything, as the NFL and ABC have exposed, is racism—the cancer destroying our democracy and our free market.

As consumers, we have a moral obligation to tell the NFL it is wrong; we will not stand for systemic racism. And we must tell ABC that canceling Barr’s sit-com is a start, but it isn’t enough.

As citizens, we have to look at ourselves in the mirror of the voting booth—something we have failed to do yet in the good ol’ U.S. of A.

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Mainstream Media Journalism Fails Us, Again

As a writer who spends a good deal of time and energy sharing public commentary, I suppose I should be thankful that mainstream media is terrible since a significant number of my posts are critiques of why and how mainstream journalism is a dumpster fire.

Narrowly, edujournalism and, broadly, journalism fail us because of traditional norms of the field (what I have criticized as both-sides journalism) and the corrosive influence of market forces (what I have criticized as press-release journalism and crossing the Bigfoot line).

Here, I want to address a third way mainstream media journalism fails us—an essential flaw, like both-sides journalism, that grounds journalism in seeking and relying upon sources as the primary evidence of the field.

As a writing teacher, I have been for years teaching students a wide variety of approaches to citation among different disciplines. A key lesson of that process is to examine those differences for the norms of citation as opposed to evaluating whether or not typical academic forms of citation are better than the seemingly lower threshold for journalism.

For example, we examine and then the students practice the use of hyperlinks for online public writing as well as focusing on interviewing, quoting, and paraphrasing from sources.

It is at the last norm of journalism that we can identify why mainstream media journalism does and will always fail us.

For example, the recent controversy over comedian Michelle Wolf’s routine at the White House correspondent’s dinner serves well to highlight how mainstream media journalists are part of the celebrity class in the U.S., and thus, are covering politicians with a default expectation of civility that trumps serious critique—notably the persistent argument by journalists since the election of Trump that journalists should not directly confront politicians as liars.

Mainstream media journalists, many women and some among the often slurred “liberal media,” have robustly criticized Wolf for her tone and material (framed as personal attacks), defending in effect a pair of serial liars—Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her boss, Trump.

This sort of hand wringing as respectability politics at the exclusion of genuinely deplorable behavior is a perfect snapshot of almost everything that is wrong with mainstream media: Journalists who believe confronting a liar is worse than being a liar, confronting a racist is worse than being a racist.

This journalists’ norm of civility provides cover for Trump’s daily offensive language and behavior because the practical result places the status of president in front of the need to expose lies and bigotry. As Arwa Mahdawi confronts:

What’s more, urging Wolf to apologize for what should have been an uncontroversial joke sends an incredibly dangerous message. It suggests that it’s not OK to criticize the president and his people. And it lends credence to Trump’s repeated claims that the mainstream media is out to get him.

Similar to the both-side approach to all topics by journalists—who refuse to take stands on the credibility of any sides—this call for civility exists because journalists, especially White House correspondents, are bound to creating and maintaining personal relationships with their sources; and thus, just as journalists will take no stand on the credibility of sides, they choose to remain deferent to the status of elected and appointed officials regardless of the ethical character of the people in those positions.

All in the name of access.

In the end, we may be witnessing how the political and media class in the U.S. have become fully parts of the celebrity class.

Mainstream media journalists are peers of elected and appointed officials, and neither are bound to the principles of democracy, the public, or the public good.

Mainstream media are no longer covering politics because politics and mainstream media have joined together to be sidekicks in the ever-expanding reality TV monstrosity that is enveloping our would-be democracy.

Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Maggie Haberman are playing their dutiful roles, sort of a good cop/bad cop routine with far too much wink-wink-nod-nod, and cannot, must not be bothered with the truth.

This real-life dystopia is far more chilling than The Stepford Wives and should make one pause, as Wolf did, to see how The Handmaid’s Tale is not mere speculation.

Naive Expert Greater Threat than Fake News

Writer, occasional visiting professor, and “renowned public scholar,” John Warner takes to social media regularly to opine about the failures of pundits and high-profile Op-Ed commentators, notably the ever-dreadful David Brooks. This Tweet strikes at what I have labeled the “naive expert”:

My response was something like “Welcome to my world!” since educators, practitioners and scholars, have worked through the high-stakes accountability era under that exact environment: Politicians, the public, and pundits holding forth on teaching and learning as if no practice or research has ever existed, and then, policy being adopted that seems at times purposefully endorsing what practice and research explicitly reject.

For just one glimpse into “my world,” consider that a couple years ago a journalist at a newspaper reached out to me through social media. When we talked by phone, the journalist immediately confessed that they had taken the education reporter position to get in the door; the journalist has no background in education, or even in covering education as a journalist.

This is a routine fact I witness constantly—journalists have training in journalism (itself a serious problem, as I have confronted often) and then are expected to navigate topics and fields simply by seeking out both sides of the issue, despite having no expertise for determining the credibility of any claims about the topic.

The result is that most media coverage of education is at best misleading, and often in ways that contribute to flawed public perceptions and decades of misguided policy.

Concurrent to Warner’s confronting naive experts—who pose far greater threats to our democracy than fake news—one of the poster boys for the arrogance of public commentary absent any real expertise or experience in the field, Jonathan Chait, held forth about the Obama education legacy, arguing that this legacy is positive but ignored.

Chait suffers from the Columbus effect—”Look! I found this thing!”—and appears completely clueless that throughout the Obama administration, scholars and educators mostly rejected Obama’s education reform agenda that was almost indistinguishable from the equally flawed education agenda under George W. Bush (see this edited volume and my essay).

While Chait benefits from his bully pulpit as a christened public intellectual, most people will fail to read the far more credible and evidence-based responses from Peter Greene and Jersey Jazzman.

Greene dismantles Chait through a series of 9 powerful points, and I want to note that #5 (“Chait doesn’t know what the “sides” are”) serves as an excellent entry point into my own post from 2013 that frames the education reform “sides” in ways that Chait cannot fathom. Chait is trapped in making everything about partisan politics, instead of having experience and expertise in education, which would help him see that ideology is more powerful than crass partisan politics.

Jersey Jazzman builds on Greene’s post and offers a very important framing; naive experts fumble fields in which they have no credibility, but scholars in one discipline often tread into other disciplines in the same sort of ham-fisted ways [1]:

Chait’s piece here is an excellent example of this problem [“naive expert”]. So allow me to take a pointed stick and poke it into the econometric beehive; here are some things everyone should understand about recent research on things like charter schools and teacher evaluation that too many economists never seem to get around to mentioning.

And while Warner laments the damage done to teaching writing, and I have fretted for decades about how naive experts have caused us never to fulfill the promise of universal public education, a far more troubling example of this threat is now playing out in the U.S. where we are in a perpetual state of moving past the most recent mass or school shooting.

From school safety to gun control debates, most in the media are allowing commentary based on the person’s status, and almost no media are requiring an evidence-based discussion. Just as mainstream media have been complicit in the failures of education reform since the early 1980s, mainstream media are complicit in the political and public paralysis that continues to allow mass and school shootings in the U.S.

While politicians and the media toss around “the marketplace of ideas” to justify the “both sides” and “all voices matter” approaches for public discourse, failing to address the credibility of voices ultimately fails that marketplace.

Expertise and experience matter, in fact, in ways that naive experts fail miserably.

So let me end by returning to Columbus, mentioned briefly above.

The Columbus myth—that he discovered America—endured and continues to endure because of the Columbus effect, those without real and nuanced historical knowledge or sensitivity to native people both created and then perpetuated a provably false narrative about Columbus and his often inhumane as well as incompetent reign as a so-called explorer.

Even as historians unpacked the Columbus myth, however, the punditry and public have continued to frame the facts of history as political correctness or some sort of misguided social justice over-reach (see also the chasm between historical facts about and the myth of the Founding Fathers).

The naive position combined with power, like Columbus, works in ways that harm everyone.

Expertise and experience are not perfect, but they do offer the better opportunity for creating a more perfect union.

Yes, let’s discredit fake news, but let’s also admit that the naive expert punditry poses the greatest threat to our democracy and humanity.


[1] See Well, It’s Complicated: How to Stop Living by What You Think and Start Living by What You Know

“Both Sides” Journalism, Crossing the Bigfoot Line in a Culture of Mass Shootings

Over a couple of days, I interacted with two journalists considering or working on articles about education (one about arming teachers and the other about a major charter chain in the Midwest).

One journalist was soliciting through Facebook teachers’ opinions on arming teachers, asking specifically for both teachers for and against*. The other journalist arranged a phone interview with me about “no excuses” approaches to discipline in schools, a conversation that ended with requesting if I knew other scholars/professors who were for “no excuses” practices (since I had spoken conclusive against).

In my course on scholarly reading and writing in education, students are applying critical discourse analysis to how media cover key education issues, and then framing that against the high-quality research base on those issues. Two of the concerns we are confronting about media include “both sides” journalism [1] (providing both sides of an issue as a foundational approach to all issues) and crossing the Bigfoot line [2] (reporting on the fact of something being claimed—as in writing a story about someone claiming to see Bigfoot—with no context of whether the claim is credible).

If an article on arming teachers flatly states that arming teachers is currently a debate (which crosses the Bigfoot line) and then includes 2-3 teachers for and 2-3 teachers against, most readers will conclude that the debate is a simple for/against issue with both sides equally credible and equally supported by teachers.

John Warner, however, confronts that simplistic approach:

The gravity of the position of president contributes to the media crossing the Bigfoot line and shirking their critical obligations by, as Warner notes, promoting a non-debate debate.

When the other journalist inquired about scholars/professors supporting “no excuses” practices, I warned about the need to consider the credibility of those scholars (since the ones I could identify have clear conflicts of interest because of the funding for their endowed chairs and department).

“Both sides” journalism and crossing the Bigfoot line, then, fail public discourse and likely public policy because they misrepresent the proportion of support for issues (some issues are fairly equally supported, but many issues are well established on one side and have almost no credibility on the so-called “other” side—think Holocaust denial) and fail to address the credibility of that support**.

Here, we also confront the problem with polling. Polls after the Parkland, Florida school shooting show the general public supports gun control and are about split on arming teachers:

Nearly two-thirds of Americans support stricter laws on gun sales, including an increasing number of Republicans, but the public divides on the idea of allowing more teachers and school officials to carry guns. Arming teachers draws partisan splits, with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed, a CBS News poll reveals.

Therefore, crossing the Bigfoot line illustrates that reporting the fact of this data fails to address whether or not those opinions are informed.

A “both sides” media are not making the critical step of investigating if public opinion matches research and evidence.

How might the public respond to arming teachers if first informed about the very low accuracy rate of trained officers in active shooting incidents? About the likelihood that officers will fire on anyone holding a gun in an active shooter event?

That people think something is accurate is dangerous if those beliefs aren’t supported by evidence—and if the democratic process allows public belief to drive public policy.

A critical media would frame that calling for arming teachers is deeply flawed and not supported by evidence on guns, active shooter events, and research on safety policies for schools—regardless of political and public support.

A country with school shootings, mass shootings, and gun violence as common place tragedies cannot afford a misinformed political leadership and public, and without a critical media, we have little chance of rising above and then moving beyond being a negligent country that fiddles while children die regularly in a spray of gunfire.

In a recent class, as we discussed my exchanges with journalists and the problems with “both sides” journalism, one student asked what journalists should do, specifically raising concerns about not including alternative viewpoints.

This critical and important question leads to recognizing that “both sides” journalism ultimately is overly simplistic and that covering issues is far more complex—requiring journalists to evaluate the topic and the credibility of viewpoints before deciding how to present the topic in a way that reflects the proportion and credibility of so-called “sides.”

Once we acknowledge that we make this choice all the time—for example, media covering domestic abuse never seek out those who endorse hitting spouses/women—we then can seek media standards that are critical and informative instead of striking a faux and harmful pose of neutrality.

That neutrality is always a lie since covering a topic, crossing the Bigfoot line, is a political act in itself and one that does far more harm than good—especially in moments of great violence and the urgency required to make better choices as a free people.


* See Arming Upstate teachers: Enthusiastic support, fierce opposition

** Follow this thread:

 

[1] See Mainstream “Both Sides” Journalism Continues to Ignore Critical Third Way

[2] See Mainstream Media and the Rise of Fake News: Crossing the Bigfoot Line and When Fake Is Real and Real Is Fake: More on Crossing the Bigfoot Line

NEW: Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America

Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America

Edited by Christian Z. Goering, University of Arkansas, USA and Paul L. Thomas, Furman University, USA

This edited collection is not a response to the 2016 United States Presidential Election so much as it is a response to the issues highlighted through that single event and since when incredibly smart, sophisticated, and intelligent members of our society were confused by misinformation campaigns. While media literacy and critical media literacy are ideas with long histories in formal education, including K-12 students and higher education, the need for increased attention to these issues has never reached a flash point like the present. The essays collected here are confrontations of post-truth, fake news, mainstream media, and traditional approaches to formal schooling. But there are no simple answers or quick fixes. Critical media literacy, we argue here, may well be the only thing between a free people and their freedom.

Table of contents

Foreword vii
William M. Reynolds1. An Introduction: Can Critical Media Literacy Save Us? 1
Christian Z. Goering and P. L. Thomas2. An Educator’s Primer: Fake News, Post-Truth, and a Critical Free Press 7
P. L. Thomas

3. Reconsidering Evidence in Real World Arguments 25
Troy Hicks and Kristen Hawley Turner

4. What Is the Story? Reading the Web as Narrative 39
Sharon A. Murchie and Janet A. Neyer

5. Fighting “Fake News” in an Age of Digital Disorientation: Towards
“Real News,” Critical Media Literacy Education, and Independent
Journalism for 21st Century Citizens 53
Rob Williams

6. Educating the Myth-Led: Critical Literacy Pedagogy in a Post-Truth World 67
Robert Williams and Daniel Woods

7. Teaching Critical Media Literacy as a Social Process in Writing
Intensive Classrooms 85
Joanne Addison

8. Before You Click “Share”: Mindful Media Literacy as a Positive Civic Act 99
Jason L. Endacott, Matthew L. Dingler, Seth D. French and John P. Broome

9. Engaging the Storied Mind: Teaching Critical Media Literacy through
Narrative 115
Erin O’Neill Armendarez

10. Supporting Media-Savvy Youth-Activists: The Case of Marcus Yallow 127
Mark A. Lewis

11. Creating Wobble in a World of Spin: Positioning Students to Challenge
Media Poses 141
Sarah Bonner, Robyn Seglem and Antero Garcia

Author Biographies 155

Research and Miscellaneous Roundup

Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler

Abstract

Though some warnings about online “echo chambers” have been hyperbolic, tendencies toward selective exposure to politically congenial content are likely to extend to misinformation and to be exacerbated by social media platforms. We test this prediction using data on the factually dubious articles known as “fake news.” Using unique data combining survey responses with individual-level web traffic histories, we estimate that approximately 1 in 4 Americans visited a fake news website from October 7-November 14, 2016. Trump supporters visited the most fake news websites, which were overwhelmingly pro-Trump. However, fake news consumption was heavily concentrated among a small group — almost 6 in 10 visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of people with the most conservative online information diets. We also find that Facebook was a key vector of exposure to fake news and that fact-checks of fake news almost never reached its consumers.

Educational opportunity in early and middle childhood: Variation by place and age, Sean F. Reardon

Abstract

I use standardized test scores from roughly 45 million students to describe the temporal structure of educational opportunity in over 11,000 school districts—almost every district in the US. For each school district, I construct two measures: the average academic performance of students in grade 3 and the within-cohort growth in test scores from grade 3 to 8. I argue that third grade average test scores can be thought of as measures of the average extent of educational opportunities available to students in a community prior to age 9. Growth rates in average scores from grade 3 to 8 can be thought of as reflecting educational opportunities available to children in a school district between the ages of 9 and 14.

I document considerable variation among school districts in both average third grade scores and test score growth rates. Importantly, the two measures are uncorrelated, indicating that the characteristics of communities that provide high levels of early childhood educational opportunity are not the same as those that provide high opportunities for growth from third to eighth grade. This suggests that the role of schools in shaping educational opportunity varies across school districts. Moreover, the variation among districts in the two temporal opportunity dimensions implies that strategies to improve educational opportunity may need to target different age groups in different places. One additional implication of the low correlation between growth rates and average third grade scores is that measures of average test scores are likely very poor measures of school effectiveness. The growth measure I construct does not isolate the contribution of schools to children’s academic skills, but is likely closer to a measure of school effectiveness than are measures of average test scores.

Tax Bill Would Increase Abuse of Charitable Giving Deduction, with Private K-12 Schools as the Biggest Winners, Carl Davis

From Executive Summary

In its rush to pass a major rewrite of the tax code before year’s end, Congress appears likely to enact a “tax reform” that creates, or expands, a significant number of tax loopholes. One such loophole would reward some of the nation’s wealthiest individuals with a strategy for padding their own bank accounts by “donating” to support private K-12 schools. While a similar loophole exists under current law, its size and scope would be dramatically expanded by the legislation working its way through Congress.2 This report details how, as an indirect result of capping the deduction for state income taxes paid, the bill expected to emerge from the House-Senate Conference Committee would enlarge a loophole being abused by taxpayers who steer money into private K-12 school voucher funds. This loophole is available in 10 states: Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Virginia.

The Sound of White Silence, @michaelharriot

White is a blank space.

It is the unwritten adjective that filled the infinite and simultaneously minuscule void between “all” and “men” when our founding fathers so eloquently declared their independence. The word “white” is not included in the Constitution, but it is understood by all to be the unmentioned modifier in “we the people.” It is our national equivalent to the aphonic letter “e.” We could always see it, but as a country we agreed to adhere to the first rule of American phonetics:

The “white” is silent.

The Nature and Aim of Fiction, Flannery O’Connor

People have a habit of saying, “What is the theme of your story?” and they expect you to give them a statement: “The theme of my story is the economic pressure of the machine on the middle class”—or some such absurdity. And when they’ve got a statement like that, they go off happy and feel it is no longer necessary to read the story.

Some people have the notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but for the fiction writer himself the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.

 

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.