Many Closets, One Fear: How Not to Be Seen

This starts with caveats and clarifications so please be patient.

I am white, male, and heterosexual—by the coincidences of my birth, many of my defining characteristics place me in the norm of my culture and combine to bestow upon me through no merit on my part a great deal of privilege.

Below, then, I am making no claim that the closets I have suffered and that others suffer share some sort of ultimate equivalence even though they share the crippling power of fear. I remain deeply angered at the scars of racism, sexism, and homophobia that linger in my country that claims to be a beacon of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I remain deeply angered at the scar of poverty that flourishes in that same country wrapping its crass consumerism and capitalism in the flag in order to continue to ignore inequity.

But as a privileged person, I too understand the weight of the closet and the paralysis of fear so I am venturing into this not as a pity party, not as navel gazing, and not to make some grand claim that I know what it is like to be the daily victim of racism, sexism, or homophobia, what it is like to be homeless or hungry.

I don’t.

This, however, is a place to offer a few words about the intersections that may at first not seem like intersections at all: Jason Collins coming out of the closet, the Boston Marathon bombing, Common Core State Standards (CCSS), Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) and other “no excuses” schools.

“Stones can make people docile and knowable,” writes Foucault [1]. “The old simple schema of confinement and enclosure—thick walls, a heavy gate that prevent entering or leaving—began to be replaced by the calculation of openings, of filled and empty spaces, passages and transparencies” (p. 190).

Here, Foucault is being literal, confronting the culture of control that is housed in social institutions such as hospitals, prisons, and schools. But I want to consider the enclosure of the metaphorical closet before coming back to the role of the brick-and-mortar school below.

My privilege built on gender, race, and sexuality (all elements of my being I have not chosen, but essentials of whom I am) has contributed to my existential angst of coming to recognize throughout my life the equally important aspects of my Self that are distinctly outside cultural norms.

In my late 30s, I began to experience panic attacks, notably ones not directly associated with an event but attacks that were, as best as I can describe them, the manifestation of a war with myself. The attacks came upon me any time I tried to sleep, relax, and this was when my Normal Self let down the guard enough for the real and true me to begin to fight for the surface.

Again, I don’t want to belabor my personal struggles, but I do want to emphasize that the human condition is fraught with closets of many kinds that are joined by fear.

My closeting has always been an existential one: I have never felt the sort of normal response to religion that others appear to embrace (a powerful closeting condition in the South), but even more profoundly, I recognize my worldview as completely out of kilter with almost all other humans. It has created for me an often overwhelming sense of alienation.

What often is left unspoken is that it is in the moments of conflict between who we truly are and who we are expected to be that we feel self-conscious, we imagine that all eyes are on us, judging us, recognizing us for who we truly are in order to banish us from the community. For me, it is the never-ending ritual of “Let us pray…” or that split second when someone says something and everyone else nods in agreement while I calculate the damage that would be done if I said my piece. Both of these seem trivial to me in the text I just typed, but the cumulative effect of this daily, I think, must not be discounted—particularly as it occurred in my childhood and youth.

Closets exist because humans come to recognize two forces—who we truly are and who the World around us demands that we be. If who we truly are doesn’t match the demand, we often gather the stones to build our closets because above all else we are afraid of not being accepted, not being loved, not being cherished for who we truly are.

Even in our moments of such recognitions, we reach out for someone to join us:

I’m Nobody! Who are you? (260)

Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

The closet, then, is a place to hide, how not to be seen. However, the human condition involves a drive not only to be seen, but also to be accepted, embraced. This has been profoundly demonstrated in Jason Collin’s own words about his motivation for confronting his sexuality within the exponentially judgmental worlds of social and athletic homophobia and normative expectations for being fully a man.

This tension between being seen and not being seen is at the center of Foucault’s culture of control: “This infinitely scrupulous concern with surveillance is expressed in the architecture by innumerable mechanisms….The perfect disciplinary apparatus would make it possible for a single gaze to see everything constantly” (p. 191).

Constant surveillance, then, achieves two ends: The power and coercion of normalizing (control, obedience), and the creation of anxiety, fear, where neither are warranted: “The perpetual penality that traverses all points and supervises every instant in the disciplinary institutions compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes. In short, it normalizes” (p. 195).

The existential angst within the human condition, made more pronounced from within our many closets, confronts the concrete structures recognized by Foucault—hospitals, schools, prisons—but also now confronts a pervasive surveillance that was identified and then normalized itself because of the Boston Marathon bombing—the Brave New World of constant surveillance through smart phones, ubiquitous surveillance cameras, and the interconnectivity afforded through the Internet.

The normalizing came in the form of repeated comments from political leaders, law enforcement, and the media that the constant surveillance has now shown itself as essential for our safety—from the (criminal) Other, our mechanisms for the middle-class cocoon.

“Similarly,” Foucault explains, “the school building was to be a mechanism for training” (p. 190).

Building on Foucault’s recognition of the structures within a culture of control, DeLeuze details:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family….The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms: to reform schools….But everyone knows that these institutions are finished….These are the societies of control, which are in the process of replacing the disciplinary societies….In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything [emphasis added]. (pp. 3, 5)

And now the intersections among closeted existences, fear, constant surveillance and the Boston Marathon bombing, and the “age of infinite examination” that is education reform built on accountability, standards, and high-stakes testing.

First let’s zoom in to the life of the student, specifically the student marginalized in her/his home and community and then marginalized in her/his school: “a pupil’s ‘offense’ is not only a minor infraction, but also an inability to carry out his tasks,” Foucault explains (p. 194), predating significantly the new norm of “no excuses” school cultures as captured by Sarah Carr’s look at post-Katrina New Orleans and the rise of KIPP and similar charter schools:

The reformers approach students they perceive as disadvantaged in much the same way they do struggling teachers….[L]ow income children must be taught, explicitly and step-by-step, how to be good students. Staff at a growing number of “no-excuses” charter schools…are prescriptive about where new students look (they must “track” the speaker with their eyes), how they sit (upright, with both feet planted on the ground, hands folded in front of them), how they walk (silently and in a straight line, which is sometimes marked out for them by tape on the floor), how they express agreement (usually through snaps or “silent clapping” because it’s less disruptive to the flow of class), and, most important, what they aspire to (college, college, college). This conditioning (or “calibration” or “acculturation”…) starts with the youngest of students. (pp. 42-43) [2]

“The disciplinary mechanisms,” Foucault explains, “secreted a ‘penalty of the norm,’ which is irreductible in its principles and functioning to the traditional penalty of the law” (p. 196). Carr and Nolan, in her ethnography of zero tolerance policies in urban high schools [3], shine a light on how schools and the penal system have merged in the U.S. for “other people’s children”—creating both a school-to-prison pipeline and schools as prisons.

CCSS and the high-stakes tests designed to enforce those standards, then, are yet a logical extension of the broader purposes of school to control, an institution that “compares, differentiates, hierarchizes, homogenizes, excludes[,]…normalizes” through the mechanism of tests:

The order that the disciplinary punishments must enforce is of a mixed nature: it is an “artificial” order, explicitly laid down by a law, a program, a set of regulations. But it is also an order defined by natural and observable processes: the duration of apprenticeship, the time taken to perform an exercise, the level of aptitude refer to a regularity that is also a rule. (Foucault, pp. 194-195)

As well, Deleuze recognizes education is in a contant state of crisis, reform, and standardization, within which schools, teachers, and students can never finish. Our Brave New World of standardization and “infinite examination” is one of international rankings, school rankings, teacher rankings, and student rankings—all of which assure that virtually everyone cannot possibly measure up; number two is perpetually the first loser.

“The power of the Norm appears throughout the disciplines,” adds Foucault:

The Normal is established as a principle of coercion in teaching with the introduction of a standardized education and the establishment of the ecoles normales (teachers’ training college)….Like surveillance and with it, normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age. (p. 196)

A culture of control is the antithesis of a community.

A culture of control uses the normative gaze to breed conformity and to excise the Different from the herd.

A community reaches out, lends a hand, opens arms. A community is an invitation to the recognition of the humanity that joins all people despite the diversity among us individually.

Many closets, one fear—this should speak to our hearts in a way that moves us beyond cultures and societies of control and toward a community.

We should also come to see that our culture of control is built upon and perpetuated by a dehumanizing education mechanism grounded in surveillance and fear.

Just as fear is the wrong motivation for embracing the perpetual surveillance created by smart phones, cameras on every street corner, and the Internet, fear is the wrong motivation for how we build our schools.

Ultimately, KIPP and other “no excuses” charter schools, CCSS, and the perpetual churn of education reform are the consequences of fear.

Ceaseless school reform is irrational and heartless; it is building closets from the stones of test scores.

Ceaseless school reform creates schools and a society in which we all must find ways not to be seen, fearful if we take the risk to stand as our true selves in that open field we too will be shot down like a punch line in a comedy sketch.

[1] Foucault, M. (1984). The Foucault reader. Ed. P. Rabinow. New York: Pantheon Books. See “The means of correct training” from Discipline and punish.

[2] Carr, S. (2013). Hope against hope: Three schools, one city, and the struggle to educate America’s children. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.

[3] Nolan, K. (2011). Police in the hallways: Discipline in an urban high school. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.