Why Political Correctness is back

feminist-tweetsI don’t have much to say about Jonathan Chait’s recent missive against the new wave of political correctness. The debate he sparked has followed predictable lines: most lefties deny the problem or downplay it, adding a healthy dose of ad hominem against Chait to build their case (he’s not a true leftie, he’s said bad things in the past, and he’s a white guy, so case closed.) Debating the merits of these accusations is, in the larger scheme of things, beside the point. Even if individual examples can be dismissed, the totality of the evidence proves that the problem exists.

I’d like to focus instead on a debate that unfolded between fellow lefties Freddie deBoer and Angus Johnston. Both bloggers are worth your time, but to state briefly, deBoer argues that political correctness is a major problem that is stifling free speech and preventing would-be activists from joining liberal causes, while Johnston is much more optimistic and finds the issues Chait and deBoer raise overblown and easily addressed within an in-group setting. If the dynamics of this exchange sound familiar to you, it’s because this debate is a carbon copy of the ongoing missives between ex-churchgoers listing the reasons the church has failed us, and the Christians chiding them for leaving the fold.

Johnston has adopted a social justice version of The Gospel Coalition position: activist organizations are great, people are welcoming, and you just need to make an effort to be respectful in order to fit in. If there’s a problem or you feel unwelcome, it’s likely your fault.

deBoer is taking the Benjamin Corey position: activist organizations are unwelcoming, cliquish, and thick with their own coded language that separates rather than unites. If there’s a problem and you feel unwelcome, then maybe it’s the organization’s fault after all. (If you’re skeptical of my take, skim over Corey’s first nine bullet points about why people are leaving churches and switch out “leave church” with “quit activism” or “quit being allies.” The similarities are astonishing.)

While it makes sense for churches and activist groups to set behavioral expectations, it’s worth asking why liberal activists sweat the small stuff so much (and invent small stuff to sweat over). I’ve worked with both conservative and liberal activists over the years (sometimes concurrently), and I believe that the answer can be found within the culture of activist groups themselves.

We live in an age when women’s health clinics are being shut down at an unprecedented rate, yet there is little effort to reverse this trend. Activists seem to care more about making sure reporters get quotes from women of color in articles about the closing of health clinics than whether the clinics themselves stay open. Rather than fight for gay housing and employment rights, they focus on making sure activists say “cisgender” instead of “straight.” Instead of fighting to reverse the trend of cutting programs that support the disabled, activists waste time scolding people for using the word “disabled.”

I believe that the cause of all this infighting over political correctness is an underlying pessimism among liberal activists. By and large, activists do not believe that abortion rights are salvageable in the short term (due mainly to the conservative make up of the higher courts, and the rightward swing of state and federal governments.) Most do not believe that global warming will be reversed because oil companies and climate change deniers wield too much power. The battle for racial equality mimics the misfortunes of gun control advocates: a tragic shooting happens, then a big media flare up follows. Protests, grassroots energy, and hope for genuine change surge. Sometimes that energy grows to the point where it looks like the Left might finally be getting its act together. But then the sound and fury fades. The media loses interest, conservatives change the terms of debate, and the Left flitters off to the next controversy or tragedy. With few exceptions, the momentum is on the conservative side.

Some of this pessimism is warranted. By design the modern Left attempts to stand up for the powerless, so the people they’re advocating for lack the resources to sustain their cause. It’s a lot easier to defend billionaires than the poor. The decline of unions and blue collar liberals has led to greater dependance on academia and young people. This adds up to a largely unreliable voting base that lacks resources and the self-discipline to sustain political causes beyond 4-year presidential election cycles. An aging population coupled with rising costs of college may deal another major blow.

So that leaves us with the kind of activism that young people with short attention spans can sustain. Activism that can win small victories with minimal effort. Activism that people suffering the weight of massive debt and time-consuming jobs can participate in. And yes, activism that can often bring positive results.

Language has proven to be the easiest thing to police online. What begins as noble intentions (be considerate of others’ feelings and experiences) and clear cut goals almost everyone can get on board with (racism and misogyny suck) easily morphs into the bullying campaigns deBoer and others describe: someone famous says something ignorant. So you spread the word, call them out for it and get them to recant. With a few days’ work, you’ve helped communicate your message globally, established your reasoning, and discouraged others from using the same language. Often this creates positive change, but it’s usually superficial change, and it creates the illusion of genuine political victories.

As these quick successes multiply, in-group expectations intensify. Some of these are positive (like pointing out that women of color have lacked a voice in feminism) while others are negative (like condemning anti-war veterans for using masculine language to express their frustration with the military-industrial complex.)

Instead of acknowledging that people who travel in different social and economic circles will not be familiar with their in-group language, activists attempt to transfer the environment of their online community into the real world, full of people who don’t tweet or don’t have time for their meetings or learning their lingo. So you end up with the same alienating dynamic evangelicals experience when they try to use Christianese in public, except liberals resent the fact that people aren’t hip to their lingo more than evangelicals do.

As a result, even the best ideas become unwieldy and incapable of being translated to non-academic circles. Does anyone believe that your average fifty-something blue collar Dad with a GED diploma could ever get his mouth around the phrase “reinforce patriarchal and heteronormative stereotypes of women,” even if he’s a lifelong Democrat?) So instead of translating their ideas for the public, the public is expected to learn activist’s language. The whole process is so convoluted that you end up with situations like the ones deBoer describes, where people just give up rather than risk offending people, even when they mean well and want to contribute.

20 Things You Really Need To Know About State College

state-collegeNormally I wouldn’t respond to puff pieces on real estate websites, but a number of my Facebook friends posted a feel-good article called Twenty Things You Need To Know About State College Before You Move There, and it irked me just enough to make me want to share my take on my hometown.

I’ve lived in State College (home of Penn State University) for about 29 years. I’ve seen the town from the perspective of a teenager, college student, townie, and adult student. the article does tell a few truths and half-truths, but my take isn’t quite as sunny as most people here. FYI, even though this list is mostly a rant, it’s also intended as genuine advice.

1. The Penn State Child Molestation Scandal Isn’t Over Yet

It’s been almost two and a half years since former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky was arrested on 48 counts of child molestation. Even though Sandusky was tried and sentenced in 2012, the fallout from his crimes still dominates our news, and people act out about it in all kinds of annoying and embarrassing ways.

If you recall, in addition to Sandusky being charged with molesting children. three Penn State administrators were also charged with covering up his crimes. Their trials have not taken place yet. There’s not even a court date. If you move here, you will have to endure all of the ugly revelations that are certain to come out.

2. This Town Doesn’t Think Sandusky’s Crimes Were The Real Scandal; Joe Paterno’s Firing Was.

Many locals have gone out of their way to prove to the world that this town really does only care about football. You’ll see billboards and signs in storefronts decrying Joe Paterno’s firing, and every few months group of reactionary alumni, led by the Paternos and ex-Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris, hold melodramatic protests complaining about Paterno’s firing. They have also infiltrated the Penn State Trustees Board, creating this weird dynamic where members are suing each other and badmouthing each other during Trustee meetings.

Aside form a few locals who’ve gotten together to raise money for charities that assist victims of child molestation, most locals care more about the fact that Joe Paterno was fired from his job as a result of the scandal.You’ll also hear a lot of outrage over the NCAA sanctions against the football team and the Freeh Report.

3. Penn State’s Academic Calendar Dictates Life In This Town Beyond Football Season.

There are about 40,000 people who live in the State College Area. There are close to 50,000 Penn State students. Businesses that don’t cater to college students tend to struggle, and the ebbs and flows between the academic calendar can be jarring. If you like peace and quiet, the summer months are great. If you like the bustle and energy the students bring, the summer months are dull.

4. Conservative Churches Love College Students; Mainline Churches Hate Them.

I’m not kidding. If you go to an evangelical or fundamentalist church in this town, you’ll see a lot of young couples and college students. They’re always striving to bring in more of them.

The mainline churches and the Catholic Churches tend to be older, grayer, and they like it that way. If you’re a college student and you show up at these churches, you’ll be treated as a nuisance and shuttled out of view until you get the message and leave. Back when I was a twentysomething hunting for a church home, a pastor explained to me that geography was the key: the closer the church was to the campus, the more hostile it was to the students.

5. If You’re A Gay Christian, You Have Three Churches To Choose From.

That number is probably a lot better than most places in rural Pennsylvania, but for a college town, the Christian community is pretty anti-gay, and only three churches accept gays as they are.

6. Be Prepared To Lose A Lot Of Friends.

My church used to call State College a crossroads town, which is another way to say that most people are here for just a few years before they move on to another town. Obviously this affects students the most, but adults tend not to stick around long, either. A long time ago I calculated that every four or five years I had to “start over” with a new set of friends because the old batch would all get jobs elsewhere by that point.

7. The Dating Scene Is Nonexistent If You’re Over 25.

The town is populated by college students, married academics, white collar workers, and retirees. Not much else. If you’re like a friend of mine who got divorced in his 40’s and only wanted to date devout Christian women his age, forget it.

8. The Schools Are Great.

This town has a lot of doctors, professors and wealth. That translates to schools with high academic standards and motivated parents and students.

9. The Cultural Opportunities Are Pretty Damn Good.

Not as good as they used to be, though. There used to be a happening bar scene with lots of good bands and great small-label acts playing. That scene is pretty dead now, but a surprising number of big-name acts do come here, and the university itself draws a lot of well-known speakers and performances.

10. If You Get A Job Offer At Penn State, Don’t Take It.

I’m serious. In spite of the image of an ivy-covered nirvana of intellectual growth and connecting with the future leaders of America, Penn State’s administrative structure is ruthlessly corporate. Pretty much every person not working in a classroom walks in fear of losing their job or getting their healthcare axed. For more than a decade the university has started the new year with by revising health care policies that screw over both employees and retirees who assumed that their healthcare plan was secure. When one plan gets shut down, you can bet that another, more aggressive plan is coming down the pike.

The university also has this really cool policy of laying off employees before they turn 65 so they can save money.

11. Our Idiots Tend To Be A Little Smarter Than Most.

I didn’t realize this until I started traveling to churches across the country. The concentration of academia here tend to add a little complexity and nuance to even our most conservative churches (hence the fact that I belonged to an evangelical church that counted three evolutionists on its Deacon board, including myself.) The obvious first tip is that people here tend to have a better vocabulary and manner of expressing themselves. You still get a lot of Christians who buy into the Glenn Beck/ Sarah Palin political views, but    somehow they’re less off-putting because they can actually sit down and debate with you rather than scream “Obama’s A Socialist!” over and over.

12. This Town Is Like A Lunar Colony.

Like the article says, drive 15 minutes in any direction and you hit farmland. What it doesn’t say is that you have to drive 90 minutes before you hit the nearest city, Harrisburg.

13. It’s A Great Town If You’re Disabled.

That’s something I’ve learned to appreciate as I’ve gotten older. The presence of students combined with the high elderly populations means that the public transportation is excellent, and most sidewalks and buildings are wheelchair-accessible.

14. People Are Very Nice, But Skittish About Making New Friends.

See Point 6. A lot of people carry those scars with them. I can get off the mat and make new friends more easily that most people, but a lot of townies just get burned out and tired of having people come and go in their lives, so they hold onto the friends they have with every fiber of their being and don’t let others into their circle.

That said, State College is refreshingly devoid of the kind of snobbishness you see in towns where the population is static and people have lived there for generations. The snobbery here tends to be directed towards all those drinking and sex-crazed students passing out on their lawns in the middle of the night.

15. The Downtown Scene Is Dead..

This is the one point the article got blatantly wrong. State College has struggled for decades with businesses closing downtown due to high taxes and lack of business. As student housing has spread towards the northern end of town,the downtown situation has become more lifeless.  The bar scene is lively, but the kind of people inclined to visit a real estate website won’t care about that. The restaurant selection is pretty good, but the only stores that succeed are Penn State memorabilia stores, kitschy trinket stores, and pizza joints. And there’s a bank on every block.

16. Penn State Students Tend To Be Politically Lazy.

I say this because some people might be hopeful (or worried) that moving to State College will mean seeing dozens of angry sophomores railing against The Keystone XL or either side of the abortion debate. Don’t worry about it. Once in a blue moon you’ll see a protest, but the only ones that draw a consistent crowd are hellfire preachers who come in from out of town to rile up college students, and Franco Harris’s crew.

17. You’d Be Surprised How Racist This Town Is.

In spite of #11, idiocy is idiocy. Bigots here tend to be very cautious before they show their cards, but if you’re around you long enough that they think they can trust you, you might hear rants about darkies or niggers.

18. If You’re An Evangelical, You Have Five Churches To Choose From.

And if you have teenagers or are a college student, you’re going to Calvary Baptist Church. There’s no point resisting it. Pretty much every evangelical in this town has either become a member of Calvary Baptist or attended enough services there to feel like a member. These churches tend to shuttle members back and forth; if things go bad at one church, you move onto one of the other four. And Calvary will be one of your choices. You cannot resist it.

19. We Turn Centre County Blue.

After almost every election, you’ll see a little blue trianglish-shaped spot in the red conservative “T” Pennsylvania is famous for. That’s Penn State voters flexing their political muscle on the conservative boonies that surround us. Oddly enough, the conservative presence here was much more vibrant in the 90’s. Now it’s a given that Democrats will win most of our local elections.

20. There Are (Almost) No Bookstores.

Back in the 90’s, downtown State College had six bookstores, in addition to two more out in the shopping centers. There were great bookstores with really eclectic and interesting stuff- the kind of bookstores you’d dream a good college town would have. Barnes & Noble and the internet killed off all but one of them. Now we have Webster’s, which is a great used bookstore and Cafe, and a shell of what used to be Barnes & Noble. Oddly enough I’ve gone from resenting our Barnes & Noble store to pitying it, and wishing it could survive. But half of the store space has been converted to a toy store (yes, a toy store!). At least Circuit City had the guts to just pull the plug on itself instead of living off an IV Drip of Monopoly games.

Rape On Campus

Stop-RapeI wasn’t going to wade into the debate over Emily Yoffe’s recent Slate post about rape. Written from the perspective of a mother advising her daughter on her way to college (with plenty of data to back up her arguments), Yoffe outlines some common sense tips women can take to avoid placing themselves in dangerous situations.

The internet predictably blew up because her article focused on getting drunk (especially binge drinking), and it was interpreted as a blame-the-victim piece. Lots of good counterpoints to Yoffe’s article were made.

Then came Amanda Hess’s response to Yoffe (also found on Slate). Hess chose to return the focus to how campuses can help prevent rape. Given that I’ve lived in the shadow of Penn State (which consistently ranks among the biggest party schools in the nation due to its size and large fraternity population) for 27 years, I figured I’d offer my perspective.

First of all, in the big picture I think Yoffe and Hess’s arguments can be boiled down to two valid perspectives: the academic view (Hess) and the maternal view (Yoffe). Or, to put it another way, it’s the difference between the longterm social challenge of dismantling rape culture and the short-term advice for how women should exercise caution during their next semester.

I get Hess’s perspective. I think she makes a lot of good points and presents some good strategic ideas. But even if the university Yoffe’s daughter attends chooses to wholeheartedly embraces a public strategy that puts the onus on punishing rapists and emphasizes that the rapist alone is to blame for their crimes, it won’t impact the cultural environment Yoffe’s daughter encounters next week or next month.

I’ll try illustrate my point with an analogy. I’m not going to pretend that it’s as grave in scale as rape or that it’s a fair comparison. But I hope it helps illustrate the psychological tension I see between their views.

I’m an epileptic. Epilepsy is a disease that can afflict anyone at any stage of life. There are a myriad number of reasons once can get epilepsy: you can be born with it; it can occur in the wake of an accident or a blow to the head; it can be a consequence of a tumor, illness or drug use; it can also be a biochemical problem. In most cases there is no clear “answer” as to why a person has epilepsy. You can’t blame the epileptic for their seizures, although many people do.

I get two types of seizures: simple focal (which looks like I’m spacing out or clumsy) and tonic-clonic (aka falling down, convulsing, biting your tongue or worse). My epilepsy is what doctors call “uncontrolled,” meaning that in spite of trying dozens of medications over the years, they’ve never found a combination that completely controls my seizures. Meaning that I can have a seizure at any given moment even if I take my medication.

On the other hand, there are practical steps I can take to greatly reduce the risk of a seizure: avoid prolonged vigorous exercise, high altitudes, and too much alcohol. But more than anything, I can take my medicine on time. Yeah, it’s boring, it reminds me of my limitations, and it provides no guarantee that I won’t get seizures during the next 12 hours anyway. But it drastically reduces the risk I face. My mother knows this, and she never passes up the chance to remind me to take my medicine. Her reminders are as annoying as they are eminently practical.

Over the years I’ve gone through just about every stage of dealing with my problem that one can imagine: keeping a rigid pill schedule for fear of my next seizure; refusing to take them when I’m told because damn it, I wanted some independence; skipping doses outright to see if I even needed them; being late on doses due to forgetfulness, laziness, or just plain not having them handy when I need them; and, now that I’m older, taking them on time because it’s the smart thing to do.

Now there’s two ways of viewing my situation. One is the Yoffe version: minimize risk, make sensible decisions, and have a friend around in case I get a bad seizure. It adds up to a safe and unadventurous life, so sometimes I feel the need to just get away from it and live a little.

The other approach is the Hess version: focusing on curing the disease rather than my day-to-day risk level; striving not to put too much onus on my behavior because, after all, no seizure is ever “my fault;” bemoaning the fact that society looks down on epileptics, and advocating drastic changes that would make society more conducive for epileptics to live normal lives.

I’m all for the Hess approach.  There are definitive steps society can take that can make life easier for me, like restructuring communities so they are more pedestrian-friendly; increasing bus and mass transit service; engaging in public campaigns that reduce the stigma of having epilepsy, and curing the disease.

But these are long term projects. They’re costly, and while society has grown more sympathetic to people with disabilities over time, the deck is still stacked against them. And, of course, there are still plenty of people who resent the positive steps that have been made and pass down hateful and ignorant attitudes towards epileptics via their children and community. Most people still need to be sold on the idea that these changes are even necessary.

Over time victories on these fronts will yield bigger improvements in the lives of epileptics than just making sure I don’t drink too much or that I take my pills. But odds are I won’t live long enough to see these kinds of changes to their completion, and the problems epileptics face pales compared to the breadth and scale of the bigotry towards women. Especially female victims of rape.

So like epileptics, college-aged women are faced with short-term decisions: odds are going to a frat party will be a fun time, even if they get drunk. Odds are that if they want sex, it’ll be a consensual experience. But a frat party is a riskier environment for a woman’s safety than a sober party is, and it’s riskier still if a woman is drunk. The feminist goals of dismantling patriarchy and rape culture is a decades-long (and probably centuries-long) challenge. No one alive today will see it to its completion.

Yoffe isn’t advocating that women stop going to frat parties or stop having a good time. And she isn’t saying that we should blame drunk women who get raped for being victims. But there are a percentage of rapes that take place within the college-aged party environment. Women can never completely eliminate the risk of being raped at parties -even if they stay sober. But they can reduce the risk.

Why College Activism (Usually) Fails

college protestorsJanice Reece has an interesting post at Women In Theology about her silent protest regarding hr refusal to read theologian Karl Barth. I’ve encountered activist students like her many times over the years, and while her ambitions are more low-key than most activists, she reminded me of the tension between college students’ passions and the ineffectiveness of their efforts.

To be fair to Janice, most of what I have to say here has little to do with her  (I’ll address her protest in my next post).  For now I’m less interested in her situation than I am the psychological pattern I see most college activists go through.

It’s no shock to say that even the most determined students rarely make much of an impact with their activism. The core problem  – and this is something you can only truly see if you live in a college town for half of your life- is the lack of time and a tendency to repeat the failed strategies previous students tried out.

College students have a lot of passion but a very small window to accomplish much politically or institutionally. A calcified institution like the university Janice attends can simply let the wheels of reform grind slower than her stay at the college, so the status quo remains by the time she graduates. Then the next crop of students arrives and makes their own quixotic attempt to advocate the same reforms without knowing what previous students have tried. So the college or the community gives the new students the same vague promises they gave their predecessors.

I’ve seen this pattern repeat itself in a variety of causes – especially efforts related to environmental or institutional reform.  And through my observations, I realized that students have much less than 4 years to make an impact. And that’s because of the 4 Stages of College Activism:

Stage 1 of College Activism is figuring out who you are. You haven’t found your cause because you’re getting acclimated to college life and making friends. You’re also excited about being away from home, so you waste time partying and slacking off. This stage may continue well into your Sophomore year.

Stage 2: Finding your cause. At this point you’ve hooked up with activists that share your goals. You’ll probably be content to do legwork to help carry out the leadership’s vision. But you may not have found your cause yet. If you share your group or organization’s passions, great. You’ve got a head start. But many students are drawn to issues their group isn’t prioritizing. They really can’t make things happen until the current leadership leaves. If you’re flying solo on your cause, you’ll be starting from scratch, so you’ll face a huge learning curve trying to get people to join your cause.

Stage 3: Getting things done. If you’re part of a club or organization, you’ve probably climbed the ranks of leadership or become a reliable activist. If you’re working solo or from scratch, odds are you’ve given up or decided to stay at Stage 2. If you’re driven and organized, you’ve probably recruited enough people to make things happen. Most activists never make it to Stage 3 because their cause is futile, or their strategy fails to work and they don’t have a Plan B to fall back on.

Stage 4: Scaling back. You’re a Senior now, so you have to hunker down and focus on your practicum, finding a job or grad school, etc. You’re still involved in your cause, but now you’re the voice of experience for Stage 2 and 3 students. If your major lines up with your cause, this is where you can really accomplish a lot. But odds are you’re thinking about your future, and since you’re leaving college in less than a year, your commitment to your cause wanes.

Now there are important exceptions to these stages. If you join an established organization with a national top-down leadership, then you’ll probably spend much less time on Stage 1 and stick with Stage 2 longer. The downside is that you’ll have less freedom to do your own thing or promote your cause. You’re taking orders rather than giving them. But the more locally oriented your activism is, the smaller the window for making an impact.

Authorial Intent Matters Pt 2

Will5Yesterday I spent a few minutes combing through the fan responses the latest episode of Breaking Bad. I wish I hadn’t. If you follow the show closely, you’ll hear creator Vince Gilligan emphasize that Walter White is an evil guy, and at this stage of the game you’re not supposed to be rooting for him. But the Facebook conversation was overwhelmed by fans angry over [SPOILER ALERT] Jesse’s decision to talk to Hank. I have no problem with people having different takes on the show (to a degree), but the venom spewed forth about wanting Jessie to die for his lack of loyalty bothered me. It was a glimpse at the misplaced rage actress Anna Gunn has had to deal with for years. In both cases, the problem is a fanbase that has stuck with a narrative that still sees Walter White as a heroic figure. Gilligan has said that this interpretation is incorrect, and his opinion matters more than anyone else’s.

Notice that I did not say “I think” Gilligan’s opinion matters the most. It does matter the most. To the point where, if you’re in disagreement with Gilligan, you’re just plain wrong.

Then I came across Dianna Anderson’s most recent blog post. While her thoughts on literary theory are intended as a set up for her main topic, I think they warrant further analysis:

One of the theories we were introduced to was “Reader Response.” The main takeaway of this theory is that once the text exists as an independent thing, the author’s intent matters very little. You can read historical context and discuss the theory of what he was trying to say, but you have to give primacy to how it is received by the reader – you – and what you’ve brought to the text. How a reader responds to a piece minimizes the intent the author had in promulgating the piece in the first place.

There are parts of this theory I’m uncomfortable with – I do think intent is important when misinterpretation of the work happens – but I agree with the idea that the influence of authorial intent can only take us so far. Because of all the different things readers bring to table, we as writers need to be intensely aware of the ongoing conversation to which we contribute before we spout off thoughts. And we need to remember that once a reader has our words, our intent matters very little. [Emphasis hers]

I understand where she’s coming from, and at face value reader response has a certain allure. In theory it can keep literature alive by allowing future generations to project their own meaning into the text. But I think it’s a misguided approach.

As my first post about authorial intent indicated, my feelings about authorial intent shifted when I changed mediums. As an artist I was a zealot for it. But when I switched my focus to writing, I realized how crucial authorial intent was.

Like Dianna, I had some literature professors who subscribed to reader response theory. But here’s a secret: a big reason why they’re into it is because they want the lowest rungs of the class (i.e. the grumbling engineers who are taking the class as an elective) to be engaged in the class discussions and (in theory at least) actually read the books.

I’m not saying that reader response theory is a hoax. Of course most modern literary schools subscribe to some form of it. But it functions primarily as a teaching strategy.

One of the luxuries of attending college when you’re the same age as your professors is that they will confide in you outside of class. And while some professors were true believers in reader response theory, most saw it as a desperate way to keep students engaged in the humanities. They weren’t concerned about the book lovers, though. There will always be those. They were concerned about the “on the bubble” students who would choose a literature elective on a whim. By de-emphasizing the author and appealing to to each student’s ego, they hoped to create new readers, even if they did so at the cost of a book’s artistic integrity.

Nothing illustrates my point about artistic integrity better than this article about reader response theory. The writer uses Yeat’s “The Second Coming” as an example. I cringe when I see the poem dissected this way, because it’s teaching readers to read poetry line by line rather than as a coherent whole. All one has to do is look at a site like songmeanings to see how disastrously that approach can go. But the reality is that they’re dissecting the poem this way because they don’t have faith that readers will “get” it if they try to take it on as a whole. The poet’s intentions go out the window because teachers have convinced themselves that students will only appreciate poems if they think it’s all about their feelings and experiences.

John Petrie has written a wonderful essay on reader response theory that deserves to be read in full:

It does matter what the author meant by his writing, his themes, and his symbolism, and if you interpret them in your own way that is completely outside of his intentions, then yes, you have interpreted them wrong. There is a right way(s) and a wrong way(s) to interpret an author’s meanings and his intentions. The right way is what the author meant or what the author concedes is a perfectly fine interpretation of his work, and the wrong interpretation is one that the author didn’t intend and does not condone after he hears about it.

He goes on to cite a classic example of what happens when readers schooled under reader response theory are faced with an author they’ve studied:

[Ray] Bradbury has repeatedly said Fahrenheit 451 is not about censorship but rather about how TV dumbs down people and makes them interested only in superficial, useless little “factoids” presented on TV screens…[Bradbury] walked out of a UCLA classroom because the students refused to accept his insistence that Fahrenheit 451 was not about censorship or McCarthyism or anything like that.

I believe that reader response theory is effective in the short term for the same reason I appreciated it when I discussed my artwork with viewers. I knew that I couldn’t be there to explain or correct viewers (nor did I want to sully their viewing experience), so allowing for individual interpretations seemed reasonable. But logistical inconvenience doesn’t therefore mean we surrender authorial intent. Dianna says that writers need to be intensely aware of the ongoing conversation they contribute to. I think thats a great approach, but ultimately reader response theory dictates that we will all reach a point where all of our caution will get lost in history or cast aside to make room for more questions about how the text makes students feel.

Campus Crusaders Pt 6: 1001 Reasons Why I Wasn’t Saved

Kurt Cobain picture I Hate Myself And I Wanna DieKurt Cobain saved my life.

Back during my days with Campus Crusade For Christ, I kept the above poster in my studio. People who saw it were always unnerved by the stark declaration under Kurt’s grinning face, and they’d worry about my mental health. The Christian line on a poster like this was that it was the devil’s influence, and I needed to get it out of my house asap. But that poster kept me sane. It was a constant reminder of the consequences of suicide: the horrible things people said about Cobain, the silencing of his voice, and the commodification of his death. Every day, I would see that poster and regain my incentive to live another day.

The Campus Crusaders had me pegged as unsaved long before they got an eyeful of that poster. Back in the 90’s young Christians were more concerned with pop culture than politics. What movies you watched and what music you listened to was a stronger gauge of your standing with God than your testimony or even your political beliefs. Being a liberal was a major red flag for them of course, but a true believer was supposed to purge themselves of any secular influences. The act of throwing out your old CD’s and movies and buying only Christian media was  supposed to be the first step on the path to ridding yourself of your old heathen ways. Anyone who was still listening to secular music ten years after getting saved hadn’t been truly saved.

To give you a sense of the comic proportions of this mentality,  my friend Jason was a metal head. He loved Metallica and 80’s hair bands. But when he became  a Christian he tossed his CD’s into the trash and got into Christian metal. But Jason didn’t like Christian metal. In fact, he found a lot of it painful to listen to. But they sang about Jesus, and that was more important to him than whether he actually liked the music. So he’d buy gobs of Christian CD’s by artists he didn’t really like because their sound was the closest he could get to the secular songs he was trying to avoid.

He wasn’t alone. The Christians I met were constantly trying to find Christian equivalents of the music I listened to. Everywhere I went, I’d see these charts that were sort of like Amazon Recommendation lists: if you like Led Zep, listen to Stryper instead. If you like Nirvana, then listen to DC Talk. I tried to appreciate their efforts, but the stuff I heard all sounded plastic and phony to me, and it bothered me that this wasn’t a case of sharing their favorite tunes with new friends. They wanted to convert me to the virtues of the Newsboys as much as they wanted to get me saved.

And even within their Christian rock conclave, they were constantly arguing over whether a given artist was a true Christian. Amy Grant was the Devil Incarnate to them because she dared to get a divorce and sign with a secular label. U2 gave them fits, and they could go deep into the night arguing whether Bono was saved. The case against him usually resided on two points; he never said Jesus’s name in his songs, and he dressed like Satan for their ZooTV tour. I quickly learned that it wasn’t enough to be a Christian artist. You had to include Jesus’s name in your lyrics, and the more didactic the lyrics were, the better. Ambiguity left room for wandering minds to go astray.

Campus Crusaders Pt 5: It’s Just A Flesh Wound

tumblr_mj5r97sDch1s2b58zo1_500In my last installment about my adventures with Campus Crusade for Christ,  I tried to describe my Bible Study’s dysfunction. I think it’s only fair that I also share my own eccentricities.

I’ve always struggled with depression, and in the 90’s it was so pervasive that I got used to it. I know that sounds strange, but at a certain point it becomes the norm and the incentive to try to overcome depression diminishes. I don’t wear my depression on my sleeve the way a lot of people do. I can play social butterfly and engage people and enjoy life and friendship, and in 90’s I got very good at it.  So in a strange way, Campus Crusade was a big help. Granted, it added to my misery, but it gave me a chance to connect with people, and it also gave me great anecdotes to share.

In hindsight, my willingness to endure the unpleasantries of people who clearly wanted me to vanish amazes me even more than their dysfunction. Even at my lowest I’ve always maintained a perverse optimism about connecting with new people, so back then I ignored signals that I wasn’t really welcome. Although I almost always came away from a Bible Study meeting feeling aggravated or baffled, I kept going back. And when I commit to something, I go in all the way.

As a way to make up for my past transgressions with the women in the group, I offered to help prep for meetings. The leaders wanted to keep me far, far away from any lesson planning, so I was appointed the cookies-and-chips guy. And I was a shopping zealot; I always kept track of who liked diet soda, who wanted caffeine-free coke, and so on. And I always bought more than we needed.

How dedicated was I to my newfound role? Well, one night before Bible Study, I clipped my scalp while I was walking downstairs. I grabbed my head and doubled over, cursing myself for being so clumsy. When I removed my hand, it was covered in blood. I tried putting a wet washcloth on it, but more blood lapped up each time.

A sane person would have gone to the hospital. But I didn’t want to miss a night of spirited debate, so I headed off to the meeting with my bags of chips and soda and hoped for the best. I spent the whole meeting periodically touching my head and checking my hand. I could feel the blood tickling my scalp, and I had to wipe my fingers very carefully so people didn’t see the blood on them. I didn’t want to cause alarm, plus I figured I’d find out fast if any blood dribbled down my forehead. At the end of the  night, I politely said goodnight and got four stitches at the emergency room.