Category Archives: Personal Stuff

Speech ethics – Richards and Gibson

In the last few decades America has fallen in love with what I will call cultural open-mindedness, furtively trying it on like a cowboy modeling a bikini, and announcing on occasion that it not only fits but looks good. This cultural open-mindedness (which, in of itself, is a good idea, as Gandhi might say) is often codified and referred to as political correctness – a lower, base, and corrupted form of thought that is not so much open to new ideas as to the enforcement of new ideas – as if new ideas are not in turn replaced by others in the endless historical cycle. Political correctness, for me, is essentially the same as being conservative; you cannot enforce open-mindedness and remain open-minded – you are, rather, an acolyte committed to a path.

One of the PC concepts that I think is the most dangerous, and has been illustrated in the cases of Mel Gibson’s drunken rant and now, more currently, Michael Richards’ poor excuse for a stand-up act, is that racism against blacks, Jews, or other groups of humans functions in a simple on/off state. People are either 100% racist or 0% racist. Frankly, it’s quite funny and sad to watch the news and see supposedly learned individuals solemnly talk about racism against blacks or Jews in black and white terms, as if we were all six-year-olds and couldn’t conceptualize that human beings are more complex than G.I. Joe vs. COBRA.

First, a disclaimer about Richards. Chris Rock or Dave Chapelle or other black comedians get a deserved pass when they use the n-word in stand-up for three reasons: 1) they’re black, 2) they use it humorously and good-naturedly without anger, and 3) it’s generally aimed at hypothetical individuals. Richards failed that test on all three counts. Now if he had managed 2) and 3), I still wouldn’t know the name of the guy who played Kramer. I think it’s possible for a white guy to manage 2) and 3) – but a PC attitude makes it extremely difficult.

After watching the video, I got the sense he was not totally out of control at first but still knew, vaguely, what he was doing – aiming some kind of bizarre, wildly inappropriate metajoke. Then he realized he’d lost it and walked off. Dumb, stupid, insensitive, and worthy of generous acts of repentance, sure, but career-ending? Bleh. Show me his KKK membership card, a history of unrepentant, unapologetic racial dialogue – some evidence he’s hardcore. If not, it’s much ado about nothing.

One of the toughest concepts in the idea of free speech is that we have to allow those that we perceive to be idiots to speak. If we don’t, then we have already taken the ‘free’ part out. Frankly, blacklisting Richards or Gibson (and yes, I know what that word means) is cheap. It’s the easy, knee-jerk reaction. Smarter (and more open-minded) is to tell them they’re idiots (and make damned sure they understand they’re idiots) but work them back in the fold. They’re both talented. Why drive them into obscurity? What does that accomplish? I would argue that such an ‘exile them to the wastes’ attitude perpetuates racism – by forcing people to internalize their beliefs through fear – than a true embracing of free speech where everyone’s dirty laundry is in the open. That’s where pressure-cooker outbursts come from. Otherwise, it’s just the replacing of one speech code with another, without recognizing that codes in of themselves are problematic.

I starting thinking about this after I read that Hollywood is twisting its hands over Apocalypto. It looks good, apparently, Oscar-worthy, even, but apparently some folks think they’ll be denying the Holocaust if they so much as buy a ticket.

Now, if as an English academic I regarded people as texts (which I often do) then Gibson is a text with a heavy contradiction or two. However, my job, in a nutshell, is to interpret texts – not ban them. By drawing out the complexities of a text, simplifications, black and white portrayals, are exposed for what they are – simplifications. By labeling someone a racist, you deny them the possibility of being a complex human, just as much ‘nigger’ can strip a black person of their humanity.

Like I said before, this is an uncomfortable position to hold. Most ethical positions worth holding are such, unfortunately. It means idiotic behavior has to be tolerated. If a standup comedian out of the blue hurls racial epithets at you as part of some sick joke, you have to smile and take it. If you’re a cop and a famous actor/director stumbles out of his car shouting anti-Jewish tirades at you, that also has to borne. It doesn’t have to be approved of, but it doesn’t mean that everyone gets to discount the basic humanity of the offending dolt.

PC speech is not even remotely consistent with what usually is touted as American ethical triumphs – freedom in speech, the ideals of MLK, etc. Stupid people are too widespread for political correctness to make any kind of sense. These men are not even tiny Nazis, their acts are isolated speech, and attention on them is wasted. Real racism of the blood-curling variety is elsewhere. We must encourage such folk to increased open-mindedness – and if they grow up we must let them back in with open arms. There is nothing easier than looking away from a contradiction; humans are built for cognitive dissonance. That does not mean, however, that we have to wallow and luxuriate in holier-than-thou land. Real open-mindedness, as opposed to PC open-mindedness, is engagement. Damnation takes no effort.

Power supply

The 450w power supply of my No. 1 computer, Diogenes, gave out a few hours ago. I took the 500w one out of Gorgias (No. 2) and tried it out just to make sure it wasn’t a short on the board. Alas, it powered right up. I suppose I should consider myself lucky. It lasted three and a half years and three rebuilds.

Normally, I like fiddling around and tweaking Diogenes on weekends, ordering carefully selected parts from Newegg, etc, but I’m under the gun on papers and I needed it running NOW. I decided that I might as well take this chance to upgrade, ran out into the night and picked up a 650w with two PCI-e connectors, for the far-future day when I upgrade to a dual graphics card setup.

What else is in Diogenes? 3.2 ghz P4; 1 gig of 533 DDR2; three HDs – two 250s and a 120; a Geforce 7800 GT card, a major investment of a year ago; a SB Audigy 2 ZS; a huge Zalman cooler; a DVD-RW, card reader, and 3-1/2 drive; and now an very overpowered PSU.

More memory is on the immediate list, perhaps a new processor, but I’m waiting on those, perhaps what I’m reading about DirectX 10. Looks like the next generation of games will require a serious board/processor/graphics card upgrade. It was annoying enough to do all that last December just to be able to run a PCI-e card; a year from now I’ll have to do another serious upgrade.

Gorgias is where the spare parts go. 3.0 P4; 1 gig of 400 DDR; a 120 gig HD; my previous graphics card, a Geforce FX 5500 (I think) and a 52x CD drive. The case that it’s in is the nicest thing about it, and it might make a nice office computer in a few years, a job currently held by an old 800 mhz laptop, Socrates, that is still speedier than the more ancient P3’s that haunt Patterson.

Tired

I should really be finish this linguistics paper off. It’s about hyphens. But it’s not going to happen tonight – probably in the morning. There are a variety of topics I could babble about in this post, and have been meaning to babble about, but the full-bore babbling instinct is out for repairs.

I could talk about my recent guilty enjoyment of a poorly-reviewed PC game, Scarface (which is a brilliant take, I think, on the movie of the same name – I’ve never played a game based on middleman-level cocaine distribution before).

I could talk about the persuasive writing class I taught tonight, which went well despite my repeated inability to pronounce the names of various OT prophets and the predictable failure of the laptop cart. The major ideas seem to have taken – that the gospels are a series of arguments that present four different perspectives on Jesus and the OT citation schemes that the respective authors use is not dissimilar to what they as students do when supporting their own arguments. Next time I’ll have a handout for everything instead of just half. There was way too much page-flipping. They kept up, though.

I could talk about my unrealistically optimistic view of the drive to San Antonio that I must do later this week for a conference. I hope the car holds out. I have a odd feeling it needs more attention than just an oil change and a wash. Nothing a garage on the way can’t fix if necessary.

I could talk about my new, more conservative approach to my doctoral studies. I have more or less decided to cut back some for sanity’s sake. Instead of sending out 3-4 papers this semester, I will aim for 2, and let the others simmer ’til spring and develop in presentations. This approach should allow me to swim to the shores of Christmas relatively intact. I was in danger of burning out. It’s still uncomfortable, but I no longer feel panicked.

I could also stop saying that I could talk about something and then start talking about it anyway, too, I guess.

Posting issues

It seems a 50/50 proposition lately that anything I write will remain up. Posts have been vanishing completely. I wrote one last night about my worries for the coming semester, and it’s gone. I may have to find new hosting if this continues.

Anyway, my babbling, which was mysteriously deleted, concerned techniques for running a night class, which I have to do this semester for the first time. I’m pretty tired and sore about losing such a long post, though, as well as there not being any more episodes of Deadwood; I’ll see if this little missive survives, then discuss both of those subjects.

Trip

Today (or, rather, yesterday, as it is 12:06 am) I went down to Starkville, MS to see H’s sister, J, have her coating ceremony at the veterinary school at MSU. It’s a tough school to get into, and I was envious, as was H, of the tour. They have a huge cross-shaped room there with desks and lab benches for each student, and a ceiling-mounted tracked pulley system, so they can swing horse carcasses or somesuch past everyone for easy viewing. J will have a blast there.

The school also has a really horrific color scheme – the auditorium was in a rainbow hue, if rainbows only contained yellow, red, and brown, such as those found in popular renditions of hell. Some of Blake’s watercolors come to mind. And, much like my beloved Patterson Hall here at the U of M, the entire college is made of concrete blocks that are then rigorously air-conditioned into sterility. Ah, the South.

My current stress level is remarkably even-keeled. I am behind on most everything, but curiously not as concerned as I really should be about any of it. Part of it is that I have decided not to kick myself over being slow to revise my NT metaphor paper, which I have hopes of being pub #2. Over the last week, I have set the ideas on a little mental scale, and the paper comes out as solid – I have no doubt that it is publishable – but it still needs more heft.

It’s chiefly an argument based on the text and barely contains any synthesis, so I feel a bit out of depth. I simply don’t feel comfortable with citing less than 7 or 8 pages of sources. Citations offer a certain ethical buoyancy that I have come to appreciate. Fortunately, my secret weapon, interlibrary loan, has been activated, and a book or two later I should feel better about the paper. It probably won’t go out until early Sept, though.

Privacy

I think the most interesting thing about posting online, blogs, etc, is the privacy aspect. What do you share? What do you withhold? Every blogger alive tries to present themselves as intelligent, well-adjusted, sane, knowledgeable, etc. If they indeed have weaknesses, vices, or foibles, such characteristics are only hinted at in a kind of universally understood mock-humility, i.e. “I am immensely clever but also human, therefore I am supposedly better and more trustworthy than someone who is just immensely clever and uber-human.”

Is there an honest way to toe the line between giving way too much personal info and complete, obvious santization or psuedo-glorification? I don’t know. There is a array of possible techniques, from the confessional blogger that relates their sex life in lurid detail to the airbrushed political candidate that neglects past sins. Everyone tiptoes through the minefield – or dashes forward – in their own unique way. The “second persona,” the author’s presentation of himself or herself, is pushed to the brink by the web. Identity dissipiates in a fashion a mere book or speech could only dream of.

I certainly withhold a lot. I don’t talk about my personal life much, save mild allusions. I don’t talk about my professional life beyond what I would reveal in a casual conversation with another educator. The dangers are myriad and need no elaboration. This removes a great deal of juicy material, of course, and creates what I like to call an “iceberg effect” where additional depth to any given utterance can be assumed. But the most interesting and most revealing things are still stripped away, much like a telephone signal is clipped at the top and the bottom, leaving only a bland middle. The rest is left to the imagination, or the careful assembly of a skilled close reader.

Eh. Another one of those classic rhetorical problems that has no solution, but bears awareness, discussion, and attention well.

Catching up, Part II

It occurs to me that my “Catching Up” earlier was entirely academic and job-related. I should fill in some of the remaining personal blanks.

I’m still with H, and I mean “still” in its positive, amazing sense.

My birthday is in a few days. I’ll be 31, which is incredible. I feel more like 23.

The post-semester break has allowed me to catch up on PC gaming. I played Oblivion through (very good and very long), Godfather: The Game (more amusing than good) and Hitman: Blood Money (excellent, the best of the series). Right now I’m playing with Rise of Legends a little, though it’s hard for an RTS to keep my attention very long. The monster computer I built over the Xmas break (so Oblivion and FEAR would be playable) has run like a top, especially after I put a Zalman cooler in.

H and I have been catching up on TV, too. We’ve watched all of Twin Peaks and kept up with the new Doctor Who. I think Tennant makes a fine Doctor; he’s not in Baker’s class, but he’s up there. I’m also finally up to date on all the HBO series I like – I’ve seen all the Sopranos, Deadwood, Rome, and Carnivale. I’ve spent some time in the boards analyzing this last Sopranos season – I think it was brilliant, which appears to be a minority opinion. Perhaps I will write something up about that.

I also hit the comics again. I read all of The Invisibles, a really fine if quirky British comic, got caught up with Powers, and noticed there is still no Ultimates #11. Sigh.

I’ve restarted Novel #2 again. It’s better than before and the story seems alive once more. I’ve restarted it a billion times, of course, and I keep changing major things. You’d think after six years I’d have a better idea of major plot points, but it has a mind of its own. I think it may be that I’m trying to write a story that is inherently episodic in the form of a novel. The resulting fit is poor. At least I know I’m fully capable of writing a long-winded book.

Choosing a name

In launching this site, I figured I’d start with a new domain name.

As I am a PhD student in rhetoric and composition, my first thought was to type in every rhetorical term I could think of into whois. I had high hopes for synecdoche and enthymeme. But practically every term available is taken. One wasn’t – runningstyle.com – and it’s actually highly appropriate for a blog. But it would sound like I’m a long-distance runner to most.

I am a great admirer of Patrick O’Brian’s novels, and noted stephenmaturin.com and diseasesofseamen.com were available, but I might get sued for the first, and as for the second, I imagined myself cheerfully telling someone the name of the site and them picturing a miscolored glop of semen. I already have enough trouble at parties.

Composition terms were also unavailable. Firstdraft was taken. Seconddraft was taken. Thirddraft was taken. Fourthdraft was not, but by that point I was disillusioned.

What about my name? mikeduncan.com = taken. michaelduncan=taken. mduncan=taken. mgduncan and michaelgaryduncan were available, but not snappy enough.

I returned to rhetoric. What about goodrhetoric.com? Available. Positive, too. Badrhetoric.com? Available. I’m an iconoclast (also taken) so it didn’t look bad (cough) either.

I also thought about meansofpersuasion, which is a play off of Aristotle’s definition of rhetoric. “available means of persuasion” is too long, alas. It also has a moderate/mathamathical subtext from “means” and there is a economic “means of persuasion” as well. But it’s also fairly obscure.

So my best choices after an afternoon of searching were runningstyle, goodrhetoric, and badrhetoric. Of the three, the first has a problematic double meaning and Aristotle didn’t favor it anyway. The second sounds a tad pretentious, as would bestrhetoric…

…but badrhetoric, however, has a edge to it. Especially since the difference between “bad” rhetoric and “good” rhetoric is hard to define. One man’s “bad” rhetoric is another man’s “good” rhetoric, and so-called “bad” rhetoric can be more effective than a classical speech that dots the ‘i’ in Aristotle. Plus, I kind of like starting at the bottom.

Well! I have just talked myself into badrhetoric. Both domains will work for the foreseeable future, but the title is officially now Bad Rhetoric.