Tag Archives: status issues

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Celebrating Division

The trivia of inconsequential differences can and will turn us all into smaller versions of ourselves.

There was a very small item recently in the New York Times about the online ridicule faced by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was asked about his favorite kind of bagel.  Stating a preference about any New York icon is bound to produce second-guessing from those who want to parade their bonafides.  So, without missing a beat the press reported on the Twitter guffaws created by the Mayor’s expressed preference for a toasted whole wheat bagel from a Brooklyn bakery.  The infraction that brought out the smirks?  Apparently an authentic New Yorker never toasts a bagel.  It apparently sounds like what people might do in Boston, where de Blasio grew up.  To some, it’s almost as bad as eating pizza with a knife and fork, another supposed faux pas committed by the Mayor a few years ago.

The bagel kerfuffle is obviously a non-story.  And one can only guess that the Times was facing a light news day.  But there’s a lesson in the online comments that work people into a dither of useless vitriol.

We key on the terms of division in our rhetoric because it is a way to signal our status. We celebrate “us” more than “them.”  Others who are different are not allowed to be different.  They are too often renamed as impostors or poseurs. Their person-hood is devalued and their authenticity is judged in the language of a put-down. These days we seem to be carrying around a loaded quiver of arrows at the ready if another person has expressed preferences we’ve decided are fraudulent, or some form of misappropriation, or motivated by some imagined slight.

We now seem so quick to entertain the words of others who have found pleasure in the ridicule of others.  Its becoming a kind of candy for the mind. 

Most folks can still survive they day without denigrating the work, tastes, clothing or choices of others.  But fewer of us seem to be able to resist serving as willing bystanders to a ragged rhetoric of differences re-clothed as revelations of inauthenticity. Its becoming a kind of candy for the mind.

But wasting time and energy on ostensible violations of authenticity gets us nowhere.   And it would help if media would resist measuring every story using the measure of whether it can be framed as a pseudo conflict.

The trivia of inconsequential differences can and will turn us all into smaller versions of ourselves. Somehow and at some point Americans are going to have to grow up and leave the useless internet chatter behind.

The High Voltage Language of Status Issues

Michelle Obama responding to the kidnapping of Nigerian girls in 2014 wikipedia.org
          Michelle Obama responding to the                                 kidnapping of Nigerian girls in 2014                                                 wikipedia.org

Nearly all Americans can be provoked into political engagement if they suspect their identity interests are threatened by governmental bodies. 

These days our public rhetoric includes a lot of angst about slights and insensitivities to individual communities under the big tent of American life.  On one hand, many Americans believe other members in the society have become too sensitive to language that only seems to demean or degrade others.  The view from this mostly conservative side of the ideological divide sees “political correctness” as “liberal” overreach that verges into censorship.  They argue that the once-worthwhile idea of inclusiveness has run amok.

Other communities see these problems as all too real, noting that it’s wrong for outsiders to appropriate another group’s cherished symbols, as when a sports team calls themselves the Redskins.  Most social progressives argue that it’s equally a mistake to mislabel or ignore others if the effect is to place a community on the margins of American life, as we’ve seen in recent complaints that Academy Award nominations feature too few Hollywood professionals of color.

Sometimes the offenses committed against groups are blatant and criminal, demanding a response.  Police shootings of unarmed suspects and the treatment of women in parts of Africa and elsewhere only hint at what is a long list of justifiable grievances.  More subtle are complaints of how affinity groups are named in the media, along with concerns about who gets to tell their stories.  Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall street, native American groups, veterans organizations and countless others are tuned to pick up linguistic slights they see as representing deeper animosities.  Were the occupiers of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge “felons,” or freedom-loving “militiamen?”  What does it mean at Princeton that the name of Woodrow Wilson is attached to one of it’s prestigious schools?  Should the former president be known primarily as a “political progressive” or a “racist?”  And there is even  one American college that is embroiled in a mini-controversy over whether their food court should be permitted to serve “General Tao’s Chicken.” Is the kitchen’s botched attempt to serve a dish with apparent Chinese roots a case of “cultural misappropriation?”

As these questions swirl through the culture it seems that our collective nerve endings have become raw.  Americans seem to hear slights from their neighbors rather than empathy.  More than a few observers of our national scene wonder if the middle will hold, whether the United States is still sufficiently united to be a functioning culture, let alone a “great society.”

There are no simple answers.  Especially on this subject, individual perceptions matter. The charges of “inquistic colonization” or offensive omission are the prerogatives of any wounded party to at least express.

From a communication perspective it is important to note that we are all affected by status issues: those topics in a culture that provoke ordinary citizens to ask if their interests are adequately acknowledge and protected.  Politicians sometimes call these hot topics—abortion rights, equal access to good schools and a decent job, respect for religious beliefs, respect for gender differences—the “third rails” of American politics.  In a subway the third rail is the train’s power source, carrying upwards of 1500 volts that can instantly fry any human that touches it.

Status issues arise and dominate our public discourse when enough Americans believe their cultural legitimacy is being put at risk by the hostile actions of a political institution.

I find it helpful to remember that a secure place under the umbrella of a state is part of any citizen’s birthright.  We expect to have our legitimate interests respected if not honored by others.  It is sometimes easier to accept claims of marginalization if we understand this fact. Here’s the point: fears expressed in a rhetoric of anger may lead us to overlook the simple need of every citizen and their tribes to feel acknowledged.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu

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