Problems are not “puzzles” to be solved. That metaphor assumes that all the necessary pieces are already on the table, they just need to be rearranged and reprogrammed. It’s not true.
– Benjamin H Bratton
Benjamin H Bratton, a Professor of Visual Arts and Director of the Center for Design and Geopolitics at the University of California, San Diego delivered a TED talk entitled “What’s Wrong with TED Talks?” He did not like the fact that TED talks oversimplify complicated problems. He states that “a TED talk is a combination of epiphany and personal testimony. The speaker shares some personal story of insight and revelation, its trials and tribulations. What does the TED audience hope to get from this? A vicarious insight? A fleeting moment of wonder? A sense that maybe it’s all going to work out after all? A spiritual buzz?” The audience is shown the journey of the speaker from the light bulb moment to the solution of the problem.
This intense oversimplification mirrors my experience with the Global Health department at Duke. It feels like I sit in a classroom and I am told over and over again that problems in Sub Saharan Africa can be solved by simply educating and empowering the local people. There is talk that it is important to consider the context, but there is a huge assumption that understanding the culture, the politics, and issues is also a simple endeavor, and this is frustrating for students who actually come from Sub Saharan Africa and cannot claim to understand their complicated countries. This is not because we do not care, but because one has to understand colonialism, exploitation, history, cultural norms, and many other things. Bratton asserts that “transformation” can only occur if we go through the hard stuff such as “economics, ambiguities and contradictions.” It is also important to understand the strengths of these societies and figure out how they can be used.
This is not about demonizing TED talks; I learned about feminism from TED talks by the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and these talks taught me more about my identity than I have ever heard in my life. However, by reading Angela Davis, Claudia Jones and many other feminists, I have better understood the birth of patriarchy and the role capitalism played at the end of feudalism. By taking the time to explore the topic, I have also learned that mainstream feminism sometimes ignores the other types of oppression black and brown women face that has to be acknowledged and understood in order to make the movement help every woman.
We need to realize that everything is complicated and that we need to respectfully try to go deep and understand the complexities. It is time to acknowledge that in our pursuit for answers that will change the world, every problem has become a set of puzzle pieces.
I have a friend who is a history major. Every couple of weeks, we meet up in Café, eat crepes, and she tells me about the writers and artists who populate her classes.
Spoiler alert: they’re all awful people.
Past misdeeds include: cultural appropriation to the extreme, shooting one’s wife in the head, claiming that a man was a gay stalker and murdering him in a duel, helping a friend bury the body of the alleged stalker, sleeping with child prostitutes, marrying a woman to avoid jail time for burying a body, and advocating to remove stigma associated with pedophilia. Among others – the list goes on, but I really don’t want to.
And the thing is – this isn’t a study on literature produced by prison inmates. This is the beat generation – a generation known for its high ideals and devotion to defying convention and changing the way we saw the world. This is from the era of rebels, an era that deep down inside of us, we aspire to be. This was the era of nonconformity and social revolution. These were my heroes, man.
And they were utter rubbish. All of them.
It has been several weeks since I first was introduced to these deceased dregs of humanity, and I have yet to find one that was redeemable. I thought I had, but then the whole pedophilia thing came up and there went that idea. Of this entire movement, of this group that dominated thought and culture in San Francisco for several years, there was not one artist who had passed the not-too-high standard of decency that comes from not doing anything worse than trafficking illegal goods.
The point of this is not to say that beatniks are the worst and that sometimes there’s a good reason to conform and follow social norms, although that’s also an interesting conversation. The point is that these people are the greatest artists of a generation. And while they’re objectively horrible human beings, they’re also well-known for a reason – they were freaking good poets.
Now, since I haven’t taken a humanities class in way too long, I haven’t actually read their work. But my friend tells me that a lot of it is good stuff – witty, and self-deprecating, and insightful, and a powerful look inside the human condition. These men were awful, but they were great at what they did. And the nonconformist in me kind of wants to read it, see what all the fuss is about. But then I remember the multiple murders and assorted crimes they committed, and I figure it’s best not to.
So the problem becomes – how do we separate these people from the beautiful works they produced? Can we appreciate their work, laud them for their genius, while simultaneously acknowledging that they manipulated, betrayed, and destroyed people multiple times? Can we respect them and honor them while wondering how the heck they avoided prison? And part of me says no. This is the same part that refuses to listen to Bill Cosby, no matter how funny I used to think him. This is the part of me that has acknowledged that, classic or not, there are some movies I will never see because I don’t want to honor the people who produced them. This is the part of me that says that the artist can never really be separated from their art.
But at the same time, the beat generation was a thing. They shaped hearts and minds, and changed the way a lot of people saw the world. They were a movement that had long-lasting effects on the ideals of San Francisco, and effects I’d probably understand if I actually took the class. We can’t just say that history doesn’t exist just because we don’t like some of the characters, and we can’t just close the book on that chapter because we don’t like the way it ends. If we just stopped studying the beat generation, stopped giving them and their estates the posthumous honor of our royalties, attentions, and critical thinking and essay writing, if we failed to favor them with our analysis, we’d lose a lot of valuable information of what makes us who we are, now.
I guess it can be argued that there’s a distinction between reading for pleasure and reading to understand (a distinction I feel all too clearly with my Semiconductors textbook, which somehow fails to provide either). In studying their work, we’re analyzing it not for a poem as a work of literature, but as evidence of a time different from their own. Reprehensible or not, it’s a manifestation of the way they thought and lived their lives and led a generation. And without understanding this particular incarnation of rebels without a cause, can we really understand the counterculture movements of today?
And at the end of the day, people will still read the work of Kerouac, and Burroughs, and Ginsburg, and Snyder, and they will be awed by their brilliance – because, let’s face it, there was a reason people followed these guys. The world has been changed by the mark they left upon it. But when we read their work, see the world through their sketchy eyes, it’s important that we ask ourselves how this world is different from our own, and what steps we need to take to keep it that way.
It’s only when we see them as all of what they are – as liars and scoundrels and philosophers and cretins and dreamers and lovers and philanderers and artists – that we can truly do them, and their work, justice. They are more than what they have created, and yet a product of the time they lived in, and while that does not excuse or condone what they have done, it provides a backdrop for their work. We do not have to like them. We do not have to hate them. But we do need to try to understand what they were and who they stood for. All of us, rebel or patriot, poet or criminal, deserve that much.
When I was ten years old my grandfather took me to the range for the first time. He told me I’d pick it up quick, but after six rounds of skeet shooting I must’ve only hit a single disc and, even though he cut the stock about six inches below the factory recommended minimum length to accommodate for how scrimpy his grandson was, my shoulder was blue and black for a week. Nonetheless, it was intoxicating and I’ve loved going to shooting ranges ever since.
This was long before I knew anything about the political divide in our country, or that the issues surrounding guns widen that gap every day. Long before the year of 24/7 Fox News leading up to the 2016 election or the countless, tense dinnertime discussions with my mom about our radically different political views. But, I digress. The election ended, I am off in college now, and what little time I spend with my mom I very intentionally avoid any conversations that could spoil the moment. Seems simple enough, right?
It really was simple, at first. My mom’s house is a twenty minute drive from campus and I see her once or so a month for dinner and generally there is so much to talk about that we don’t have time to argue about the latest Trump tweets. But then, starting at thanksgiving, a new gun would appear on the dinner table every time I visited. It started with two pistols. An AR. A shotgun. Another AR. Another pistol. Yet another AR. At this point you probably have a pretty good idea of what issue this post is trying to tackle: “how do you deal with the people you love sharing none of your views???”. Well, no, not exactly. The problem is how much I like the guns.
When I go to the range I get the same giddy feelings that I had when I was ten: I still love shooting. Now, I am by no means a “gun nut”, nor do I think that owning guns is necessary, but it’s significantly harder to tell my mom that I think it’s unnecessary when she knows how much I like them. This is complicated even further by the fact that every person I meet at the range is respectful, kind, and, above all, concerned about safety. No backwoods hillbillies who have guns to “protect themselves” and to piss off liberals, just normal people who enjoy a different kind of sport.
Now, one school shooting was enough for me to say “Okay, there needs to be greater regulations on the purchasing of firearms”. It’s unfathomable that, nine weeks into 2018, we are already at twelve school shootings and that thought hasn’t occurred to every single person in this country. I, like most, don’t know how to move forward. But I have an idea of how we can avoid moving backwards. I’m sure you’ve heard it before, but we need it now more than ever. It’s simple, and applies to nearly every polarizing, politicized issue in this country: stop demonizing the people on the other side. At the end of the day, they are just that: people. No one should be screaming at the people clinging onto their guns for dear life, or berating the people trying to take away your precious firearms: as sappy as it sounds, we need to meet somewhere in the middle and analyze not how this is affecting Democrats and Republicans, but how this is affecting the people and children of the United States.
Way before I actually watched it, my news feed was saturated with The Office gifs. Short moving slices that captured the show’s most iconic lines: “I’m not superstitious, but… I’m a little stitious.” I was late to The Office train, but once on it, I rode it all the way through a whole semester, even slowing down when I reached the later seasons because I wanted to savor the ending of the show.
Even in the show’s worst seasons (5 and 7, indisputably), it felt like it captured so much of what frustrated me at Duke. I found myself thinking of Michael Scott’s incompetence and ignorance everytime a Duke student asked me, “Why is your English so good if you’re from India?” Even The Office’s gentle stereotyping of Kelly Kapoor and Oscar felt lovable, though I doubt the show would have been produced now.
But my favorite thing about The Office isn’t its iconic characters and quotes (though there’s several of them). My favorite thing about The Office is the several lessons to be learnt from the show. My favorite storyline is Jim’s. At the beginning, he’s the office prankster; his adorable romance with Pam and his jokes on Dwight are the backbone of each episode. In the end though, when he starts a new company, the show’s storyline doesn’t take the easy way out. His business doesn’t take off easily; he has marital issues; and he misses Cece’s ballet recital. The Office’s larger lesson is that even in that situation, there’s always something to laugh at.
The TV shows I’ve watched have always said a lot about who I am and where I’ve been in my life. The summer between 8th and 9th grade, I was obsessed with Desperate Housewives; I was fascinated by what it meant to be a woman and how the choices women made narrowed their horizons. My freshman year at Duke, I learned from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that it didn’t really matter what people thought of who I was – as long as I was being true to myself. The Office is about a desire to laugh but also to connect with contemporary issues. At Duke, it can sometimes feel like there’s not a lot to laugh about when you have three deadlines and a test on a Tuesday. Those are the days I pull up The Office to be reminded by Dwight that hard work is important, to learn from Oscar that being condescending about knowledge is obnoxious, and to understand from Pam that humility is a virtue. Now, when I pass a laptop at Perkins with The Office pulled up to it, I resist the urge to smile, pull up a chair and discuss whether Creed’s backstory was every fully flushed out or not.
In the words of Michael Scott, “Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy, I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”
The most influential public figure throughout my young adulthood was an individual only a year older than myself: Malala Yousafzai. I was 13 when I first heard about Malala, before her platform developed its global presence of today. She fought for a girl’s right to an education despite the looming threat of the Taliban, who would destroy girls’ schools after taking over an area, forbid girls from attending school, and actively encourage women to not read or write. I remember watching her on the news as she was transported to a hospital in England in critical condition after being shot in the head by a member of the Taliban. In that now-famous picture of Malala in the hospital, the bed seemed to swallow her whole. She was just a little girl at the time, but I distinctly remember feeling her resolute strength within me.
Malala and her story have informed many aspects of my identity; I often feel as though I grew up alongside her. As she advocated for girls’ rights on a global platform, I did so on my own local stage. She brought awareness to girls’ illiteracy by speaking out against injustice, and I too advocated for change by promoting the efforts of a girls’ school in Pakistan that I worked closely with over the years. I remember the joy I felt when, in a speech about women’s illiteracy, I mentioned that Malala was the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. I felt as though I was a part of a bigger movement: the story of Malala allowed me to step outside of myself and place my identity within a larger social context.
Certainly, Malala was the impetus for my involvement in activism and girls’ literacy efforts. She was a veritable connection between myself and the inner workings of the world. However, more recently I have come to realize that her platform has been founded on principles of peace and tolerance that are uncontroversial and thereby have been easily adopted and manipulated by Westerners within the national and international sphere.
The fact that Malala is infantilized by Western media is no secret. Rosie Walters of the University of Bristol analyzed over 220 UK articles to identify the dominant discourses about Malala. She noted that Malala is infantilized by Western media, which frequently emphasizes her youth and utilizes a paternalistic tone: “She is labeled a girl 143 times, a schoolgirl 185 times, a teenager 116 times, a small girl and even a little girl on five occasions, while she is called a young woman just 23 times and a woman only once,” despite being between 15 and 18 years old at the time these articles were written.
Many articles also place her in a passive role, subject to the “paternalistic caring” of Great Britain. Walters notes, “When analyzed to see whether they presented Yousafzai in an active (doing and deciding things) or passive (having things done or decided for or against her) role, just 69 of 211 constructions were indeed active, with the tabloids in particular preferring headlines such as ‘Double op success for shot girl Malala’.”
Why is Malala co-opted so readily? Considering that women in Western countries face few barriers specifically in regards to education, some say that celebrating and supporting the efforts of Malala is oft-times an exercise in curing the “backwardness” of third-world countries while failing to look within and consider how one’s own country may have contributed to this “backwardness” in the first place. Journalist Assed Baig of Dawn criticized her reception in the West, stating that she is used as “a candidate for the white man to relieve his burden and save the native.” Though such attacks fail to acknowledge the homegrown nature of her activism, they underscore the uncontroversial nature of the image curated for her by the West. Malala’s popularity makes sense: her central message seeks empowerment that is unsullied by issues of confrontation with Western international politics, making it easily adoptable. Thus, it makes sense that when Malala is political, as in 2014 when she asserted that “drone strikes fuel terrorism,” her assertions are glossed over or ignored.
The co-option of Malala is contradictory not only with respect to international politics but also in regards to American internal politics. We celebrate her efforts to increase girls’ literacy but fail to acknowledge her strong adherence to the Muslim faith. Malala distinctly identifies as Muslim, but few interviews address this component of her identity. In a sense, we secularize her to fit our own agenda, permitting us to remain in blissful ignorance. Malala herself has promoted a false narrative that the West is open minded about its Muslim brethren and devoted to peace: “In countries other than Pakistan—I won’t necessarily call them ‘Western’—people support me,” she noted in an interview with The Atlantic. “This is because people there respect others. They don’t do this because I am a Pashtun or a Punjabi, a Pakistani, or an Iranian, they do it because of one’s words and character. This is why I am being respected and supported there.”
Nevertheless, our Islamophobia––which is inherently linked to our views on overwhelmingly Muslim groups like the Pashtuns, Punjabis, Pakistanis, and Iranians––remains: the antagonistic American context continues to pit Islam and the West against one another in a “clash of civilizations.” 39% of Americans believe that Islam and the West are incompatible with one another, and US policy has historically reinforced this narrative and emphasized the importance of choosing to be wholly American at the expense of one’s Muslim identity. The Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Program, first instituted under the Obama administration, relied on “insiders” in the Muslim-American community and conflated extremism with religiosity, presenting “good” Muslims as those who were the most moderate and integrated into American culture.
Simply put, Malala herself has inspired me, but her treatment and manipulation by the West has led me to assess how the packaging of pleas for change ultimately affects their success. I see the example of Malala as evidence of how messages based in “peace” and “unity” stunt growth by preventing us from looking within. They are easily manipulable and easily adoptable. Her example poses the ethical question: how do we format activist stances so that they are wholly and accurately heard, especially when such points of view are posited by marginalized people? What language, and terms, can we use in these forms of communication? How does packaging affect the adoption of such messages?