Saturday, October 15, 2005

Diversity, intent and KU--a fisking

Recently, KU had a diversity mini-fracas about representation of minorities in a University Daily Kansan annual special feature, Sex on the Hill. I don’t know what “Sex on the Hill” is, and in lieu of actually finding out, I’ll just note, with a condescending Manhattan shrug, that it sounds like something that would happen in Lawrence.

I guess there’s nothing wrong with “Sex on the Hill” qua subversion of traditional morality, but if enough of those sexing on the hill aren’t DIVERSITY! enough for the dainty liberal sensitivities of the self-proclaimed enlightened, then bring out the fainting couch.

Anyways, enough prelude. Here is the column that started it.

"Picture this: more diversity"

Impudent, belligerent, callow and undermining. Courageous, empowered, impassioned and defiant. These words describe how I responded to the cover and content of last week’s Sex on the Hill, an annual special section of The University Daily Kansan.
Okay, she’s obviously working toward some rhetorical paradox in the first two sentences, possibly juxtaposing her initial reaction with her more considered, proactive secondary reaction.

Nevertheless, let’s just note that she admitted that she found this special feature “empower[ing].” So whatever complaint she has with the cover and content of Sex on the Hill, she has already admitted that she was “empowered” by it. A stunning admission, and not just rhetorical excess, but a Freudian slip that reveals more than she might have wanted to. I’ll explore this at the end.*

I incited a classroom of students to rip up their copy of the Kansan last Wednesday. I presented the refuse to the newsroom; and I wrote a mass e-mail, eliciting assistance to do another Sex on the Hill, which would span the broad spectrum of diversity at the University of Kansas. [emphasis added]
Why, she’s incited a modern book burning! How open-minded, destroying that with which you disagree. Don’t fear the unknown, Oborny [whoops, sorry for that spoiler, but that’s her name].

Remember Heinrich Heine’s famous admonishment "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” This has a corollary, “Where they have torn up newspapers, they will end in really pissing off the janitor.”

Consequently, I earned an audience with a broad spectrum of opinions. Confused? The e-mail contained my analysis of both the front cover of SotH and some of its content, which I found lacked the diversity that befits a college newspaper.
I could write a book on that last sentence (well, someone more knowledgable than me could, anyways). Indeed, a book needs to be written on that last sentence, about the ethics of journalism. Since when has DIVERSITY! become the purpose of a college newspaper? What of objectivity, reporting the world as it is rather than an idealized projection of what the world should be? The pursuit of DIVERSITY! in newspaper coverage is usually achieved only by glossing over the real racial problems of society. Contrived DIVERSITY! in newspaper coverage is an artificial, demeaning thing, like a Special Olympics of news coverage. Much more needs to be said here. But, meh, not feeling it now, dog.

From talking to co-workers, classmates and friends, I have been told that one of my more extremist statements was likening the representation of the female on the cover to the image of the virgin whore, which is to say that she is supposed to appear innocent and vulnerable, while exhibiting an unconscionable [I think she means “unconscious”--ed] sexuality.

Also, upon further inquiry, I discovered that the model was part-Korean and part-Caucasian. As a result, my initial reason for wanting to know why another white, heterosexual-looking couple was the main photo illustration had been short-sighted. However, to me, representing a minority (I know people will take issue with that label, and I encourage you to do so) in that way, with the Caucasian male holding her, facilitates her position as the weaker individual.

I must admit that I find such deep psychoanalysis of a picture to be more projection than anything, an indication of Ms. Oborny’s own feminist sensibilities rather than of some patriarchal newspaper conspiracy. It simply is the case that men traditionally hold the women in pictures. You can read whatever subtext into this you want, but if it were the other way around, if women traditionally held the men, then you can bet that Ms. Oborny would be screaming about how the picture symbolized the subjugation of men before women, an indication of female submission to testosterone-fueled male dominance.

There are several other comments with which readers took issue.

The main opposition to the proceeding argument was that everyone else, both readers and staff, did not see what I saw. I have been reminded repeatedly that the staff never meant to intentionally offend anyone; and I recognize that several of the photographs and content were presented in a humorous light. However, that does not make it right.

Intent doesn’t matter. That’s what Oborny is getting at. Intent is irrelevant to her. In the future I hope to write more about this—the death of intent at the hands of postmodernist and deconstructionist hermeneutics and what it means for society—but let me just say, for now, without intent there can be no meaning.

Intentionality defines human actions, and so without intentionality an action is not human—it is natural. If an action, or a picture in this case, has not been imbued with intent by its creator, then it has no meaning. It is like a face that appears in a plume of smoke. That is the difference between intentional actions (actions with a human agent) and natural occurences.

So, for Oborny to say that intent doesn’t matter for her, is for her to say that this picture is just a couple of faces in a plume of smoke. As such, Oborny is free to imbue in this picture whatever meaning she wants. When there is no intent, then meaning can be declared freely by the interpreter. In essence, she has made herself the photographer here, and so can declare what the meaning of the pictures are. Also, by saying that intent doesn't matter, Oborny has indicated that a random coalescing of letters in her Alphbits soup into an offensive word is enough to offend her. Which, maybe that isn't so far off.

I am a 21-year-old, middle class, non-religious, heterosexual, white, female college student. It takes work for me to see racism because I am white. I can see misogyny and the patriarchy because I was not born a male. I have trouble seeing poverty because I have never known financial discomfort.

We are so often barraged with images and words perpetuating the status quo that we never think to question them, especially if one is placed higher on the societal scale.

Ms. Oborny doesn’t really mean this, despite herself. If the higher a person is placed on the social scale is indicative of their propensity to question the status quo, then why do Hollywood movie stars adopt any number of radical-chic stances (which I’m sure Oborny would classify as “questioning the status quo”) whereas people in rural areas , lower down on the status scale, are more likely to vote conservative and hew to traditional conceptions of morality?

And Oborny can’t just mean that those that benefit from the status quo are more likely to want to perpetuate it, because this would be a “thinking” commitment, rather than an unthinking one.

Honestly, I wondered why only why only [sic] Christian sources were consulted in the virginity piece, because, in addition to Christianity, there are other religions that support celibacy. Also, there are non-religious people out there who have chosen to wait.
And sometimes I wonder why only minorities are asked about oppression when whites experience it, too. That's what happens when you use labels to define people, as DIVERSITY! does.

A teacher reminded me the other day that big revolutions begin with small ones. I am not a journalist, an outstanding civic leader or even the foremost authority on these issues; but I recognized a symptom of the over arching disease of discrimination.
You’re not the “foremost authority on these issues”? Such humility!

And, actually, by her own admission, Oborny DOESN’T recognize “a symptom of the over arching disease of discrimination.” Oborny admitted that this isn’t about intent, but rather about her interpretation of a picture. But, if it isn’t about intent, then how can there be “discrimination”? Intent is at the heart of discrimination. Discrimination is the conscious discernment between alternatives, the ability to make fine distinctions. It is not even possible to conceive how one can make “fine distinctions” (in this case based on race, class and gender) without intent. Is one unconsciously making fine distinctions? If so, then how are they fine, how are they even distinctions?

Discrimination presupposes intent. Oborny has indicated that there was no intent. Oborny has nowhere to stand on claims of discrimination. She could bring up the something like “unconscious discrimination” but that is immediately self-contradictory, like saying something is “black white” or, more to the point “intentionally unintentional.” Discrimination is, by definition, intentional and conscious (but I repeat myself).

You might agree with my viewpoint. You might disagree. You might feel somewhere in-between.
Agreement is irrelevant if you can’t put forward an internally consistent viewpoint. You are simply being irrational, in the formal sense of the word. Your argument contradicts itself.

I just hope you engage yourself. Think about what you see, hear and experience; and act on it. Whether it’s staging a march, buying a CD or book, writing a column (they will publish it even if you do plenty to alienate them beforehand), just talking to someone or choosing to remain passive; it’s participating. The outcome will be as multifaceted and multi layered as society; but that’s how dissatisfaction becomes change.
Okay, this is cruel, excessive snark, but how, exactly, is “choosing to remain passive” a form of “engage[ing] yourself” or “participating”?

*As I mentioned earlier, Oborny's seemingly paradoxical admission that she found the cover and content (which she found to be lacking in diversity) to be "empower[ing]" is a very revealing Freudian slip. Leftists hold empowerment to be one of the highest goods available to a person (or, rather, in their estimation, to a race, or some either identity-group demographic). To be empowered is to be self-actualized. To be empowered is to transcend your mundane, quotidian existence, to break free from the imposed conformity and degredation of the capitalist system, to a higher existence.

Oborny experiences empowerment by finding phantasms of discrimination everywhere. She experiences empowerment through discrimination--another seeming paradox, that actually explains a great deal. Oborny's happiness (as defined through her empowerment) is intimately connected with discrimination. If there were no more discrimination, say, because the intent of the alleged discriminators was obviously benign, what would she do? Invent some? Deny intent? Claim interpretive primacy over the photographer and imbue new meaning through a creative, feminist interpretation, from which she can then feel empowered?

The only intent is her own. She is the discriminator**.

[h/t Lisa K. You can read another response (one printed in the University Daily Kansan) at Cool Blue Reason, and also an entertaining fisking of the response to that response.

update: **not really, but, like, metaphorically, y'know?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like it. You got to say some things I couldn't b/c I went for points that supported one thesis in my response, but more because I needed to focus on things people could understand. A lot of what you wrote is really good, but way above the heads of most people.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Grant said...

yeah, blog fiskings are more conducive to rambling, loosely-related, just-barely-coherent thinking--like, my specialty.

you can also quote large blocks of texts when blogging, unlike in columns, which really allows for a full scale dismantling of arguments.

11:11 PM  

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