Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.

Noise

Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

Shut Up, Grace

It’s amazing how quickly my stupid mouth listens to my stupid brain. Especially when it comes to the reduction of the other. Especially especially when social media gets involved.

This morning, I had a Twitter conversation with a friend. First note: don't do that. Twitter has practically no room for nuance, it isn't built that way, so trying to say something meaningful to another person is going to be difficult. Second note: if you're going to do that, you better put on your generosity pants, because it's gonna get real at some point. Because of the first thing.

It started with an observation, went quickly to debate, and then at some point I stopped recognizing my friend as someone I loved and replaced that person with the image of someone out to get me, out to hurt me. I responded in kind by lashing out with non-sequitur jabs and a childish, reactionary stance. I was called out for it, realized my error, apologized, and now we're good (so you can stop holding your breath).

It immediately struck me how quick I'd been to go low, to strike out at someone I care for out of a sense of self-protection and hurt. It's an old, old story. We all know it by heart. So why do we keep participating in it, keep propagating it? Because we're broken. Because life is a turd sandwich. Because it's easy to scowl at the taste of it and forget how wonderful our loving relationships with others can be when we let them fill us with their intrinsic beauty and worth.

This is the cycle of grace. We harm, are convicted of our wrong, are loved regardless, and feel the urge to love better and more fully despite knowing exactly how we will harm again. The scary truth is, this cycle has the potential to play out countless times per day. I went through the whole thing before 10 a.m. But this is our duty and privilege when it comes to those we encounter: see them for who they are, not for how they benefit you, not for how they might wound you, and not for how you perceive your wounds or their part in them. I forgot that for a few minutes with someone who matters greatly to me when I made them "less than" by guarding myself with mean-spirited humor. I did it in the guise of attacking their argument, when I was clearly attacking them. We are people, and this is what we do. Knowing that we do it will not keep us from it. So we trust in grace to move us forward, deep into the arms of the other who can smile and forgive and show us the love we could not, would not, show.

Take care of each other, folks. And when you don't, try again.

Public Disagreement

I hesitate to call it an argument, but Mark and I had a little disagreement in public the other day. That is, I disagreed with something he posted on Facebook and instead of rolling over he spoke back like the good bearded fellow he is. It went back and forth a few times and we reached a kind of consensus about what we disagreed about and why.

Posting what follows may come across as an exercise in self-aggrandizement or navel gazing, but that isn't how it's intended. We agreed that it may stand as an example civil argument in public, where friendship is assumed and the intellectual foundations of the other's argument is sound.

Okay, so that sounds a lot like self-aggrandizement, but hang with us here.

In the wake of the April 16th bombing of the Boston marathon, Mark posted:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.' To this day, especially in times of 'disaster,' I remember my mother's words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers--so many caring people in this world." - Fred Rogers

With all the pain and horror I see on the videos coming out of Boston, I am still struck as I'm following the coverage by the people who, seconds after the first blast, rushed into the unknown, tore down the metal barricades with their own hands, and ran to help their screaming, hurt, and afraid brothers and sisters.

Mark then posted a statement by comedian Patton Oswalt:

"Boston. Fucking horrible.

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, 'Well, I've had it with humanity.'

But I was wrong. I don't know what's going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here's what I DO know. If it's one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we're lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We'd have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, 'The good outnumber you, and we always will.'"

And...

This is where our exchange began. It is posted below in its entirety.

Logan: Oswalt argues that "we" are innocent and only the people twisted toward darkness are guilty -- that is until the innocent "wash away" the "evil doers" at some ideal time in the future and we all live in peace. That's nice, but it isn't true. He's a lot more like his enemy George W. Bush than he'd like to admit, I think. Exact same worldview. Two sides of the same coin.

Mark: I don't think he's saying that at all, really. And if you think that, we're reading his quote in very different ways. I'm not saying that he isn't more ideological than he might want to admit, but then again I don't think he's naive enough to argue what you're attributing him. I think what he's saying here acknowledges that there will always be those who wish to hurt and hate, but he's choosing to believe that those instincts/choices won't be able to undermine the good humanity can do.

If you asked Patton, "will we all one day live in peace, will the good conquer the bad forever," I highly doubt he'd say yes. Rather, since he and I and you can look to analogies like comics, I think he would tell you to look at Batman. The good will keep on doing the work of the good, but the work is never done. This is an idea you can't attribute to Bush, who I believe did think in terms of black and white, and that with enough force one would be gone. And frankly, I think bringing the politics that Patton puts out there is a a bit of a non sequitur; when I read his words here on hope and the idea that humanity can be more, and is more, then you might as well take issue with Tolkien and Christ who don't always do a perfect job of dealing with the gray of life.

I'm not saying that Oswalt isn't at times, even often, guilty of some of the same political fallacies as those he rails against. But I appreciate his words here, I think they communicate a truth, and it seems a bit dismissive to take him to task without considering their full merit.

Logan: Mr. Rodgers reaction to what we're talking about here is far worthier of praise than Oswalt's, which is why I initially reacted against Oswalt's, because of their juxtaposition in your post. Rodgers leaves out the so-called two sides of good and evil entirely, focusing on those who bear up under suffering. In remaining silent on the issue of those who perpetrate the kinds of action perpetrated in Boston, he dismisses a world in which some of us are good and some of us are "evil doers," (a word Oswalt actually uses -- evil doers).

I may have projected the notion that Oswalt sees an ideal time in the future, but he clearly does see an ideal and places blame upon bad guys for our failure to reach it. It isn't surprising that he does so. It is a worldview endemic to the culture in which we live. But I think you are projecting your own nuanced view of the world into Oswalt's words.

He claims the majority stands against "darkness." That majority is cast as an army of "white" blood cells on the attack, ready to destroy the darkness of the evil doers and put the world right, utterly wiping out any pain that might have been caused (I mean, he seriously uses the words evil doers. It's impossible not to hear Will Ferrell's W. Bush when I read that word). My reaction to Oswalt is less a critique of his personal view than a reaction to the worn out structure available to us in our culture in reacting to these kinds of events. I too hope that most of humanity would not bomb people peacefully watching a sporting event. I'm willing to admit that's probably the case, though every one of us is susceptible to that option. I hope that of Americans in general too, but take a quick look at @dronestream and you'll quickly be disabused of that notion.

The thing I take issue with most of all is the idea that one individual or a few may be named in this crime and that then the innocence of the rest of us will be established. The people who run toward tragedy are to be praised. However, the idea that the rest of "us," some abstract majority, might also be essentially good doesn't help me sleep at night.

Mark: I think you're missing the forest for the trees, Logan.

What was this quote about, or the post it was attached to? Both speak to the idea that we are tempted to see the terrible this world has to offer and be fearful of it, even to the point where we reject humanity as a whole. This isn't about getting the proper systematic worldview laid out in a few paragraphs. This is about saying, "I could, in these times, focus on all the bad humanity can bring. But rather, (and this is where I feel you ought to give the Oswalt quote more grace) I can say I'm wrong to see that alone. I should think of those who want it to be different."

Are people perfect? Never. Do we all exist in a gray area, moving between the potential for goodness and hatred a hundred times an hour? Of course we do, because we're human. But that doesn't stop us from wanting better. What's wrong with an ideal? What's wrong with hope? The hope here is, the good in people will outweigh the bad. Also, this isn't about having more praise for the way one person sees the struggle than another.

I agree that Rogers gets more to the point more eloquently. But that doesn't mean that others, like Oswalt or those who find value in his quote, aren't striving to understand their world in terms of goodness. And it's a choice we make to do that. None of this was to say that we can permanently place ourselves on one side of a moral line. We'll obviously all find ourselves moving back and forth across lines we even set for ourselves in our own moral code. But still, when we see that which is hate and hurt, we can say "no." We can reject that. We might just as easily find ourselves betraying our own sense of right and goodness one day, but if that's the case, I hope (for me at least) that someone would look me in the eye and say "no," that someone would name my failings and give me pause. That's learning, and that's part of the journey of building a moral sense. In terms of the church, it's exactly what UM doctrine lays out. We're always moving towards a goal of perfection. And lastly, it isn't about helping you sleep at night. It's about clinging to the kernel of hope that, in the midst of the terrible and the hateful this world can offer, things can be made right if people will name and work for love. We can't sleep comfortably because things will be magically OK if enough "bad guys" are caught (that's not how the world works and you're right to name that), and words like this aren't meant to make you rest easy. They're words of action, words to remind us to seek out what's good in people, and words to (hopefully) give people courage to reject those behaviors that can't reside with love.

The best storytellers don't give us the "happily ever after," but they do give us characters who do their best to seek out what is right and stand with those who speak truth. I don't really want to argue with you, because I think we're seeing certain words in fundamentally different lights here. But I do firmly believe that, while moral certainty and the possible elimination of one moral side that could come with that doesn't exist, we can name love and goodness and set our eyes to its fulfillment to the best of our abilities. And really, that's what the initial quotations and my reasons for sharing them were all about.

Logan: I don't disagree with anything you say, Mark. But it matters how we say these things, and so I still find myself in disagreement with Oswalt. It is his last two paragraphs that color the rest. Step back from the events of yesterday for a moment and read his words. He encourages us to feel okay about violence, bigotry, intolerance, fear, misogyny, hatred, and ignorance because the majority outnumber the minority. That must feel great for the people who can do it. But it is an empty product of of our self-obsessed culture that values heroism over love. Our culture values these kinds of responses in the face of something else -- whether it is an amorphous "evil," or in service to an ill defined ideal.

The problem with the ideal is that it is set up specifically to be unreachable. If we were to reach it, meaning -- which depends upon the present deficiency from the ideal -- would crumble. I reject meaning and embrace faithful love in the face of suffering. It is amazing, inspiring, and praiseworthy that people run toward exploding bombs to help their fellows. Yes. It is absolutely praiseworthy and hope-inducing. Oswalt is right about that. But he is wrong about the forces of evil-doers and good-guys, largely because he worships our culture's gods in comics and movies instead of taking them as pulp fiction. He is also wrong about the way we should feel in the face of the death-dealing perpetrated by individuals, and misses entirely the way actions like the Boston bombings and Sandy Hook are connected to the cultural production of evil in which we are all complicit. Maybe arguing with you, my friend, is the way I'm dealing with the events of yesterday. But the forest be dammed. I think the trees matter very much.

Mark: I also agree that how we say things matters. It matters more than most things, given that language is how we do most of what we do when it comes to community. And the way I'm dealing with the events of yesterday is finding language that rejects the worst in favor of the best. I'm not saying Oswalt nails it theologically or socially, but the heart is there and it's what resonating with my own ache as I watched the video loops, refreshing ledes, and reports of casualties come in. And maybe for him, seeking to understand how humanity can make choices for a better shared life can best be explained by the very human archetypes that comics today deal in. I can't speak for him, but that's the emotion I read.

You and I agree on the problematic nature of hero-worshiping and the ease with which one could separate out "good people" from "evil people." It isn't easy. But in the first few minutes after that explosion, it was clear, if only for a short time before it became muddy and gray again. We as a culture will surely have to do some reflection, as we should be doing every time a public act of violence hits our screens. It's not okay to separate yourself from the hatred, violence, and intolerance of the world because you think it doesn't apply to you as one of the "good folk." You're right about that. But in the moments of pain, all that some of us can do is watch a forest fire blaze in its ferocity from a distance before we step in later to examine the ash, the play of cause and effect, the individual smoldering trees. I think we're just processing differently, and I'm fine with that. So yeah, the trees matter. Especially when they're words, because words matter more than lots of things. But so do the initial emotions that lead one to say "yes" to our hopes and "no" to our fears.

So...

Anyway, we both enjoyed the exchange around what is a fraught subject. I, Logan, feel a bit embarrassed for engaging the way I did originally. However, largely because of Mark's graceful response, the thread turned into a conversation worth having. This is largely because of the mutual respect Mark and I have for each other. It is a respect that should be extended to anyone with which one finds oneself in disagreement, especially in public, and especially around subjects that implicitly carry an emotional load.

We hope you enjoyed reading our dialogue.