It was hot. It was the kind of heat that makes a person look past comfort and start thinking about survival. The outside temperature was in the triple digits, and the school building – constructed during World War I – had not been updated with air conditioning yet, which meant the ancient fans in the brick oven of a multipurpose room were losing the battle they had fought for decades, while preserving the illusion of ventilation. I was wearing my nicest J.C. Penney wool blend suit, complete with matching armpit stains. I’d been invited by the PTA president to speak at the Rountree Elementary, Class of 2000, Fifth Grade Graduation Ceremony.
Every effort had been made to imbue the event with pomp and circumstance, including inviting the neighborhood debate coach and rhetoric professor to deliver a commencement address. I wasn’t about to give it anything less than my best. I’d prepared a thoughtful and inspiring 15-minute speech, but as a series of long-winded speakers occupied the platform, the standing-room crowd was melting into the walls, propping up fragile smiles, and entertaining thoughts of murder. This experience was excruciating, and everyone knew it…except the speakers. Most people aren’t good at audience or situational adaptation. You deliver the prepared text, despite the circumstances.
As I waited in the wings for my turn at the podium, I pulled out my notes and began to “kill some darlings,” cutting out a good chunk of content. When I took the stage, everything went fine, until it didn’t. I recently found an original manuscript for the speech. If I used even half of what was planned, it was still WAY too much, especially the part where I told them they were loved by God.
“When you need safety, he will be your guard. When you need joy, he will be your laughter. When you need strength, he will be an immovable rock. When you need comfort, he will be a gentle breeze. When you need counsel, he will be a still, small voice. When you need mercy, he will be your defender. He will never leave you or forsake you.” Before I ended the speech, I quoted a verse from the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, and I reminded them God loved them.
I said some version of all that, anyway. In a public school. In the most liberal neighborhood in the city. Jesus. The arrogance and entitlement of it still makes me cringe.
A biographical digression might be useful here. I was a Baptist preacher’s kid who had gone from fire-breathing conservative evangelical in the ‘80s to cynical libertarian evangelical during most of the ‘90s. By mid-2000, I had not yet moved on from faith altogether, but I had settled into a kinder, gentler Christianity. The speech felt like an enlightened shift from the narrow, exclusive clubbiness of my past.
When one of the moms, who was outspoken in her Pentecostalism, approached me after the ceremony with a hug and a, “Wow, I feel like I’ve been to church!” I knew I had fucked up. That had not been my intention at all. It was just one or two sentences, and not the point of the speech. But my worries were confirmed when a neighbor approached me by the punchbowl. Jim was an architect and part-time academic, of the earthy, bookish variety. He was whatever is the antithesis of Pentecostal, and his son was one of the fifth-graders who had just graduated.
He shook my hand, and graciously complimented me on many parts of my speech. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “But I didn’t appreciate you saying those things about God. Not all the families, including mine, believe in God, and to use an event at a public school to push a religious agenda like that was inappropriate.”
It was a broadside to my ego, so my rebuttal engine was kick-started, and I rattled off some tepid defense about how I hadn’t favored a particular tradition, and the intent of the First Amendment was not to banish faith from public discourse, and blah-blah-blah. Gross. Impotent justifications. I was scrambling, because I knew he was right. I just wasn’t ready to admit it. We talked for quite a while and discovered we shared a lot of common ground. Years later, that day kept bothering me, and I reached out and apologized to him. We’ve remained friends.
The last few years I’ve been thinking a lot about cancel culture, and the cockfight we call public discourse. Canceling people for what they’ve said or done in their past, or for what they might say in the future, seems to threaten free speech – a right deserving fierce protection, despite the risks. Signatories of “The Letter” in Harper’s Magazine argued:
“This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
The support for the powerless notwithstanding, this argument has become a rationalization for the anti-woke, and those who have gigantic blind spots where their privilege rides. It’s noble to trumpet free speech for everyone, but when some voices remain historically and systemically muted, argument and dialogue are performative. Authentic communication requires justice.
Sometimes canceling powerful voices seems like a muscular form of social dissent in response to historic and systemic oppression – a form of protest not available to previous generations, when speaking truth to power went largely unheard by the rostrum of supremacies. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote:
“The new cancel culture is the product of a generation born into a world without an obscuring myth, where the great abuses, once only hinted at, suspected or uttered on street corners, are now tweeted out in full color. Nothing is sacred anymore, and, more important, nothing is legitimate — least of all those institutions charged with dispensing justice. And so, justice is seized by the crowd.”
I eventually end up an infidel to the true believers on either side. Each extreme seems animated by a vandalism of due process, fair play, diversity, and inclusion that ends in mockery and violence. And sometimes each side is right. But there’s more to it than being right. “Everything is permissable, but not everything is beneficial.” Fire consumes all the oxygen in the room, and if all we can do is burn, there’s nothing left to breathe. Building a future on the backs of mobs doesn’t seem sustainable.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I’m intrigued by Professor Loretta J. Ross’s idea of “call-in culture.” She believes we should be able to have uncomfortable conversations, but unlike a public calling out, calling in is done privately and with respect. “It’s a call-out done with love,” she says. Calling out assumes the worst. Calling in involves conversation, compassion, and context. It doesn’t mean we should ignore injustices, but we shouldn’t exaggerate them either. “Every time somebody disagrees with me it’s not ‘verbal violence.’”
When we do speak out, Ross says it’s worthwhile to consider the power dynamics. “The thing I’m sharply critical of is punching down, calling out people who have less power than you simply because you can get away with it. But there is a very strategic use of punching up.”
The key is to avoid objectifying people and dehumanizing them. “Some people you can work with and some people you can work around. But the thing that I want to emphasize is that the calling-in practice means you always keep a seat at the table for them if they come back.”
I confess I have a hard time with this concept – not the sentiments of it, but the practice. As time has gone by and our culture has become more and more corrosive, it’s increasingly difficult for me to engage with people who are willfully ignorant, refuse to acknowledge their privilege, are arrogant and entitled, or who behave with unwarranted hostility. Being an ethical and effective communicator gets harder and harder.
A year or so ago, on an unseasonably warm December day, Betsy and I were walking our dog past Jim’s house. I was wearing my Powell’s Books t-shirt. Jim bounded out of his house to wish us happy holidays, and to talk about how much he shared our love for the Portland bookstore. He went on to talk about how he had started going to the Unitarian church in town, and that I should come play music at a meeting sometime. I told him I’d think about it, even though I wasn’t playing music again at the time. Everything about our conversation was easy and kind. From the first time we met at Rountree in 2000, Jim had demonstrated more grace and love than I had. He had called me in, instead of calling me out, or canceling me.
I don’t think I’ve talked to Jim since last year. Not for any particular reason, I’ve just been a lot worse these days about connecting with my community. Isolation addiction is real. But that’s a topic for another day.
2 thoughts on “THE CALL SHOULD BE COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE”
We sure had all the answers back in 2000, didn’t we? Beautiful essay my friend. Grace and peace!
We sure did!