Contrarianism in the Age of Cancel Culture

In his excellent book “Letters to a Young Contrarian” the late Christopher Hitchens wrote: 

 

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia, said Oscar Wilde, is not worth glancing at. A noble sentiment, and a good thrust at the Gradgrinds and utilitarians. Bear in mind, however, that Utopia itself was a tyranny and that much of the talk about the analgesic and conflict-free ideal is likewise more menacing than it may appear. These Ultimates and Absolutes are attempts at Perfection, which is—so to speak—a latently Absolutist idea. (You should scan Brian Victoria’s excellent book Zen at War, which, written as it is by a Buddhist priest, exposes the dire role played by Zen obedience and discipline in the formation of pre-war Japanese imperialism.)”

Excerpt From: Christopher Hitchens. “Letters to a Young Contrarian.” Apple Books.

 

If you want to cancel someone (a harrowing parlance) all you have to do is say he she or they is not up to the ideal of perfection. The Fascist or Stalinist doesn’t rest until the world is cleaned of imperfect people.

I’ve always been a problem because I trouble the public nerve of ableism—which for me means the industry of harming all marginalized people for the disabled are black, brown, Asian, Latino, white, old, queer, and owing to normative formations, (utilitarianism) wishes to eliminate all who are physically different.

Not liking what someone says is not sufficient reason to eliminate them though I may wish you’d shut up. I don’t believe in the language of cancel.

Nor do I believe academics should be fired for holding loathsome opinions. If the ideas are bad they’ll not stand the test of time. 

Hitchens again:

“If you want to stay in for the long haul, and lead a life that is free from illusions either propagated by you or embraced by you, then I suggest you learn to recognise and avoid the symptoms of the zealot and the person who knows that he is right. For the dissenter, the skeptical mentality is at least as important as any armor of principle.”

It’s hard to be a dissenter because you’ll not be much applauded. 

I’m a fan of Kwame Appiah’s book “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity—Creed, Country, Color, Class, Culture” which troubles the incorporation of singular cultural positions. Identity is built around insider vs. outsider negotiations or worse, willful erasures.

Identities matter to people. They offer spiritual and juridical power and create the basis for critical solidarity and progress. As Appiah points out, identity gives us reasons to do things. They also give others reasons to do things “to you” and all human rights activists know it.

Appiah writes:

“In sum, identities come, first, with labels and ideas about why and to whom they should be applied. Second, your identity shapes your thoughts about how you should behave; and, third, it affects the way other people treat you. Finally, all these dimensions of identity are contestable, always up for dispute: who’s in, what they’re like, how they should behave and be treated.”

Its the contestability of prefiguration I’m interested in. You shouldn’t subborn blackness or disability or gender to abstract, privileged philosophical thinking. But identity also creates hollow perfectionism as Hitchens knew.  I’ve seen blind people ridicule other blind people because they chose to walk with guide dogs as opposed to white canes. Cultural call out is aimed at canceling the contestable. It leads to public shaming and trolling. 

I’m also a big fan of the writer Roxanne Gay who writes about resisting the racialized and patriarchal oppression aimed at the diminishment of black women’s bodies.  No one should be able to diminish bodies. We defend our identities for excellent reasons. 

We have many things to do out there as Appiah says. Turning away from the humanitarian power of identity is not a good idea. Contesting the traps of identity rhetoric is important however. I have white privilege. I also can’t get into restaurants and taxi cabs because I have a service dog. I live in multiple identity traps. Appiah ends his book with a famous Latin quote:

“Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, I think nothing human alien to me.”

Just an Ordinary Morning with a Crow and David Hume

Without David Hume, no Thomas Jefferson. Without Jefferson, no Lincoln.

Early this morning a crow asked me his untranslatable question.

I think the crow is a fast learner and I’m a slow one.

Of slow learning vs. fast the disabled know much. I still remember with considerable pain the professor who told me that because I’m blind I shouldn’t be in his class. Why? Because I needed extra time to read. What is that?

Davie Hume:

“When it is asked, whether a quick or a slow apprehension be most valuable? Whether one, that, at first view, penetrates far into a subject, but can perform nothing upon study; or a contrary character, which must work out everything by dint of application? Whether a clear head or a copious invention? Whether a profound genius or a sure judgement? In short, what character, or peculiar turn of understanding, is more excellent than another? It is evident, that we can answer none of these questions, without considering which of those qualities capacitates a man best for the world, and carries him farthest in any undertaking.”

Excerpt From: “An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals.”

And that should be the question: “what will carry us the farthest?”

I know that’s what the crow was talking about.

Don’t you just love natural philosophy?

Stephen Kuusisto and HarleyABOUT: Stephen Kuusisto is the author of the memoirs Have Dog, Will Travel; Planet of the Blind (a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year”); and Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening and of the poetry collections Only Bread, Only Light and Letters to Borges. A graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and a Fulbright Scholar, he has taught at the University of Iowa, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ohio State University. He currently teaches at Syracuse University where he holds a University Professorship in Disability Studies. He is a frequent speaker in the US and abroad. His website is StephenKuusisto.com.

Have Dog, Will Travel: A Poet’s Journey is now available for pre-order:
Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound.org

Have Dog, Will Travel by Stephen Kuusisto

(Photo picturing the cover of Stephen Kuusisto’s new memoir “Have Dog, Will Travel” along with his former guide dogs Nira (top) and Corky, bottom.) Bottom photo by Marion Ettlinger 

On Being Expensive, Difficult, and Lonesome in Higher Education

I feel like opening up. Some days, owing to blindness, because of my internalized “super crip” expectations (all that rococo internalized ableism) I think my job is to make being a disabled professor look easy. Alright, most days. OK. Every day. Yes daily I saddle myself with the false and unachievable supposition I’m supposed to be absolutely flawless. After all, to admit a flaw would be to succumb to vision loss. The medical model of disability IS the academy as it’s currently established. Of course I know too much to live this way. Sure. Absolutely. But the academy doesn’t care what I know. Universities have almost no interest in unpacking their nascent ableism since this would require examining a thousand years of questionable institutional exceptionalism. Alright, maybe eight hundred years. The academy is constructed entirely around the idea of the elect, the promotable, the meritocracy, the lithe and nimble of mind and body. As a professor I too must be this way. If I have merit it must mean this business of researching, writing, teaching, and serving is natural. If it comes with hard work it’s only the difficulty of ideas, the speed of a required curriculum that stands in your way, not your body or your learning style. If these are impediments you shouldn’t be within a hundred yards of the ivory tower.

I’ve been a tenured professor (lucky me) at three American universities and I was a long time adjunct at a fourth. My blindness has been a problem at all of these places—sometimes an ugliness—and now I must admit at the age of sixty four and still likely a decade away from retirement that the career—mine—has been painful, clotted, steep, and wearisome. In the faculty ranks the disabled are not naturally linked with other academic diversity initiatives. While my historically marginalized colleagues have many many problems (which I do not dismiss) they also have (at least at the institutions where I’ve worked) something like society, something like a collective voice. I am the only blind professor at Syracuse University and have been the only blind professor wherever I’ve worked. My embodiment and my accessibility needs are lonely and exhausting things.

I remember the famous poetry professor at the University of Iowa who told me when I was a graduate student that I shouldn’t be in his class. In his view, if I couldn’t read as fast as other students I was uneducable. All disabled students who read differently or communicate differently know this story. Certainly autists who type or students with learning disabilities know their very presence in college is secretly or overtly questioned by faculty and administrators. Academic ableism is the norm. It’s been the norm throughout my forty plus year career as a student, grad student, and faculty member. Wherever I’ve worked or studied I try for consistency: calling out accessibility problems and ableist attitudes. Behind this though is the pressure to appear perfect and make the “life” look easy.

Nothing could be more unachievable or hopeless. I have faculty colleagues (some of whom teach disability related courses) who don’t care a whit about the inaccessibility of websites, academic research materials, PDF documents, HR surveys, adopted computer programs, online teaching and learning portals, PowerPoint presentations at department meetings or campus events, films or video presentations—the list is long when you’re blind. I’m the outlier asking for admission to all these things and after years in higher ed I feel no closer to inclusion or admittance today than I did years ago.

The only good thing is that computers have gotten better. Tablets and phones have become more blind friendly. Apple has made my life better. Microsoft is getting on board. The technology now exists to assure colleges and universities are fully accessible to the blind. But they’re not. The ableism of bureaucracy and meritocracy holds back the blind over and over again.

Meantime I’m supposed to be (as I said above) absolutely flawless. Despite the lack of good usable assistive technologies across campus I should be a superior teacher, graceful, kind, cheer up the normal people who find disability either consternating or distressing, publish as much as my colleagues, if not more, and be a “thought leader” whatever that means.

Not long ago during the same week when I was faced for the umpteenth time with a new university web portal that was inaccessible, I was asked to participate in a campus inclusion workshop. I declined. I said I couldn’t do any more emotional lifting for the university. This was a breakthrough for me.

“What’s that?” you say, “you can’t help the able bodied faculty anymore?”

That’s right.

I’m not going to pretend at easiness anymore.

My weekdays are clogged with inaccessible features.

The built environment is consistent. I don’t belong.

I’ve spoken about these things over and over for years and my spirit is patched. It has holes. The moths of ableism have eaten my beret.

In recent weeks I’ve called on Syracuse University to make films and videos accessible to the blind.

Some people have responded positively to this. Others not so much. One faculty member went out of her way to tell me how difficult and expensive this is.

Blindness is always “difficult and expensive” whether the subject is audible traffic signals, a Braille menu, or getting screen reading software for a PC.

I’m difficult and expensive and noisy and bothersome and mostly lonely in higher education.

Ripeness is All

Beethoven’s violin concerto is the perfect balance of milk and milk.
Adorno’s dialectic is to body shame as money is to dialysis.
Disability studies is to ableism as crickets in August.
Wallace Stevens is to philosophy as bibles are to baking.
When poets have fun so do the tea cups.
Playing the violin burns about 170 calories per hour.

**

How close am I to becoming someone?
Of course I mean this in a moral sense.
I have the history of morals here in my cup.
Dregs of Aristotle.
Push them with my finger.
Happiness. Virtue. Work.
Remember to be a good flute player.

**

I ask so many questions.
Why do I believe I should soften death?

**

What is someone?
Is it cumulative flowers on a grave?
Even Shakespeare threw up his hands.
I joked once in a Helsinki pub:
Lear is a self help book…
“Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”

**

Thank God I have the radio for company.
Thank God for William Shakespeare, life coach:
“And worse I may be yet: the worst is not
So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.”

**

After Ecclesiastes:

I haven’t been true to myself lately
I press my face into barberry leaves
I weep among stems
If you know me you’ll not be surprised
If you know me you too will be honest

When I Close My Eyes

Face it: its feeling drives you
No help for it
Bread sits untouched
& the country that isn’t a place
Takes you in

**

Yes I’m blind
I can still see a swan’s track
On the water

**

History calls the sleepless

**

After years
I’m not much of a talker
I prefer to drop things

**

The houses hereabouts have no special beauty
You won’t find gorgeous specificities
Strangers have sorrow smoke in their eyes

**

Up in the tree of boyhood
With a home made arrow and bow
When I close my eyes

Rainy notebook department….

“When one burns one’s bridges, what a very nice fire it makes.”

Did Dylan Thomas really mean it?

(Riding a tram in Helsinki.)

**

One likes to imagine death driven by wind—
leaves, snow, what have you…

**

Phenomenology is to the body
As the body is to a seed
Please don’t think too hard about this

**

Handel’s “Water Music” is cheerful, stately, vaguely orgiastic
Radio on a rainy morning

**

Old Folks Poem

I can’t keep up
I can’t keep up
What’s that? A frying pan?

Please don’t think too hard about this

**

One morning early, bending to trash, I saw a flash, a light not of this world. “Maybe my retina has detached,” I thought. The gold white iridescent microburst was passing strange but then it was gone and to date has never returned.

Every now and then that flash, that otherworldly color, returns in mind.

All our eyes expect to be received.

**

Whether I was in my body or out of my body as I wrote it I know not. God knows.

—Handel

Leafage

Sometimes I cry aloud
Charon does also
It’s hard work
Living moment to moment

**

Drama is crying with a script
I can’t find mine

One definition of childhood

**

The old dog bit me

**

You can discuss Helen Keller
But you can’t say what words
Perform on the inside

**

Have you seen a cormorant
Enter the sea?

That’s my Helen Keller—
That falling….

**

I sat on the sofa where the former me had been so damned sad.

**

Greek myth, Boolean algebra, Lyell’s hypothesis, Tu Fu—will they come with me?

**

“Leafage is hearsay when you’re blind, until you hear it. Today is May 27.” (Walking in a cemetery in Peterborough, New Hampshire.)