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Re-imagining Dissent


March 1, 2013

The Nation columnist and law professor on dissent, privatization, and the future of racial equity.

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Image via David Shankbone and Wikimedia Commons

Patricia Williams is one of the foremost social critics of our time, but her voice is often overlooked. The Nation columnist and Columbia law professor is a part of the generation of law faculty who constitute the canon of critical race theory, along with contemporaries such as Derrick Bell, Lani Guinier, and Mari Matsuda. The legal profession, and especially the legal academy, was for the most part barred to people of color until the early 1970s. Arrivals at the beginning of that generation found themselves faced with a swath of schools of thought that were utterly incapable of dealing with the racism endemic to law in the United States. As a response, critical race theory emerged, inviting readers to understand the law not only as a social construction, but as involved wholesale with the production of white supremacy.

Williams has been prolific when it comes to academic legal publishing, but has also turned her sight outward as a social essayist. Her work attempts to grapple with the interlocking oppressions of race, sex, and class, and often addresses the ways in which the most economically exploited people in our society, in a manner that is both raced and sexed, bear the brunt of unspeakable violence.

There is a specific moment in Patricia Williams’s 1997 book, The Rooster’s Egg, that compelled me to pause, to read and reread—that the cautious subversion here may be a long-forgotten trail marker that points a tentative path forward for those searching for a way out of this mess.

“Imagine a glass full (or half empty) of blue marbles. Their very hard-edged, discrete yet identical nature makes it possible for members of the community of blue marbles to say to one another with perfect consistency both ‘we are all the same’ and, if a few roll away and are lost in a sidewalk grate, ‘that’s just their experience, fate, choice, bad luck.’ If, on the other hand, you imagine a glassful of soap bubbles, with shifting permeable boundaries, expanding and contracting in size like a living organism, then it is not possible for the collective bubbles to describe themselves as ‘all the same.’ Furthermore, if one of the bubbles bursts, it cannot be isolated as a singular phenomenon. It will be felt as a tremor, a realignment, a reclustering among all.”

This re-imagining, along the lines of Dr. Martin Luther King’s invocation of an “inescapable network of mutuality,” is radically counter to a society that tends to presume that poverty is the fault of those who live in it, and that those who dissent to the way of things are presented as dangerous maniacs instead of heirs of a prophetic tradition.

I spoke with Patricia Williams on dissent, privatization, and racial equity.

Matthew Cunningham-Cook for Guernica

Guernica: What do you think the current state of dissent is?

Patricia Williams: I genuinely don’t know. I think my answer is dependent upon the role of new technologies of communication. And it’s going to take a generation younger than my own to figure that out. Public space has been more and more circumscribed as the locus of dissent, so social media sites seem to be emerging as the soapbox of political expression.

At the same time I’m worried about how that space is configured: it seems to place a premium on brevity and on speed. These elements conspire to make it hard to deeply nurture a thought. Moreover cyberspace is heavily surveyed, monitored, tracked—for better or for worse.

If you form a thought on Facebook, for example, it is not just for yourself and your chosen audience. It can be replicated endlessly and mercilessly decontextualized. I’m just now mastering Twitter. It’s a different way of thinking; what gaps it fills is one thing, but what it replaces is another.

I am somebody who grew up with a great sense of a need for silence, for a need to be alone, to ponder an idea and to be able to think it through. Now much of everyone’s thinking is done on a computer, and that computer can never be thought of as private.

Moreover, platforms like these are shadowed by private corporate interests as well, in researching speakers not only as speakers but also as customers, mapping choices, preferences, and habits. It’s hard not to edit oneself even just a little given that knowledge. And we all know that expression in cyberspace can also be mined by police, health care providers, and potential employers.

The implications of these developments are very unsettling. It’s very hard to escape or hide anywhere on the planet. We tend to think of that as an unequivocal good in terms of global dangers like terrorism. But think about World War II or dystopian novels like 1984—circumstances where people may need to run from real sources of organized oppression. Our technology makes that kind of escape much more difficult. The possibilities for political dissent and diversity of opinion may be much more constrained as a result.

Guernica: Surveillance corporations have become some of the biggest sanctions busters and border crossers. The armaments and surveillance industries used to have a distinctly national character, and functioned as public/public-private enterprises with very few sections that were entirely private.

But now, for example, you have entirely private surveillance companies that were originally funded by the United States now consulting in Iran, collecting intelligence on many different classes of dissent, among them people who are or could be allied with the CIA. Does state repression have a more universal and less specific character today?

Patricia Williams: I do feel that state surveillance has become much more porous in terms of interests—interests we used to think of as exclusively public. So nations act in league with private companies and powerful individuals and there’s a new level of unaccountability in that. Again, I think that many tend to think that having a global fishbowl is a democratizing influence. I worry, but I guess we shall see.

Social media pushes us to a sometimes hasty and invasive collectivity.

As to whether surveillance is “less specific”: surveillance technology overlaps significantly with our communications industry, so yes, I suppose so. The overlap is so significant that I imagine it makes deciphering the significance of certain transactions much more difficult for intelligence organizations. Decoding becomes a massive enterprise, the ultimate in hermeneutical challenges. It’s almost like being in a gigantic echo chamber with people playing “telephone” all over the world: things are going to be taken out of context. The difficulty of assigning particular or coherent meaning must be overwhelming—and the risks of misinterpretation, too.

Then there’s the cost of always being in an echo chamber to the individual spirit. I am somebody who grew up with a great sense of a need for silence, for a need to be alone, to ponder an idea and to be able to think it through. Now much of everyone’s thinking is done on a computer, and that computer can never be thought of as private. It has cookies embedded, or it can be hacked from thousands of miles away.

I do worry that new forms of communication make the experience of writing or even thinking less attuned to the quieter processes of self-reflection. I am truly blessed by my career as an academic because I can work by myself all the time. But social media pushes us to a sometimes hasty and invasive collectivity.

Our fear of the Adam Lanzas of the world shouldn’t push us to reflexively imprisoning ourselves further…

Guernica: One of the most hopeful elements of the 2012 election was that we have potentially begun to see the beginning of the end of the disastrous war on drugs, with Colorado and Washington voting to legalize marijuana. At the same time we see further dissent-crushing in other areas, such as the criminalization of children. What do you see as the character of this shift?

Patricia Williams: I just did my latest column for The Nation on the school-to-prison pipeline. Whenever an awful disaster like Newtown occurs, we seem to direct more funds into arming ourselves yet even more recklessly: Guns for teachers! Guns for janitors!

In some jurisdictions, we’ve passed laws that make talking back to your teacher or scrawling your name on a desk a criminal rather than a disciplinary matter. I would love to see some leavening of this trend with a bit of common sense and sanity.

And then there’s the irony of zero-tolerance policies that result in unnecessarily punitive outcomes like the ten-year-old in Alexandria, Virginia who was arrested on charges of “brandishing a weapon” when he showed his friends a toy pistol he had in his backpack. The broad criminalization of children is an inadvertent result, but one of the most discouraging reactions to these kinds of school tragedies.

So while we as a society are beginning to come to grips with how misguided and expensive the war on drugs has been, we are unfortunately shifting some of those resources into making public schools highly policed institutions. In some jurisdictions, we’ve passed laws that make talking back to your teacher or scrawling your name on a desk a criminal rather than a disciplinary matter. I would love to see some leavening of this trend with a bit of common sense and sanity.

Our fear of the Adam Lanzas of the world shouldn’t push us to reflexively imprisoning ourselves further. I’d like to see not just a lot more gun control, but many more funds directed toward mental health counseling and treatment. It would be enormously positive if we could shift a few more resources away from militarizing and subordinating populations of children, and rather fund more addiction centers and services for the mentally ill and their families.

These new developments are not just about gun control. They’re about controlling bodies at a very intimate level.

Guernica: As elite consensus moves toward a managed form of drug legalization, there is a new movement toward the criminalization of gun ownership–something that I’m not necessarily opposed to. But the official reasoning behind stop-and-frisk is to remove illegal guns from the street, and I find it interesting that Michael Bloomberg has been spending tens of millions of dollars through his SuperPAC to promote supposedly pro-gun control candidates. Is this new concern about guns in actuality a gloss to nationalize stop-and-frisk policies?

Patricia Williams: These new developments are not just about gun control. They’re about controlling bodies at a very intimate level. We are now socialized to accept airports as places where you are literally being watched during the entire experience. People are seen all but naked, we’re being scanned, we’re increasingly accustomed to revealing absolutely everything.

Guernica: What do you see as the relationship between this assault on privacy and the current status of the struggle for reproductive rights, the legal basis of which is privacy?

Patricia Williams: I think there is the same kind of concerted effort to control it. But with the interest in that area, there’s been less organized pushback than there once was, because of the relative fragmentation of the women’s movement. I don’t see us really discussing what it means to talk about our sense of control over our bodies. And it’s also a question of who is perceived to have a right to privacy–middle class women tend to have more access to private doctors, private outcomes. Poor women, incarcerated women, women who are in the public domain, have much less choice, much less control over their health outcomes. So it’s partly a class issue, and partly a racial issue, but I think privacy has become a kind of commodity: Available for purchase, and not subject to general equality of distribution.

Education needs to be something beyond price… Teaching is an art–an interactive, inexact art with the dimension of constantly having to adjust to the daily needs of one’s students. This becomes lost when it’s treated as a mechanistic enterprise.

Guernica: I’d like to connect back to the question of childhood. Although the FCC regulations that allowed marketers unfettered access to the minds of children are now more than thirty years old, it seems that the privatization of public education is adding a new dimension. Education and the very being of childhood are now both commercialized. How do you see this intersection between commercializing childhood and education privatization?

Patricia Williams: I think the trends you mentioned are happening in a variety of ways, the epitome of which is the notion of “for-profit” schooling. Education needs to be something beyond price, but I think this new idea of education as something profitable is evidenced in some of the new metrics, such as teacher pay being dependent on performance. I think we’re underestimating the degree to which the education of the child or the function of a student body isn’t always a guaranteed result like a machine, with an on-off switch.

Some of the best science writing is very lyrical.

Teaching is an art–an interactive, inexact art with the dimension of constantly having to adjust to the daily needs of one’s students. This becomes lost when it’s treated as a mechanistic enterprise. This is why dance and poetry and liberal arts are being shunted in favor of subjects that are metric, which can be enumerated as empirical.

What’s lost is all of that luscious combination of philosophy and hermeneutics and literature and listening to simultaneous levels of being. As a result, we lose a sense of play. We lose what’s not as measurable as a bushel basket of this or a container shipment of that. And we lose the heart of what it means to be a layered, critical thinker: the ability to not be propagandized, and the ability to be judicious and fair rather than flat and rigid.

If your highest priority is efficiency rather than a nimble and expansive learning experience–well, you have a real clash of values.

Guernica: It’s interesting that many of the leading education privatizers are also dogmatically pro-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics)–that the United States is falling behind, and so we need to amp up our investment in education that you might call metric.

But this seems to ignore the actual character of a great deal of scientific and mathematic reasoning. Much of it comes out of critical thinking, is open to chance, is not measurable as a test score, and carries with it similar artistic methodologies that are more identified with the humanities. And so there seems to be a new homogenizing effect in education as well that in actuality bears little resemblance to the disciplines that policy makers are seeking to promote.

Patricia Williams: Some of the best science writing is very lyrical. Part of learning is knowing that there are genres. There’s a way that the commodification of education eliminates certain genres. The homogenizing effect is very literal, because if education is profit-motivated, people are very interested in the bottom line: how much do textbooks costs? How can we streamline more effectively? If your highest priority is efficiency rather than a nimble and expansive learning experience–well, you have a real clash of values.

The real social justice issues, the real inequities that ought to really worry us, the troubling questions of due process, of those there is no cinematography at all: the screen has gone to snow.

Guernica: In your essay on Tawana Brawley from Alchemy of Race and Rights, you discuss the media hysteria over an experience that was ultimately incredibly racist, cinematic, and exceedingly dangerous. What do you see as the status of the political cinematic today, in narratives that intend to shock and consume rather than to induce thinking?

Patricia Williams: To some extent the cinematic–the spectacles of these O.J. Simpson type moments–seem to have subsided slightly, replaced by the new spectacle of reality shows and semi-fictive morality plays about bitchy gender stereotypes like Housewives; about endless images of police clobbering nameless black-suspects; about Sheriff Arpaio riding a tank into Latino neighborhood to break up cock-fighting rings; about the mockery of poor whites in shows like Swamp People and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.

When I wrote about the Tawana Brawley case, it was mostly about tabloid newspapers and CourtTV. Today, when I look at the cacophony of all of these voices, it’s a much broader spectrum of class, gender, and racial stereotypes that are sold as a kind of reality. We’re surrounded by some very vulgar, very coarse finger-shaking object lessons that I think do some of the same work as the cinematic morality plays of the Tawana Brawley era and the Central Park Jogger hysteria.

It makes for a very unfortunate feedback loop as well. It’s almost as if we’ve made fictive what goes on in real courtrooms, and we’ve taken mostly fictional experiences and set them up as reality. It’s gets located just outside the political realm in a strange way. It’s this world in which real people are performing for the camera but it’s not really even their lives. Meanwhile, real social justice issues, real inequities that ought to worry us, troubling questions of due process and mass incarceration and wealth disparity: for those issues there is no cinematography at all; the screen has gone to snow.

[O]ur country is becoming more and more divided and gated among racial and class and linguistic and intellectual community lines. As supposedly interconnected as we all are, the physical separations are quite stark.

Guernica: You’re a strong advocate of affirmative action. What does it mean today that there is such a lack of racial diversity in the means of cultural production?

Patricia Williams: There’s been progress in many realms, but a lot has been lost to a young generation of black and brown minorities, and I think that disproportionate incarceration has much to do with it. As Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow details, the statistics of who is in prison points to a generational disparity that exceeds past proportions, so in that way we’re going backward in time rather than forward in time. This is disconcerting and frightening. And it’s not going to be an easy fix at all.

I think that our country is becoming more and more divided and gated among racial and class and linguistic and intellectual community lines. As supposedly interconnected as we all are, the physical separations are quite stark. Some people are going to be stuck behind gates, prisoners or migrants, while others can move with much greater ease of geographic travel. Still, it’s a dilemma that will come to affect us all with increasing urgency. The less education or income you have, the harder it will be to cross borders. The American trope of mobility—in its literal and figurative sense—will be compromised as a result of this gap.

Guernica: What do you see as the condition today of the demand for institutional racial equity?

The American disposition tends to want changes overnight. But we can’t get paralyzed when it doesn’t happen like that. If one person can just change the lives of one other person over a lifetime, that speaks to the fact that each of us have this capacity.

Patricia Williams: That seems to be disappearing. Nobody seems to want to talk about race or integration as a public good. Funding institutions are pulling back from racial justice and racial equity projects, and we’ll see what happens with the Supreme Court’s pending consideration of the Fisher case, the latest challenge to affirmative action. A lot of our notions of racial equity are rooted in the Fourteenth Amendment, and as you know there has even been some organizing in some parts of the country to actually repeal it.

[H]ope has to be fed by a recognition of the necessity for collective action.

Meanwhile, Justice Roberts has said in dictum that the commerce clause wasn’t the basis of the provision of universal health insurance, and if this is applied to future cases then the entire civil rights jurisprudence, including women’s rights, disability rights, rights for the elderly and racial justice cases—the entire jurisprudence of the past half century in other words–would be in doubt. So if this is eroded substantially in future rulings, my sense is that the future of affirmative action or enforcement of equitable principles will have to turn more and more to international theories of human rights. That’s already where some of these questions on incarceration are going.

Guernica: In the past five years, there seems to be two fairly significant outpourings of hope on the left, the first with the election of Obama in 2008, the second with the advent of Occupy Wall Street in 2011, both of which thus far have failed to match up with the hype surrounding them. What do you see, then, as the status of hope today?

Patricia Williams: I think my sense of hope comes from the fact that things really do change, from watching cycles of how things get better or worse. There are lessons in our history about how much work it takes to change anything. So hope has to be fed by a recognition of the necessity for collective action. Public policy is entrenched, yes, but still also manipulable, malleable. Yes, the growth of the prison industrial complex is absolutely what worries me most, but looking at how deep structural change is instantiated also teaches one how it can be unsettled.

The American disposition tends to want changes overnight. But we can’t get paralyzed when it doesn’t happen like that. If one person can just change the lives of one other person over a lifetime, that speaks to the fact that each of us have this capacity. Not to underestimate all of the structural problems that I’ve talked about before. But with well-considered and concerted joint effort, we can move quite a bit of the world to better ends.

G

To contact Matthew Cunningham-Cook please write here.

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