Knowledge and Self

Mary Gergen writes about the concept of Social Ghosts[i], people we still speak to and hear from though they are absent in our current lives. One of my big (huge) ones is my father. Since I get to select which version of him is useful to me, I mostly speak to and hear from person he was when he was around the age I am now, before cognitive decline muted one of the finest minds with which I have ever interacted.

He is particularly on my mind these days for two reasons. The first is that a dear friend of his has just lost her father and I saw his obituary in the New York Times. Though she and I have never had a direct relationship, I sent her a condolence note and she was kind enough to open up a conversation about the having of highly visible fathers.

The second is that I recently decided (again) that I really need to read Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The copy I bought last time I decided this has gone missing, but I did find (tucked in a safe corner) Dad’s copy with his marginalia.

I have this book because these were the books I kept when he passed, the books in which his spidery handwriting noted, expanded, and argued with the authors’ ideas, in which his underlines, exclamation points, and particular ways of marking passages point out to me what caught his attention. These are the books through which I can still learn from him, evoking the most powerful social ghost in my world. All the markings are, of course, in ink … the same way he did the NYT Crossword puzzle. He did not lack intellectual confidence.

In some of these books the notes are minimal, maybe half a dozen comments total. Not so with his responses to Dr. Kuhn. His hand has marked at least a third of the pages. In these notes he:

  • Identifies Kuhn’s arguments (“The concept of development-by-accumulation” (Kuhn) is “the paradigm he wants to disenfranchise” (Dad));
  • Makes note of resources to track down, such as Copernicus’ classic definition of a crisis state.
  • Applies Kuhn’ arguments to others’ ideas, most frequently Marx;
  • Applies others’ ideas to Kuhn’s points, such as the note inside the front cover quoting Cossier’s The Philosophy of Enlightenment about “the self-development of the idea of knowledge itself”, complete with page number; and
  • Argues with Kuhn’s points. These comments generally get too complex to explain here without extending this already-too-long post, but I think the case is made when he responds to Kuhn’s point that previous scholars should not be accused of bias with a succinct “No?”

My favorite note, however, might be the most obscure. It comes at the end of a heavily marked passage about how errors in previous ways of thinking show more clearly when those previous ways of thinking have matured, revealing their errors as anomalies in the theory. He summarizes this point in the margins, but the bit I love is the comment written at an angle at the end of the paragraph: “Very happy…”. I have no idea why he wrote this.

When I studied rhetoric as a grad student, the idea that most drew me was epistemology, the question of how we know what we know. Readers of a particular bent will have already noticed this theme running through what I post here, this importance of questioning what we take to be true.

Reading dad reading Kuhn reminds me that, when it comes to this type of intellectual inquiry, I have not fallen far from my tree. This understanding-of-self-through-relationship is one of the uses of Social Ghosts. The other, of course, is that through a physical book I once again get to talk to my dad about ideas. Still, I wish I could still do it in person.



[i] Gergen, M. M. (1987). Social ghosts: Opening inquiry on imaginal relationships. In 95th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, New York.

Education of White Folks (v2)

This post is a reworking of one posted last week, changed to reflect answers to questions raised by a friend.

The original post responded to a recent Code Switch podcast which talked about how many current shows centered on the Black American experience have more than 50% non-Black viewers. I used these data to indulge in some hopeful speculations that white people are hungry for information about non-white experiences because we have been shaken awake by recent events. These speculations were not clearly supported.

The language in the Code Switch podcast, and in the Nielson data upon which it was based, suggested that this viewership pattern was either an important shift or contradicted existing perceptions. I couldn’t find any information about previous viewing patterns based on race, but did find reference to “pernicious and problematic stigmas attached to ‘black productions’—that they only appeal to black audiences and can’t be financially successful for studios” (Fusion, 2017).

So, the news in this story is that Black people aren’t the only people watching stories based on their experience. What is not commented on is that, with one exception, who watches these shows is still disproportionate with our demographics. Though we are currently 14% Black or Black and other, all but one of the shows listed in the Nielson report has 20% or higher Black viewership.


Missing information keeps me from unpacking the story that is nagging at me from inside this report. First is lack of detail on the “non-Black” viewers. Whiteness, with its self-perpetuating illusion of being the “normal” state, has very different implications than other racial identities. Second, I want to know if these numbers are changing. Specifically, I want to know if more whites are finding ways to connect with narratives by and about people of color than before. (That hope I had in my first version of this piece? I’m still hoping to find evidence of a trend.) Third, I want to know if anyone ever wrote about “white productions” in light of possible stigma that they might not appeal to non-white audiences, or if Nielsen ever reported on racial patterns for “white themed” shows. (My strong expectation is that they have not.)

The things I do notice in the data are that (1) Only one show (This Is Us) is watched by a disproportionately low percentage of Black people, making me wonder why, and (2) the shows with higher non-Black viewership seem to stay in white comfort zones, being set in cultures we are familiar with (Black-ish, HTGAWM). I wonder if shows with higher Black viewership, such as Empire or Star, are more firmly rooted in Black culture without bothering to translate for outsiders, and I notice that the recent release of James Baldwin’s challenge to white America, I am Not Your Negro, did not play at the local multiplex.

I had hoped the story in this news was that non-Black people were beginning to recognize stories centered in the Black experience as their (our) stories as well—valuable because they are centered in experiences they (we) cannot understand directly. Intellectual integrity keeps me from drawing this conclusion from these data. In the meantime, I am glad that at least the people to whom these stories belong are beginning to control the process and profit from sharing them. I bet they’d rather have that than our approval.



Not Quite (Hu)Man

Way back when some of us thought The Naked Emperor couldn’t be elected, he boasted that his celebrity status meant that any woman was his for the grabbing. This wasn’t surprising to those of us paying attention; the stories and his verbal and nonverbal communication painted a pretty clear picture. What was surprising (at least to me) was that the population at large didn’t care. This ate at me for a while before it hit me that what freaked me out was that this contained the message that simple human dignity wasn’t mine to claim. Trump, rape culture, us as Things… it’s all part of this denial that women are, I am, fully human. This insight brought me into a feeling of despair and sadness I do not remember experiencing before.

In the next moment light again flashed in the epiphany that this denial of humanity is what the Black Lives Matter people have been trying to get us to see. I had believed them before, and had intellectual understanding, but that punch in the gut connection was a whole new thing. Though my Whiteness bars me forever from complete empathy, meeting in that type of grief shattered yet another layer of the shell that protects me (us) from feeling what racism does.

This mechanism of making the Other less than human is key to all the other screwed up stuff. Today this article on how that works bobbed by in the stream. And I wanted to share it with you.

Navigating Privilege

Some people asked me to come talk to them about white privilege. The recording from that wasn’t great, so I retaped it. It’s the highlights of what I’ve figured out so far about racism and how move toward increased integrity within it as a White Person. Runs about 20 minutes.

Many Forms of Power

A few years ago I asked a biologist how she liked her work. She told me it was sad, because her field had the task of “monitoring the decline.” I’ve been thinking about that phrase lately, as we collectively witness the decline of support for so many things that support healthy biological and human communities.

Each day seems to bring with it threat of some new unacceptable loss: Laws that protect bear cubs on public land and their moms while they hibernate; Unexploited federal lands; Federal funding for the arts (including Big Bird!); Legal help for people without a lot of money; Computers for people without a lot of money; Decent public education; Clean water; Clean air; Thoughtful community policing; Affordable, comprehensive health care; Policy informed by data and compassion. If you’re still reading my work after the first few weeks, you probably have your own I didn’t get to here. If you are still reading my work, you are likely keenly aware of the disruption, pain, and death that will come to the least protected of us through these changes.

And all this is hard to hold.

And the power of the forces we are resisting is located in important places, primarily the legislative and budgetary processes of the federal and most state governments. Since they are the ones with the legal ability to collect and spend our money (and to legally shoot and imprison people), they do require attention and response. I am loving the response I’m seeing in the grassroots efforts to find and run candidates who support healthy communities, the resistance at town meetings, and the flood (too small a word) of calls and letters to our elected representatives.


They do not have all the power, not even all the power we sometimes assume they do. When I hear on the news that their proposed budgets would cut arts, legal services, food to poor families, health care to a whole lot of us, and programs to help cops see Black people as humans rather than criminals, then I remember that “would” is conditional, not definite. Then I remember that if we are irritating enough we might mitigate some of the damage.

I also remember that we have the power of the legal system, imperfect as it is; that journalists have the power to name truth no matter how much the Bully Pulpit tries to live up to its name; and that we, collectively, have the power to be decent to each other, to protect each other, and care for the community of life of which we are part.

Yes, there are awful forces moving against things that I love, but it is not naïve to notice that there is also a vibrant network nurturing, supporting, and defending these beloved lives, places, ideas, and values. The magazine that feeds me best for remembering these good works is Yes Magazine. I’ve linked here to their 20th anniversary issue, which lists 50 inspiring ideas to make the places we live more sustainable and inclusive, but it’s pretty much always great.

I’m not sure yet if we’re monitoring the decline or witnessing a birth of something we need to become. I am sure which one I’m going to try to make happen.


(This post is dedicated to Louise Spencer, who is one of the most effective and humble change agents I’ve met in a long time. I am grateful to have found my way into the vibrant network she helps to create without even really noticing how powerful she is.)

Causes = Greed & Exploitation

Wendell Berry connecting racism, war, and the environment, said:

“For I believe that the separation of these three problems is artificial. They have the same cause, and this is the mentality of greed and exploitation. The mentality that exploits and destroys the natural environment is the same that abuses racial and economic minorities, that imposes on young men the tyranny of the military draft, that makes war against peasants and women and children with the indifference of technology…We would be fools to believe that we could solve any of these problems without solving the others.”
(From “Think Little” essay in “
“A Continuous Harmony.”, 1972)

Racism: Trump is moving forward on “law and order”, including bringing back a program that was shut down in 2014 because it led to wide-spread racial profiling of Latinos, and cutting back support of DOJ-mandated reforms (consent decrees) of police departments with records of civil rights violations.

War: His actions in Yemen are seen by some as unravelling progress made toward a political solution.

Environment: The house just approved the NRA-backed bill to permit killing bear cubs in Alaskan wildlife refuges. (The senate vote hasn’t been scheduled.) And, you know, that whole shut down the EPA thing.

This all didn’t start with Trump, of course. Today a state report out of Michigan says that racism played role in the Flint water crisis. No surprise here. The causes are greed and exploitation.

Talking about Talking

Q: Why do progressives have such long meetings?
A: Because our respect for the right of each individual and group to articulate the terms by which they and their experience are referred to and the metaconversation we need to have about who is “centered” and/or privileged in and by our language means that we value precision and alternative narratives in groups composed of members who may not share experiences, meaning, values, or levels of socioeconomic power rooted in structural and historical patterns…..

You get the idea.

All this language we need to talk about is dynamic. Harry Belafonte is reported to have said “When I was born, I was colored. I soon became a Negro. Not long after that I was black. Most recently I was African-American.”  This dynamic nature is not just across time (dating back to the Reconstruction), but also within it: Different people want to be referred to in different ways for a combination of personal, social, and historic reasons. And who is doing the talking and who they are talking to and where they are talking makes a huge difference. In my world, white folk don’t get to use the n-word unless they are talking about how to disable the cruel history carried within it, and even that permission is highly contextual. In my world, “Politically  Correct” is just another way to say that we should talk to and about people in the way they want. If that takes a little extra work, I’m okay with that.

Race isn’t the only complicated subject requiring nuanced language, but it’s a good one to explore because it’s not real. Anthony Appiah and many others make a solid case that race doesn’t hold up as a measurable thing. What does hold up is the concept of racial identities, which are based on social and psychological labels. As I see it, this concept provides the language we need in order to resist the negative power of those labels. It makes sense these conversations would be complicated, because they aim to break down collective misconceptions. (Insert Matrix reference here.)

I promised a friend I’d try to keep these posts short(er) so I’ll stop here, even though I didn’t get to “centering” “privilege”, “marginalization”, “colonialization” or “People of Color”.  Are there any you wonder about?

(She also suggested pictures.)