#18: Marilyn McEntyre 2016
Strategies for the Word Wars, August 4, 2017
Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, author of over a dozen books and professor of medical humanities, offers a list of wise strategies and illuminating examples for writers trying to negotiate a world of “verbal promiscuity” and “organized confusion.” Based on the premise that speaking and writing are never politically or theologically neutral acts, McEntyre advocates clarity, sanity, and grace—deployed with savvy and skill. Among her recommendations: give definition due diligence, unmask euphemisms, remind people of what they know, use analogies, complicate things. Opening conversation with host Lisa Ann Cockrel and author and editor Katelyn Beaty.
- Richard Mouw, Uncommon Decency
- Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth and The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot
- Steven Miles, An Oath Betrayed
- Barbara Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided
- Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States
- Ethridge Knight, “Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane”
- David Quammen, "Jeremy Bentham, the Pieta, and the Precious Few Grayling"
- Kim Rosen, Saved by a Poem
- Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything
Lisa Ann Cockrel (host): [00:00:00] Welcome to Rewrite Radio, the podcast from the Festival of Faith & Writing. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, the director of the Festival, and I'll be your host. This is the place you can listen back to conversations we've had with writers and readers as we've celebrated the written word together for over two decades. In each episode, you'll hear a session that took place at the Festival. It might be a reading, an interview, a lecture, a panel conversation, or something else entirely.
Today's episode of Rewrite Radio features Marilyn McEntyre, speaking at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing, in a session titled "Call to Clarity: Writing for a Polarized Public.” She discussed strategies for writing about subjects that deeply divide us, pulling wisdom from an array of authors she's found to do this exceptionally well.
Marilyn McEntyre's interests are deep and wide-ranging. Author of 16 books to date, including Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, she is currently professor of medical humanities in the UC Berkeley-UC San Francisco joint medical program, where she teaches students to use tools found in literature to better treat patients. Her 2015 book What's in a Phrase: Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause brought home the Christianity Today book award for spirituality. Her next book, Make a List: How Simple Practice Can Change Our Lives and Open Our Hearts is due out in February 2018.
To help me introduce the session, I called Katelyn Beaty, another author with a lot of experience in writing for a divided public. Former managing editor and currently editor-at-large at Christianity Today magazine, Katelyn is the author of A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World.
[music, phone ringing]
Katelyn Beaty: [00:01:48] Hello?
Lisa: Hey, it's Lisa.
Katelyn: Hey, how are you?
Lisa: Thanks so much, Katelyn, for joining us today. Where did I catch you?
Katelyn: I am outside of my apartment in the Chicago suburbs, taking a walk, after a day of editing inside, so it's nice to get some fresh air.
Lisa: [laughing] Excellent, that sounds like a good practice for anyone who works out of a home office for the most part.
Katelyn: Yes, definitely.
Lisa: Well, we're going to be listening to the session, this talk Marilyn Chandler McEntyre gave at the 2016 Festival of Faith and Writing, and specifically about writing for a polarized public, and this is something you specifically have a lot of experience doing, both as the managing editor for Christianity Today for many years and then currently in your role as writing for lots of different outlets right now and editing for them as well.
Lisa: So I wanted to get your thoughts about this talk, and one of the things she says kind of early on, is she says "I think it's just true that words are always political acts," and I wondered what you thought when you heard that.
Katelyn: I mean it's certainly a provocative statement because as writers, especially if you're in the nice Christian world of writing, you don't tend to think of yourself as political or as engaging in political activity unless you're explicitly engaging a political topic, but I think Marilyn's point which I think is right, is that we're always writing for a polis, or a community.
You're writing with an audience in mind, you're writing for other people to start a conversation, to offer information, and so that gets to her point that it's an act. You're, most of the time, as writers, hoping that our words won't just be heard, but that they'll have some sort of effect or impact on the people who read them. There's often times a change of mind or heart that we're hoping to bring about, so, I think more writers should think of themselves as engaging in political acts because it helps us remember that our writing is ultimately for other people and is for, usually, some kind of change or shift in thinking or feeling for our neighbors.
Lisa: At one point she quotes Rich Mouw when he says people who are civil often lack conviction and people who have conviction often lack civility, and he uses that to frame a term called convicted civility that he promotes and that Marilyn picks up in this talk. I wondered how, in your own work, I feel like you too really strive for something that could be called convicted civility, whether you're writing about politics explicitly or social issues or anything, how have you thought about navigating writing about kind of what might be considered hot button issues?
Katelyn:[00:04:59] I think that that Mouw quote is absolutely right, and I personally really dislike writing that comes across as overly nice, kind of nice writing, because I think in striving to be nice we often are avoiding the truth or we're dodging the truth so as not to alienate people. We don't want to lose friends over what we write, but I think there's a cost to that approach and we end up avoiding the complexity of really important issues of our time, in the church or in American society and so, my goal is always to write, as best as I can, truthfully in my limited perspective, acknowledging my own first perspective, I don't have a bird's eye view on the reality of our world so I see things from a perspective, but to write about the truth in a way where both sides of a particular issue would feel like they are being fairly represented. So even though one side might disagree with my conclusion they feel like their views have been accurately and fairly represented, that they were really seen as fellow humans in whatever this debate is, so avoiding caricature and avoiding really inflammatory language.
One thing in our common discourse as of late is people get labeled for what they do becomes who they are, so if you lie, you're a liar, if you cheat, you're a cheater, as a Christian, I believe that we are so much more than what we do, even the worst things that we do, so trying to preserve the humanity and just the honor that everyone is owed simply by being human, even the humans I think are really wrong on specific issues.
Katelyn: And then, I really am drawn, I find myself drawn in our current social and political climate, to finding third ways on specific issues. I'm interested in defying the stereotypes and the polarization that we tend to fall into in our thinking. Is there a way forward that honors the perspective of both sides, that takes them into account and ultimately works toward some sort of harmony or constructive way forward.
I think that that's in some sense the role of the peacemaker for the writer is to share both sides and mediate a third way, it's what a counselor might do in a conflict. I'm not always successful in that because I also have very strong views, but I think that call to be a peacemaker as a writer is really compelling and could really help heal our world of a lot of the division we see right now.
Lisa: It reminds me of something Marilyn says towards the end of the talk when she mentions one of her suggestions is to find an alternative to winning and losing, so look for other ways to frame what's happening or what could happen. She mentions several different kinds of words like persuade or assure or invite or challenge, and several more, and that seems to resonate a lot with what you're saying about looking for a third way.
Katelyn: Yeah, I think with winning and losing, winning is momentarily satisfying if you feel like you "won" a debate, but winning is very different from changing someone else's mind or changing how they think or feel, and oftentimes when you’re winning or losing you just become more solidified in your disagreement and in widening the gap between two perspectives. What would it mean to persuade, to gently challenge, to nudge, to enlighten. Those words that Marilyn offers in her talk seem so much more life giving than winning or losing.
Lisa:[00:09:56] For sure. Well thanks so much, Katelyn, for joining us today, I really appreciate you taking the time while out on a walk.
Katelyn: Thanks so much for having me, and I look forward to seeing you at the festival.
Lisa: Yeah, we'll talk to you soon.
Katelyn: Okay, bye.
Lisa: [00:10:12] And now, Marilyn McEntyre on writing for a polarized public at the 2016 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Marilyn McEntyre: [00:10:26] Thank you, what a pleasure to be here. I've been to some pretty great sessions myself. The title that was given to this session is "Called to Clarity: Writing for a Polarized Public." Originally, the title I played with and talked to Lisa about had civility in the title, and civility seems to be a trending topic in some circles. It's a slightly troubling word because people can hear it as a kind of softening. It can turn out to be a sort of vanilla language, which I don't think real civility is.
But my hope today is to, in the time that we have, talk about some of the strategies, you'll recognize this from the table of contents of Caring for Words, I would like to go into strategies of clarity at a time when there's so much confusing, obfuscating public rhetoric. In order to try to stay clear myself and also to try to stay within the time, I am going to read, but I hope to leave some time at the end for actual conversation.
Recently, as I was scanning the news, I noticed Ted Cruz told a New Hampshire audience "The Obama economy is a disaster. Obamacare is a trainwreck, and the Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind the world is on fire." On another front, Hillary said simply of Trump "I don't want to respond to his constant stream of insults, and everyone sees this bigotry for what it is."
The airwaves are full of voices shouting at each other from opposite sides of a widening battlefield, not only in the presidential primaries, but in arguments over climate change, trade agreements, gay marriage, abortion laws, healthcare, and what to do about desperate poverty here and abroad. And the battlelines, as you know, run right down the aisles of churches. Congregations split over how to worship, what the Bible really means, and how to respond to the incursions of secular culture.
So, unlike some of the other wonderful sessions that we've had today on how to speak about particular difficult topics, racism and mass incarceration and others, I'm gonna kind of scatter my shot here and talk about strategies for speaking into any of the topics that are so deeply dividing us. It's a long list.
Zadie Smith alluded last night to Orwell's claim that one of the reasons writers write is to make a political statement or perhaps to influence political life. It is, in fact, impossible I think, not to write politically. Common discourse is charged with political associations that weight the words we use. Common words like "right" or "duty" or "threat" or "American" or "great" are difficult to disengage from the partisan context in which they are so loudly spoken. Speaking is not a politically or theologically neutral act, any more than voting or buying. And while it's always true to some extent that the charge words carry is intensified in a climate of widespread verbal promiscuity and word wars, I think it's just always true that words are political acts.
So, our challenge as writers and people of faith, for whom truth and charity are core values, is to maintain civil discourse, which, that term needs some unpacking, in a climate of fear mongering, hatemongering, ad hominem argument, dumbed down messages, and political spin. Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Seminary put it this way in his thoughtful book about civility called Uncommon Decency. "One of the real problems in modern life is that the people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions, and people who have strong convictions often lack civility. We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a passionate intensity about our convictions. the real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility." It's a good phrase, he uses it repeatedly in that book, and I recommend it as a phrase to remember.
Three speakers just this morning posed a question similar to the one I'm addressing here. How do you write prophetically about public issues that shock and disturb and indict readers' complacencies without leaving those readers overwhelmed or in despair about issues they feel powerless to address? I've come up against this in teaching often, as I'm sure many of you have if you teach, and I remember one particular time many years ago. I was teaching a course that the students basically called Gloom and Doom 101, it was 20th century novels from Europe, [audience laughter] but one of the students, sweet kid from Concord, Massachusetts, after reading Kafka's Metamorphosis came into class and he tossed it on his desk and he said, "You know, I don't think I'll ever be completely happy again."
[00:15:57] At which point, I thought, this really is a pastoral ministry. [audience laughter] But it's important not to leave our readers overwhelmed, it's important not to take people to the edge of the abyss and leave them there. So, I'd like you to hold that question in mind here as we consider how to write so as to educate, encourage, and clarify, to write sentences that survive and subvert organized confusion, and I really want to emphasize the term subvert. This is a subversive business we're all in.
I'm gonna offer a few reflections on these strategies that you have on your handout for staying both politic and prophetic in the midst of well-paid messaging. I'm not offering these strategies as an expert, I assure you, and certainly not as a person who is politically or theologically neutral, I am not. We can talk afterwards. But rather, as a writer who is still gratefully learning from writers who seem to me to be particularly effective in speaking truth to power, speaking for the poor, speaking up when it's needed, speaking out for those who are silenced, and speaking for the rest of us when they're the ones in a position to do so, and who recognize that call when it comes. Sometimes, we're the ones who are called. There are moments when we, each of us, have to recognize that neutrality is complicity, and to enter the conversation with clarity and conviction and a good op-ed piece.
It's good on the one hand to avoid becoming a self-styled prophet. I grew up with a couple of those in my family, and I'm aware of the temptation to think that one has God's eye view. One doesn't. But it's good also to be alert to moments when our particular situation and our particular gifts oblige us to enter public controversies in the hope of helping provide some stay against confusion. We need to be alert for those moments when they come.
So these practices, from writers who have helped educate me, and have informed my political and theological and writerly sensibilities are a completely subjectively chosen list. You make your own list. But it was helpful to me to go through and just look for techniques that I admire, and I hope these examples will provide a little encouragement toward vigorous, attentive stewardship of language, and help equip us for opportunities to speak on networks and airwaves and op-ed pages and in city council meetings and in university chapel services and in service club meetings and conferences and sermons. To speak for the common good with clarity and sanity and grace. So we won't cover everything on my much-shortened list, but let's begin.
The first one is give definition due diligence. What you mean by liberal may not be what I mean by liberal. You're favorite news source and mine may differ on what constitutes a crisis. And "Christian" especially when it's used as a market label for books, leadership programs, and colleges, is a very slippery term.
I often think of the rather awkward title of Raymond Carver's well-known poem "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love." I like that title because it's a reminder to pause, reflect, and redefine even those terms whose ordinariness allows us to forget their richness and complexity. Definition of terms is not a task that’s confined to formal argument. Whole works of fiction or memoir have been devoted to clarifying what we talk about when we talk about poverty or racism or fidelity or war.
David James Duncan, one of my favorite writers and if you don't know him write his name down because he's worth knowing, an Oregon writer, recently took exception to a term, which like many clinical labels has become yet another stock hyperbole that covers a multitude of nuances, when an interviewer asked him about his "obsession" with fishing, he replied, "I don't mean to mess with your magazine's theme, but to be honest, I don't consider my fishing an obsession. I consider it a love. And the difference between the two is crucial. The word ‘obsession’ to me connotes such things as stinky Calvin Klein perfumes and so-called love affairs. But affairs to my mind aren't so much about love as about finding a sexual co-athlete and using each other as a dildo in order to avoid the hard work of love. [audience laughter] Hence, the need for stinky perfume. [audience laughter] It disguises the empty-heartedness of the whole procedure."
[00:20:50] Though he brought his interviewer up short, he did it with the kind of edgy humor that prevents pedantry, and he managed to define three important terms by reflecting on one. He reminds us that hyperbole is lazy and inaccurate, that love has little to do with what we euphemistically call affairs and that language learned from the calculated manipulation of marketing labels defeats any but the most superficial purposes. I hope that interviewer got it.
No one among the recent writers I know has resisted the reductions of market language and simplistic labels more thoughtfully than Wendell Berry. Wendell Berry fans, shall we make ourselves known? [laughs] In his fiction and poetry as well as in his finely smithed prose, he pauses to retrieve and redefine words that have been battered by careless use, and he invites his readers to hear them anew and use them with more tenderness and intention.
Describing his lovely character Hannah Colter, for instance, he writes, "Her beauty no longer has its source merely in her physical presence, though that is pleasing enough. It comes rather from some deep equanimity, with which it has accepted the marks of extraordinary knowledge of herself. Her powers as a person and as a woman, her mortality." In that one sentence lies a powerful, gentle challenge to the multimillion-dollar, so-called beauty industry that has driven both women and men to costly distraction. One dimension of definition deserves particular comment. Since every public issue I know of comes to the page or podcast wrapped in euphemisms, it's our job, if we're called to clarity, to unmask them.
So this is the next item on the list of writerly tasks: Unmask euphemisms. To unmask them is not necessarily to suggest they don't sometimes serve a legitimate purpose, or that candor is always free of bias or literal terms are always preferable to polite language, but because euphemism so often obscure hard and necessary truths, we need to help keep those truths available.
In The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf takes on some of the language that persuades women to risk their health and well-being on false pretenses. "Cosmetic surgery," she writes, "is not cosmetic. And human flesh is not plastic. Even the names trivialize what it is. It's not like ironing wrinkles in fabric or tuning up a car or altering outmoded clothes, the current metaphors. Trivialization and infantilization pervade the surgeons’ language when they speak to women. A nip, a tummy tuck. Surgery changes one forever, the mind as well as the body. If we don't start to speak of it as serious, the millennium of the man-made woman will be upon us and we will have had no choice." I work with medical students, I love giving them texts like this.
[00:24:21] Even more consequential than euphemisms that divert and distract us into pursuit of specious happiness are those that lead us to accept cruelty. Steven Miles, a medical doctor who has worked in the military, introduces his courageous book called An Oath Betrayed, which is a book about medical participation in torture, and the pressure on military doctors to participate in torture. He begins it by explaining his decisions about how to speak of torture to people who don't really want to hear about it. Rejecting common newspaper rhetoric, he writes, "I have avoided euphemisms. For example, I refer to the inmates of the US facilities at Guantanamo Bay, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, as prisoners rather than detainees, persons under control, militarily abbreviated PUCs and pronounced "pucks," or illegal combatants, terms that the government created for the purpose of exempting itself from international norms of civilized conduct. The common substitution of ‘gloves-off interrogation’ for torture allows us to maintain a comfortable academic distance from the extreme sufferings we sanction when we refuse to speak of them. That refusal, that kind of refusal can also take the benevolent form of so-called positive thinking, a term that itself is sometimes a euphemism for moral abdication."
In her recent book Bright Sided, Barbara Ehrenreich argues that positive thinking is dangerous, because it diverts us from the difficult but necessary task of taking full and adequate account of risks and warning signs, in order to devise adequate solutions to looming problems. Those solutions require not only a willingness to know, but also honest and vigorous debate. As Thomas Hardy put it in his poem “In Tenebris,” "If way to the better there be, it exacts a full look at the worst."
Unmasking euphemisms can be accomplished with more or less humor, more or less compassion for those who find comfort in them, and respite from the overwhelm of problems that can threaten peace of mind and drive us into depression. To unmask them is to perform the work of what I call ordinary prophets, which is to remind people of what they already know but are all too willing to forget. That is a lot of what prophets did, was remind people of what they already knew.
So that's the next thing on the list: Remind people of what they know. It's surprising how effective and important this humble task is. It's the daily bread of the prophets. Also, in my experience of teachers and preachers and parents, they've done studies they say that a student in a classroom doesn't hear a thing until you've said it three times. They say a student in a classroom doesn’t hear. . . [audience laughter] Forgetting seems to be one of the besetting sins of a people, who throughout the Old Testament have to be reminded of God's mercy, justice, faithfulness, guidance, glory. Also not to worship golden calves, or cheat or lie. I once asked a colleague what she would tell her undergraduates if she had one sermon to leave them with. "That's easy," she replied, "don't lie." It's pretty basic, it's something we all know. We need to be reminded. And, especially since 9/11, we have needed reminders of who we are as a nation, and as believers whose faith and calling are complicated in new ways by climate change, and remote control wars, and polarization of poverty and privilege.
Recognizing that need, Naomi Wolf, I didn't mean to choose the same person twice but here she is, writes this reminder of what we learned about the Declaration and the Constitution in high school civics in her The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. So this is a reminder, we know this, some teacher told us, but I think this is an effective passage: "These words, the Constitution and the Declaration, at the time they were written, were blazingly, electrifyingly subversive. If you understand them truly now, they still are. You are not taught, and it's a disgrace that you aren't, that these men and women were radicals for liberty, that they had a vision of equality that was a slap in the face of what the rest of their world understood to be the unchanging, God-given order of nations, and that they were willing to die to make that desperate vision a reality for people like us, whom they would never live to see."
The slap in the face is not an idle metaphor. The book offers its own vision of just that kind of wake-up call, as well as a redefinition of patriotism, and a refusal of the triumphalist rhetoric that has abounded since that dreadful day that let loose a string of lasting consequences and specious rhetoric. Citing Jefferson, Franklin, and their fellow revolutionaries, she summons us back to the rich sources of common wisdom that we share, flawed as they may have been and were by sexual privilege and slaveholding and class bias and patriarchy. Their intelligent guidance needs to be kept available along with the Bible and Shakespeare and St. Augustine and Ghandi and St. Teresa and Dorothy Day and Desmond Tutu, just to pull a few names from the vast communion of saints and scribes we rely on. Eliot's maxim "Good poets borrow, mature poets steal" has its application for all of us. "Argument from authority," as Aristotle pointed out, "adds to persuasive effect." It also reminds us that whatever judgments we have arrived at have their roots in time past, and in the long conversation we call culture.
[00:30:40] So, that's the next thing on the list, our next task is to borrow and steal. Piggy-backing on Aristotle or Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglas can, of course, be as manipulative as a fake reference letter. When we presume that there is perfect alignment between our point of view and those of the elders we quote, many of whom did a good deal more homework than some of us and paid a much higher price. They are, however, influential voices in the ongoing conversation we have about how to live together. To borrow and steal well from them is to let them continue to teach us. By steal, of course, Eliot meant that mature poets have so internalized what Matthew Arnold called "the best that has been thought and said," that they can hardly help tracing over old lines in a palimpsest as they write sentences that come to them in this moment, for this season.
Bernie Sanders recently quoted Lincoln to throw a core point in his platform into high relief. He said, "We all remember Abraham Lincoln's wonderful remarks at Gettysburg, in which he described America as a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. What with the Citizen's United Supreme Court decision, we are rapidly becoming a nation of the very rich, by the very rich, and for the very rich, and that is a horrendous tragedy." Wherever you stand on Sander's campaign, these remarks require that we revisit a claim that remains the gold standard of democracy, however short of that standard even Jefferson's and Lincoln's America fell. The reasons to include our elders in the conversation are more compelling than ever as historians and teachers routinely testify to the deepening atrophy of historical understanding that might help protect us against the dilettantism and winds of doctrine that are blowing all around us.
They’ve done studies on this, they're really depressing, so I'm not citing them here, but you can look them up, about how many students in a classroom know when the Civil War was fought and whatnot. "Good historians," as Simon Schama once pointed out, "need to be good storytellers. They need literary devices as much as novelists and poets need good information about the past. The best of them recognize that their work is art, practiced on different terms but driven by the same motive: to instruct, delight, and surprise people into new ways of knowing."
I remember the week I first read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, doing virtually nothing else for the five days that it took to make my way through his rich reclaiming of the American past. I remember reading it like this while I stirred the soup. [audience laughter] He quoted, he redefined, he refused patriotic pieties. He told the truths he had to tell not with bias, but with a fully acknowledged slant, an angle of vision from which we might see more clearly the plight of those who were not in control of the public narrative. "Tell all the truth," Emily Dickinson wrote, "but tell it slant."
[00:34:00] So that's the next task, is tell the truth slant. By slant, I imagine Emily was referring primarily to the strategies served by poetic devices. In her case, subversive, elusive, and riddled with booby-traps for flat-footed realists. Not unlike some of Jesus' strategies in encounters with the Pharisees. Give Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's. You figure out which is which. Satirists, humorists, and even scientists invite the willing and the unsuspecting to consider what they need to know from an untried angle.
Finding a new angle becomes a matter of urgency when the vantage point from which we are conditioned to view public events becomes normative. That there are other sides to the arguments for the oil pipeline, or the news stories about drug trafficking, or the justifications for NAFTA may seem obvious, but it takes vigilance and imagination and audacity to tell them, and by the way, it is simply not true that there are two sides to every question. There are at least 360.
David Quammen, one of my favorite popular science writers makes good use of slant. One of his abiding concerns is loss of biodiversity and the way humans are contributing to cataclysmic extinction rates by destroying ecosystems. His pleas for preservation of species are liberally seasoned with a humor that enables even reluctant readers to consider dire issues with activated concern rather than with paralyzing angst. He connects widely dispersed dots between philosophy, art and ecology in a piece entitled "Jeremy Bentham, the Pieta, and the Precious Few Grayling" to persuade readers to care for the apparently non-useful.
As you recall, Jeremy Bentham was the philosopher of utilitarianism, and it is an argument against simply preserving the species that we deem to be useful. Quammen's degree is in English, not biology. I say this to any English majors present. You may end up writing what he did, which is a critter column for Outside magazine. He presents living testimony to the fact that all of us who hope to be effective citizens and morally responsible human beings need some understanding of biology, along with history and politics, and math. He wrote two novels before he turned to informal zoology in that critter column for Outside magazine. He infuses his well-turned sentences with poetic devices. Aphorisms, oxymorons, ironic anthropomorphisms, and playful disruptions that jolt readers out of unexamined assumptions.
Poets, of course, occupy their own space in this country that is often a crowded, low-rent sort of space. In public argument, they may seem marginal to some, going off to each other’s poetry meetings, but the genre of poetry itself is subversive. It's disruptive. We rely on poets to resist the inertia of media speak, corporate discourse, and journalism damaged by incessant and increasing haste. Poets slow us down.
So, the next suggestion about being strategic about public discourse is put it into poetry. In her remarkable essay Saved by a Poem, actually it's a whole book, Kim Rosen writes this: "In the last ten years, I have spent time in refugee camps, war-torn countries, homeless shelters, prisons, and post-disaster sites. Most recently I have been in Democratic Republic of the Congo, where some of the greatest atrocities of this century were being perpetrated on the bodies of thousands of women. What form can give adequate expression to the scope of such pain, what language can invite our connection, our care, our action without compelling us to cover our ears and flee from the horror."
And she goes on, "Poetry is the language of our time. It is verbal excavation, digging us into and under that which is inarticulate. That which cannot be said but can be felt. That which cannot be stated but can be conjured. Poetry is a form of revolution. It rearranges our thinking, our perception, our dialogue. It takes us out of the literal so that we can see what is real." These are strong claims, and I believe them. The practice of poetry, even for prose writers, even for those who write only in journals sequestered in locked drawers, invigorates the mind and keeps the heart open. I insist on the practice of poetry with medical students; they will need it.
The rhythms poets find, like those of jazz drummers, align our own heartbeats to others and train the sensibilities that lie just beneath our defensive intellectual radar. The first stanza of Ethridge Knight's poem "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane" for instance, prepares us to enter into deepening horror at the story of a young man subjected to shock treatment to tame him so that he could go from one place of incarceration to another.
And this is a part of the poem: "Hard Rock was known not to take no shit from nobody, and he had the scars to prove it. Split, purple lips, lumped ears, welts above his yellow eyes, and one long scar that cut across his temple and ploughed through a thick canopy of kinky hair." The poem goes on, the last of several subsequent stanzas bears witness to what is destroyed when a young man's outrage is criminalized without inquiry and punished in ways that avoid the rigors of treatment or reconciliation. This is the last stanza in the poem: "And even after we discovered that it took Hard Rock exactly three minutes to tell you his first name, we told ourselves that he had just wised up, was being cool, but we could not fool ourselves for long, and we turned away our eyes on the ground, crushed. He had been our destroyer, the doer of things we dreamed of doing but could not bring ourselves to do. The fears of years, like a biting whip, had cut deep, bloody grooves across our backs."
These are hard truths. They're hard lines. They're jagged. They speak about pain and they're painful to read. They're alternately jarring, confessional, poignant, and coolly informative. Those of us who practice poetry in relatively peaceful places, classrooms, writing groups, and cluttered studies, need to keep an ear open for the poetry that comes from the streets, where it's fueled by a rage we can't afford to dismiss, not because it's dangerous, but because it's a life force.
[00:41:46] And that brings us to the next item on the list which is articulate your outrage. I want to just tell you a quick story here before I go on, which is that a few years ago I gave a course on poetry on prayer at a seminary, and I gave them the assignment when we did poetry and protest of going home and thinking about at least one public concern or issue that got them to a place of complete outrage, thinking to myself, I have a long list. But three of them came back and said this was really hard, I couldn't get there. I said why not? And one of them said well, it just seems like what we're trying to do is be nonjudgmental. So, we had a long conversation about neutrality is complicity and so on, but I do think it's really important to find the outrage and claim it.
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and graduate of Harvard Divinity School and witness to more sorrows than most of us will see in a lifetime, has reported from war zones all over the world and placed himself many times in harm's way. The justifiable outrage that fuels much of his writing comes from a calling that has cost him personal anguish. He has earned the right, by risking his own life for the sake of reporting stories of suffering and reflecting on its causes, to speak forcefully against the principalities and powers that perpetuate harm.
He begins a recent essay on climate change in this way: "The charade of the 21st United Nations Climate Summit will end as past climate summits have ended, with lofty rhetoric and ineffectual cosmetic reforms. Since the first summit more than 20 years ago, carbon dioxide emissions have soared. Placing faith in our political and economic elites, who have mastered the arts of duplicity and propaganda on behalf of corporate power, is the triumph of hope over experience. There are only a few ways left to deal honestly with climate change. Sustained civil disobedience that disrupts the machinery of exploitation, preparing for the inevitable dislocations and catastrophes that will come from irreversible rising temperatures, and cutting our personal carbon footprints, which means drastically reducing our consumption, particularly of animal products."
Is this clarity at the cost of civility? Not, I think, if the facts support the urgency of his rhetoric and the focus of his blame. If we haven't done the homework, we have no right to this kind of language. If we have, we may find ourselves, on occasion, called to righteous anger. It's a call that requires careful discernment. It is perilously easy to persuade ourselves that our own anger is righteous. Hedges' reference to the meeting as a charade and the measures likely to come from it as ineffectual cosmetic reforms throws down the gauntlet on an issue he has come to believe has gone beyond the possibility of meaningful compromise, and he has the facts to focus his anger.
[00:45:07] And that brings me to the next point, in our work, which is to find facts and check them. Naomi Klein, whose books on sweatshops, the inequities of rampant capitalism, and most recently on climate change, her recent book is called This Changes Everything. I highly recommend it. These books are courageous and hard hitting and at times prophetic. And she can tell you the cost of the Tarzans pipeline, and that in 2007 the three major networks ran 147 stories on climate change, and that in 2010 that number dropped to 32. And she's good at putting those numbers together with a good many other numbers and taking a hard look at their implications.
More than an investigative reporter or an economist, which she is by training, Klein, like Bill McKibben and Chris Hedges and thousands of others, writes and speaks about some of the most threatening and controversial events of our time, as an ally of the poor, a citizen of the earth, and a steward of its gifts. The facts she marshalls and documents gather into patterns as she laces them with dates, every date invoking her readers' recent memories of public events, that she helps reinterpret, in light of economic realities that are often carefully shielded or spun to prevent people from understanding. She makes no facile accusations, but she does make some informed ones, stripping the sheep’s clothing away from the naked greed that often shapes economic policies and trade agreements.
Like Klein, Harvey Wasserman, a writer who has devoted much of his working life to anti-nuclear proliferation and renewable energy, defends the vulnerable who live near nuclear waste dumps, and other forms of outsourced pollution. Not only by teaching and organizing the public on their behalf, but by doing the same kind of diligent homework that Naomi Klein does into similar powerful effect. Here's a short paragraph about the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. Note the teacherly clarity and care with which each fact and its implication are presented:
"We have to understand about these rods, by the way, they are the most lethal substance human beings have ever created. If a rod had been in this room when we started this conversation we'd all be dead by now. It is incredibly toxic stuff. In addition to that, the fuel rods are clad in zirconium alloy. Zirconium alloy will spontaneously ignite if it's exposed to air. That's why it has to be kept under water at all times. Zirconium is actually the element that was used in those old flash cubes that burnt so bright so quickly when you took a photograph in the old days. So this zirconium alloy is incredibly dangerous. It needs to be kept one hundred percent under water or it will ignite and it burns very hot and could, in fact, cause the fuel rods to catch fire."
It's a compact, efficient, and pretty hard-hitting explanation.
What Wasserman and Klein and McKibben and Hedges and the best of their writerly kind have in common is that they have all done due diligence, and a lot of it. They cross-check. And even though they use words that end in "ism" on occasion, they're much more likely to use words like oil, carbon, permafrost, zirconium, depleted uranium, wounds, civilians, and private security forces. They like concrete nouns and verbs. Those are not fighting words, they're not ideological, though some dispute the conclusions they draw from the evidence they provide, but taking responsibility both for providing evidence and for chronicling their inferences keeps the invitation open to their readers who are willing to do the same. Those inferences are the stuff of stories, human stories, news stories of the kind we hope for when we look for real news as we scroll through much that hardly meets that standard. Sometimes they also lend themselves to fiction, the dystopian fiction that fills shelves and screens and imaginations, perhaps providing a catharsis for the fears we live with. Or fiction about ordinary lives lived against a backdrop of fear and uncertainties that calls our attention to the urgency of what we have always known. That we stand in need of prayer and grace, and moral courage, awareness, and salvation from the wages of sins that need to be named and resisted by each of us and all of us.
[00:49:58] And I want to be conscious of time here. There are other items on the list: make facts into fiction, I have some really cool quotes from Susan Sontag, whom I love. I'm gonna just troll along here and skip some of this, because I want to save time for questions. You good with that? You have the list. So, tell stories. The main point there is that stories enable people to imagine and entertain thoughts and conversations they might not be willing to otherwise. Offer analogies, I will read you this one because Paul Willis said he couldn't be here but he's here, he was a colleague and friend and I pulled my example of good analogies from him. Analogies aren't acceptable evidence in a court of law, but they are pedagogically useful, persuasive, and sometimes epiphanic.
So Paul Willis, who's a friend and colleague of mine, has been a great encouragement to me and others in challenging the costly legalisms of the onerous assessment practices required for accreditation of educational institutions. This starts with "No Child Left Behind" in kindergarten and continues on up through college and universities. He lightens and sharpens his arguments against buck-knuckling under to the excessive requirements of excessive assessment. With analogies like this one: "A classroom is not a vending machine in which one deposits a nickel of tuition and receives in return a shiny learning outcome. And learning is not a paint-by-number process. I'm convinced that our students learn well when they meet us and we meet them in our individual weakness and strangeness, our one-of-a-kind crankiness and quirkiness. The so-called culture of evidence is, I believe, a culture of mistrust and suspicion. It is a culture of homogeneity. It shuns the authentic, the particular, the spontaneous, and enforces adherence to nearly meaningless abstractions. We should recall that in a liberal arts college, if a thing is measurable, codifiable, and outcome-labelable, it is probably not worth teaching."
And Paul ended his argument with an invitation: "In that spirit, allow me to call us all not to further craven compliance, but to joyful, creative, resistance." Not only does the analogy suggest how these practices tend toward the mechanical and the mindless, his final invitation to insurrection reframes resistance as something joyful and creative, life-giving and adventurous, an effort undertaken to preserve what lies at the heart of the work all good educators do. And that kind of reframing can only be successfully accomplished when writers honor the complexities of what they hope to change.
So, I'm looking at the time. Okay, the next point is: complicate things. Complexity isn't the opposite of clarity. I loved a talk that Ellen Goodman gave years ago at Mills. When she ended, her last line was, "The bottom line is always 'It's not that simple.'" It's really a good thing to keep in mind. So, the point in this section, which I'm not going to go through at length, is exactly that. It's never that simple. Honor the complexities. Complicate the issues that people are over-simplifying and resist and identify over-simplifications.
I do want to read you one short excerpt from a poem by a woman who lives her life in great chronic pain, because this is something that I talk with my medical students a lot about, how patients can help doctors understand the complexity of pain, its emotional complexity, that every pain has history that everybody has history and so on. So this woman, I think, has done great services many patients have, in helping her medical providers and caregivers what it was for her to go through an operation and emerge from it understanding that she was going to live a life of chronic pain. This is just part of the poem. "I went to sleep as one woman, silken, magic, strong, my life full of intelligence, bravura episodes, and turns of phrase. I woke up all stitching and sorrow, with a silence around me like the endless quiet at the edges of a late Rembrandt self-portrait. Time spent in pain exists absolutely, without structure, demarcation, or relief. It is all one color, like winter's rainy sfumato inscriptions on gray. Meanwhile, the other inner life goes on, unwitnessed, the shadow a tree makes on the wall, rippling like water."
I hope that my students don't forget that when they're in their white coats. To read these lines is to learn something subtle and challenging about the complexity of pain that no pill can address. The disorientation, the alteration of the sense of self, the isolation, may not be dimensions of pain that medicine can adequately address, but for a doctor to carry into her clinical encounters something of this awareness would be to resist a little harder a medical system that cuts corners and diminishes relationality in service to stockholders of privatized care centers. Good doctors, like good soldiers, dwell in perpetual paradox, seeking to do good from within vast bureaucracies built on dehumanizing premises.
[00:55:58] So, you see the other items, raise questions that reframe, laugh when you can, I suspect I'm not the only person here who's taken great comfort in John Stewart and Stephen Colbert, and Aaron Sorkin, and Michael Moore, and a host of others who have proven how effectively comedy can expose the hidden agendas and unsettle the complacent. And another writer I would hold up here in particular as a deft and delightful model of effective public statement, is one of Christian Century’s regulars, Brian Doyle, who includes in his Book of Uncommon Prayer, a prayer for Osama bin Laden, “yes even him, the stupid murderous slime.”
His prayer begins, "Because if I cannot pray grudgingly, ragingly, reluctantly, furiously, confusedly, complicatedly for his shattered soul, what's the point of praying at all?" And the point of laughter is that we can afford to laugh if we are deeply convinced that the love of God is broader than the reaches of the mind. That love puts our human battles in a wide context, that should make us able to imagine alternatives to winning and losing, and that's on the list too, to find alternatives to winning and losing. Some of those are to persuade, convince, enable, model, invite, assure, reflect, challenge. We don't have to go to win or lose.
I think the way to civil conversation that loosens political and theological gridlock lies through the gray area, and through a thicket of ambiguities and complex striations of problems over tectonic plates that are riddled with the fault lines of ancient enmities, and we navigate those with the light we're given, having to consent like Frodo to take the ring, though we do not know the way. Taking that ring was an act of love, and at its best our efforts to speak for and with others, making our own journeys through dark woods towards fiery places, are also acts of love. I'm gonna stop there.
She says, alternately, five or seven minutes, complicating the issue a little bit. [laughing] Jazz hands, right. Any comments, offerings, people to add to the bibliography? [calling on audience member] Yes.
Lisa: [00:58:34] Hey, Lisa here. The audience had some questions, but you can't hear them very well on the recording because they weren't miked. I'm gonna repeat them here. First question: You seem to advocate addressing hard issues with straight talk on one hand, and poetry and story on the other hand. How do you reconcile those two different approaches?
Marilyn: Well, I think the balance lies in what I call the call of the moment. I think that to have all of these strategies available to consider that each of them is a way of putting it. Remember Eliot talking about that was the way of putting it to periphrastic study and worn out poetical fashion, leaving one always with the intolerable wrestle with words and meanings. Well, we're always there. There may be a moment when a line of a poem comes to you and that's the thing to say, and you have that equipment. There may be another moment when you've really got to do the in-your-face, spare-no-one kind of I-won't-stand-for-this.
But, to discern that moment is one thing, and then to know which arrow to pull out of the quiver, so to speak, I don't like weapons metaphors, but to know which of these techniques to call upon is my point, that I think we need to be equipped. We need to be agile. We need to be nimble. And there was someone earlier I was listening to, and I really liked so much of what this person said, but she also said at one point, "Just say it!" And I thought, no actually I think what we're here for is we have to get beyond "Just say it" and think about how we say it, and when we say what we say, and in what way. So, that's my point, is to have a long list of things to call on, so we know which instrument is appropriate.
Lisa: [01:00:23] Second Question: How do you respond when a person or politician you once agreed with changes their position?
Marilyn: Yeah, well, people do flex and it’s true there again it's a matter of discernment. Are they flip-flopping, which is a term I hate, or are they really trying to go with some new evidence or re-situate themselves relative to a new constellation of pressures? So, if they've changed their minds, why have they changed their minds is a piece of homework any of us might need to do in order to figure out whether we are going to continue to follow them as trustingly as we have.
I'm not citing any of these people as paragons, but they are people who have helped me, and you known I've even had some models who really disappointed me at some point, but that doesn't mean that what they said to me at some point in time hasn't still been useful, so we're all in this process of sifting and sorting, and I had some anxieties about, as I said, scattering my shot here and just pulling in all these things and saying, "Ooooh look at what this person does and what this person does," but my point is, that's exactly what I think we all need to be doing, is building a catalogue or a personal bibliography of our go-to people to help us learn how to do this.
I took a woodcarving class one time where the guy wasn't very articulate, but if I asked him how to, you know, carve my duck--I did carve a duck before I quit--he wouldn't say anything, he would just come over and take the duck and stand next to me and make the moves. I think we need to stand next to these people and notice the moves they make, if we think they're effective, so we can be effective. I'm really advocating apprenticeship, lifelong apprenticeship, and choosing our masters carefully.
Lisa: Lastly, one festival goer mentioned Marilynne Robinson as another author who addresses a polarized public well via both her novels and essays. Her deep research in particular gives her special authority.
Marilyn: Somebody who will read all of Calvin's institutes [audience laughter] is a paragon of patience. Read it and reflect on it and bring it to the public with no apology and introduce it elegantly. That's right, as somebody who's done her homework, she's way up there. Another item on my list that I didn't put there, but you could add it, is don't suffer fools gladly. I don't think she does. Flannery O'Connor didn't either. Is it time? I guess it's time. I'm happy to hang out a little bit afterwards, although I think I'm supposed to go over and sign books, but I'm happy to hang out. Thank you so much for coming, it's great to be with you.
Lisa: [01:03:15] Many thanks to Marilyn McEntyre. You can learn more about her work at marilynmcentyre.com. Many thanks also to Katelyn Beaty. You can learn more about her at katelynbeaty.com.
Rewrite Radio is recorded at the Festival of Faith & Writing on the campus of Calvin College and produced by the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing. Our team includes Jon Brown, Don Hettinga, Jennifer Holberg, Scott Hoezee, Bob Hudson, Lew Klatt, Deb Reinstra, Amanda Smart, Sarah Turnage, Debbie Visser, and Jane Zwart.
You can learn more about the Festival of Faith & Writing at festival.calvin.edu. And, if you're into the social media, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. If you like what we're doing here at Rewrite Radio, please leave us a review on iTunes. It helps other people discover the show, and we are so grateful.
Also, we've got twenty-six years of Festival recordings to explore here on Rewrite Radio, and if you've been at some of these festivals and have a favorite session or two that you are especially excited to hear on this podcast, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about them. Just put “Rewrite Radio” in the subject line.
Thanks for listening to Rewrite Radio. I'm Lisa Ann Cockrel, back soon with more from the Festival of Faith & Writing.