dear auntie – updated

by ibull

update 1: this post is regularly updated with new chapters as they develop. chapters do not develop in a sensible sequence due to the multithreading of conversations that can happen on facebook. chapter 1, however, was (what in retrospect) i will call ‘the beginning’—knowing, of course, all ‘beginnings’ are impure. 

update 2: as of publishing chapter 4, I have reflected more on what this post is supposed to be doing, and i have considered the potential harm it could be doing as a work that recontextualizes people’s words outside of their initial form and format. perhaps it is telling that i have decided not to discontinue the project and maintain this page as a repository for these observations (essentially, a kind of data collection). i am doing this because i think there is something about what’s going on in these posts, this project, that is of public interest. this is not the same thing as journalism, but there is something pedagogical in character to looking over people’s shoulders and listening in on how they conduct themselves in civil discourse on the internet in 2016. when most of the nations opinion leaders seem to be suggesting that politics should not be brought to the family dinner table around this Thanksgiving holiday, it seems of the utmost importance, then, to demonstrate other ways of weaving political discourse into the fabric of everyday life. this weaving is not inherently obvious in character or technique, and from conversations with my students in the classroom, there is a general demand for demonstrations of this rhetorical art form in practice. in sum, i see this project as a technological demonstration of sorts: a practical example of how i am using technology in everyday life to have conversations that seem impossible around the dinner table.

what is inherently technological about this practice of conversation is the ways in which Facebook affords a very different kind of conversation than what would normally happen at a family get-together. the space is differently-public, and time is differently-experienced; people speak and reflect in different ways when they write, compared to when they speak. the social pressure points and rhetorical subtexts are different. the process overall of engaging and disengaging from conversation is radically different. if my aunt or anyone else starts to express things that offend me, on Facebook i can walk away from the conversation for a few days, reflect on an appropriate response, type it up, review and revise, and then re-engage in the conversation. in the real world i don’t have those affordances, and the consequences are such that we don’t have political conversations at the table because when someone says something offensive, our instincts kick in and we start to act and behave in ways that both simultaneously shut down conversation and enact strategies for self preservation. in other words, we get defensive, and when we’re defensive, we’re not able to think strategically about the ways in which we can technically continue to engage with the offensive issue.  

attenuating to the form and format of technical engagement is increasingly an important aspect of my praxis. i am a white, cis-gendered, educated, employed, able-bodied person who comes from an upper middle-class (6-figure income) family who cares for me and accepts me. i am empowered in ways that help me cope with the ways in which i am not privileged as a queer, depressed, overweight woman. i can leverage that power to take risks, and engage in ways that others may not be able to afford—especially when it comes to having conversations with people in my kinship network. these conversations on Facebook, for example, take up a lot of the time i should be spending on my coursework or teaching, and taking this time to respond has definitely affected my ability to do good work on time for my supervisors. but—this is work that needs to happen. i am lucky enough to also be at an institution, working with generous scholars who know this. 

what i hope does not come of this project is the sense that i am doing this to make an example of the people in my family who voted for a fascist. i mean no ill will! this project is in many ways about being generous because generosity is a prerequisite for civil discourse. i am trying to model what generosity looks like in this particular socio-technological context. it is easy, after all, to talk in vague generalities. what i think people demand in a demonstration of civil discourse is a meaningful, concrete example of what an attempt at bridge-building looks like. again—an attempt. this might be a spectacular example of spinning wheels in mud, but i hold out hope that the process and the subsequent effort to document it has a longer-than-average-life in the context of Facebook comments. furthermore, bridge-building, once you have accepted the burden of first conceding time and effort into the project (remember, all beginnings are imperfect, but projects must start somewhere to nurture the phenomenon of duration), requires a strategic assessment of where common ground can be made. it must be a calculated and thoughtful process. generosity is aspirational, yes, and i cannot by myself say for certain if this project achieves its aims. 

another one of the many failings of this work as a censored blog post is that it does not characterize the subtexts that characterize power relationships in this kinship network. while i maintain the distinction between when i speak and my aunt speaks, i do so to underscore a very basic power relation that would have probably been self evident anyways from even a superficial assessment of writing styles. i also think this distinction helps make the work more relatable for some people, even if it does seem to compromise an expectation of privacy that may or may not exist for my aunt. this may be where this work transgresses ethical boundaries, but then again—i have many aunts. people who know what is going on in these posts are already privileged to this discourse if they were to read posts on my Timeline. if i am doing something that is transgressive, i hope this regrettable oversight (at the very least) inspires discussion on the unique situation of privacy on Facebook—especially in situations when their proprietary algorithms that govern notifications and ‘News Feed’ content selectively participate in opening up these conversations to people inside and outside my kinship network. this is to say, i think the politics of reblogging censored versions of these conversations differs from what would normally govern a research agenda or formal scholarly project. it is in this sense i feel obligated to characterize this project as an aspect of my work as a community activist.  

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