Friday, August 8, 2008


(Maggie in Calcutta, 1956)

In 2001 I had the chance to hear one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott, speak at the annual Art and Soul Conference at Baylor University. The talk she gave that night altered my life in more than one way, but what I want to share with you here is how she began her Q & A session. She said something like this: "I'm opening the floor to questions. If what you want to do is argue with me, or present your point of view, I hope you'll go find a place where others want to listen to that and not force it upon us here. If you try to do that here, you'll get no response from me. When you are done, I'll simply move on to the next person who, hopefully, will have a real question. I will not be taken in by any tricks you may employ to disguise your pontification or rebuttal as a question. I say this especially to the men in the audience, because I have found that men in our culture have too often been raised without the ability to listen respectfully to women speakers, without arguing in their heads and then out loud."

This drew a huge laugh, and a simultaneous air of relief and tension settled on the audience. She had to use her technique twice -- both on men, both men white and well-spoken, who needed to tell her why she was full of shit, they could not wait another fifteen minutes to prove her wrong. When each was done, she pointed to the next hand in the audience without a word, which again drew gleeful laughter and, increasingly, a sense of connection among the rest of us.

It seems to me that in our current culture, we are in the midst of a great experiment of pitting "free speech" against the deleterious effects of having to listen to unrestrained hostility, disappointment, and oppressive language disguised as thought. I personally think it is an experiment which is failing. As in, Epic Fail. It's poisoning our elections (which is, ahem, affecting the survival of the planet) and shutting up people who are the very voices we need most desperately to hear.

A recent article at The Onion began:

'In a statement made to reporters earlier this afternoon, local idiot Brandon Mylenek, 26, announced that at approximately 2:30 a.m. tonight, he plans to post an idiotic comment beneath a video on an Internet website. Mylenek, a moron, prepares to publicly address the "dumbest shiz [he's] evr seen!!!1!"

"Later this evening, I intend to watch the video in question, click the 'reply' link above the box reserved for user comments, and draft a response, being careful to put as little thought into it as possible, while making sure to use all capital letters and incorrect punctuation," Mylenek said. "Although I do not yet know exactly what my comment will entail, I can say with a great degree of certainty that it will be incredibly stupid."

"Mylenek, who rarely in his life has been capable of formulating an idea or opinion worth the amount of oxygen required to express it, went on to guarantee that the text of his comment would be misspelled to the point of incomprehension, that it would defy the laws of both logic and grammar, and that it would allege that several elements of the video are homosexual in nature.'

It's funny, except it's not.

A year ago today, thanks overwhelmingly to the support of Liza Cowan, I began an individual blogger. This was not primarily a wish to express my opinions -- I do that already, to great effect. (I be a WRITER.) Instead, I wanted conversation and exchange of ideas, hope, insight. I had been inspired by an essay on Bitch Ph.D. on how to be a responsible blogger, which emphasized moderating the hell out of your comments. You cannot build an online community AND tolerate anger-filled idiots. They have to get their therapy elsewhere. I compare it to the problems public libraries are now facing, since so many homeless people seek libraries for shelter during the day and so many of them (a majority) are mentally ill: patrons who want a quiet place to read or research have gone elsewhere in most major cities.

There's at least one major blog I no longer read because during this last campaign cycle, it allowed its commenters (and too many of its posters) complete freedom to trash a woman candidate in whatever language they could dredge up from their woman-hating ids. This continued even after her campaign had come to an end -- it was a culture, by that point -- to such an extent that one of their major diarists, a gay man who was the only poster I still wanted to read, made a comment to the effect that the bashing could and should now stop. His remark had some effect. Still, the damage was done. I wasn't her particular supporter, but a blog which will allow that is going to allow other shit that I don't want to see, either. I want to save my reading time and energy for that which is positive, not that which I have to wade through for islands of clarity.

The reality is, when angry voices are allowed to dominate a conversation, they will be overwhelmingly male, white, raised Christian, power-seeking rather than cooperative, classist, and add absofuckinglutely nothing new to what has run the world (into the ground) for 2000 years. It's over; time for a new paradigm, whatever means it takes to bring it through the door.

Appropriately, my first post here was entitled Who Feasts and Who Famishes.
I'd like to thank the folks who come here and read for being an impeccably intelligent, kind, open-minded and diverse community, who treat one another with respect and interest. As I build Meta Watershed, I'll do my share to insure this stays a genuinely safe place: Safe not as in "no divergent views allowed" but safe as in "you will not be called names for your divergent viewpoint".

Happy anniversary, ya'll. A little more after the fold.

Another segment of the Anne Lamott talk mentioned above resulted in my writing a poem which won acclaim. Her story was about something that actually occurred in the period immediately following the liberation of Europe after World War II. American aid workers poured in to help the destroyed communities of Europe -- the civilian casualties of this war, as in all wars, was exponentially greater than military losses. In particular, there were vast numbers of orphans or lost children. Huge encampments were set up by Americans to feed, clothe, and treat these children as some surviving member of their family was attempted to be located.

One relief worker talked about his experiences with these children. They were ravenous in every regard (when they weren't catatonic) and for the most part, the adults looking after them allowed them to eat as much as they wanted. One little boy, emaciated and starved beyond belief, ate his fill but still woke up every single night with screaming nightmares. The relief worker would hold him until he went back to sleep, but often the nightmares recurred the same night. This went on for weeks. Finally, one night as dinner was ending, the little boy picked up a loaf of bread from the table and slipped it under his shirt. The relief worker noticed this act and didn't interrupt. When the little boy went to bed, he put on his pajama, then hid the loaf under his pillow. After the lights went out, he retrieved the loaf and held it clasped in his arms.

He had no nightmares that night.

He knew he would be eating the next day, even if all the adults disappeared.

Offering succour to those who are damaged to this extent means giving them a loaf, yes. But it has to be a real loaf, not simply listening to the screams of nightmares.


Filling up on bread,
leaned against our deep old sink so
as to not be tempted
by the meal she'd just dished out
enough for us, not her

Talking to us around the fridge
so we could still call it a family meal
There are worse things than
watching your children go hungry
Worse than watching after
having grown up hungry
Worse than the anger of your oldest
because all he can stand to feel is deprived
Worse than the silent daughter
who swallows shame with every bite
you are not taking
Worse than teaching the baby
to not accept meals from the neighbors

Better to go without
than to settle for a public slot at the bottom

Worse of all
is to die with the bread all eaten,
last crumbs pressed up by moistened fingertips,
no new loaf on the way.
Generations of you.

I bake for your graveside altars
but I take the first slice for myself.

© Maggie Jochild, 24 February 2001, Waco, Texas
Published in Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Fall/Winter 2002


Liza Cowan said...

Happy Anniversary Maggie!

I totally agree with you about people who post garbage on blogs. It seems to happen most on blogs of a political nature, mostly those moderated by a majority of men. Even if the people who write the blogs are considerate and thoughtful, which they often are, in the comments sections they allow their blogs to become the playground of the hostile masses. This is toxic to the blog and its readers. And to areas beyond the blog, as you point out.

I think of a blog as a social space. Not quite like home, but like a public social event. In face to face events, most of us wouldn't tolerate our guests behaving in such an ugly manner to the hosts or other guests. Why then, do blog hosts allow their guests to pollute the party? Eventually, sooner rather than later, the guests you actually like and want will leave, and only the dregs are left to control the room.

Maybe the blog hosts have low expectations of humanity. Or they feel they don't have the right to edit and control the conversations. But in my opinion, that is their job and their responsibility to their readers.

If blog editors can't or won't control the environment, keep out the hostile elements, encourage the thoughtful and respectful readers, then I'm certainly not going to keep coming back. I've got more life affirming things to do with my time.

You, Maggie, are always a great moderator. I wish people would learn from you.

april said...

Happy Anniversary!
Would love to see more responsible comment-moderating on the interwebs. Go you.