On Apologizing To Your Child

On Thursday morning, I inexplicably, irrationally, and ultimately, cruelly, lost my temper at my four-year old daughter; I wanted her to do X; she did not; I thought my request was reasonable; she didn’t think it was; and then, when on my demanding reasons for her decision and denial of my request, she could not comply, I snapped. I stormed off, fuming; she was left in tears. Even as I did so, I knew I had fucked up, and spectacularly. And yet, perversely, my irritation and frustration–which was really what my anger amounted to–continued to cloud my mind for a minute or two. As those feelings receded, I walked back into my daughter’s bedroom, picked her up, gave her a hug, and asked her if she was hungry and wanted breakfast. She perked up, and said she did. A second or so later, as I carried her into the kitchen, she said she was ‘sorry’; I said I was too; and we hugged again. A minute or so later, she was smiling and happy. (Her mood improved even more when I told her I would get her a ‘pizza treat’ later that evening.) An hour later, she had left for preschool, and I headed to midtown Manhattan to get some work done at the CUNY Graduate Center library.

But all was not well; I was beset with a series of nagging thoughts all day. My daughter hadn’t done anything wrong; she had said ‘sorry’ because she knew a parent was angry at her, and that’s what you do when your parental figure is upset with you. I had been in the wrong all along; once my initial request had been denied, I should have backed off. Instead–like a petulant child–I had insisted, and then later, browbeaten her with a series of badgering demands for clarification of her reasons, all the while intimidating her with my tone of voice and body language. My daughter had never needed to apologize; she should have demanded one from me. I was the offender here; my perfunctory apology and ‘make-up’ in the morning was not enough.

That evening, I picked her up from pre-school, bought some pizza, and we returned home to eat and watch–as promised–a couple of short videos on lions and tigers in the wild. As we ate, I offered a more elaborate apology: I said I should have listened to her and respected her wishes, that she had been right, and I had been wrong. She listened rather solemnly–or about as solemnly as four-year olds can–and on my asking if she understood what I was trying to say, nodded her head. We then went back to watching big cats do what they do best.

I knew there would be times when I would have to apologize to my child; error-free parenting is impossible. I’ve done so before, but I don’t think I’ve ever quite made my admission of wrong-doing quite as explicit as it was on this occasion. Truth be told, it was a curiously uplifting experience.

Critical Theory And The Nature Of Law

My graduate seminar on ‘The Nature of Law‘ read and discussed critical race theory this past week. I’ve–along with my students–been thinking about the relationship of critical material like this–along with the critical legal studies readings we did over the last two weeks–to the definitional and foundational debates that so occupied us in the beginning of the semester. Certainly, we seemed to be distant, in our concerns and preoccupations, from the question of what law is ‘–at least in the way that, for instance, the folks engrossed in the natural lawpositivism debate were. In one dimension. For instance, precisely because critique seizes upon normative failings, we were often discussing what the law ought to be as opposed to what it is. But in another, we aren’t.

For note that in providing the sort of critique critical race theory and critical legal studies are advancing,  the kind that informs us it is an agent of social construction and reification, an instrument of ideological control, a diversion away from radical political and social change, toward change more palatable to the established orders, we are also being told a great deal about what the law is not. It is not an impartial dispenser of justice, and neither is it a reliable instrument of social change. The critical race theorist is able to remind us of law’s limitations and circumscriptions: the inability of its remedies to redress some kinds of particularly pernicious wrongs, its helplessness in the face of entrenched, ‘internal’ racism, the kind which deeply implicates every social, political, and economic reality it interacts with, its being frozen into accepted trajectories of reasoning and categorization that prevent it from playing the kind of role most optimistically envisaged for it by a certain species of liberal theorizing. For instance, the critical race theorist’s advancement of an argument for reparation shows how current legal reasoning and analysis is inflexibly locked into presumptive modes of inquiry and understanding about guilt, responsibility, and even the ontology of groups and persons, that lead to a reflexive rejection of such claims. Law constructs many social facts, and there are many others that construct it in turn.

The critical theorist also–most crucially–adds color and depth to the earlier bloodless debates about whether law is understood as a system of rules, the command of a sovereign or the imperfect realization of a social morality. Critical theory informs us that the identity, the placement within social and political orderings and hierarchies, of legal actors–and those subject to them–is a crucial determinant of the content of law; it is a crucial force in determining the trajectories and workings out of a legal system. (Feminist legal theorists, who we will begin reading in two weeks time, will obviously bolster such identification.)

The nature of law remains crucially undertheorized unless its definitions are bolstered by critique. For it is only by means of the latter that the history of law can be seen and examined. And that, of course, is how we bring its coherence and incoherence to light.

Thou Shalt Know All Before Offering Critique (Of The Police)

A common argument made in the ongoing national discussion about police brutality and violence is, very roughly, “We should be careful in criticizing the police because we have little idea of how difficult and dangerous their work is.” Which reminds me: some ten years ago, when discussing the Abu Ghraib tortures and sundry atrocities with a serving military officer, he offered me the following piece of wisdom: “You cannot, from this safe couch-warming distance, judge the actions of military men; you have no idea of the dangers and stresses of their work.”

You know, whereof one cannot know every excruciating detail, one should not criticize or judge or pass moral judgment?

I don’t ride around in a police cruiser, I don’t encounter gang members, I don’t break up domestic disputes. I really should watch what I say when I see a police man crack heads with a nightstick, or shoot a young unarmed man. I really should bite my tongue when I see soldiers harass and humiliate naked, cowering, and helpless prisoners.

I dunno. I don’t have a pass to the White House or the Oval Office. I’m not privy to all the deliberations of the executive branch of the US government; I’m not invited to sit in on the meetings of the councils of power and take minutes. Yet I find myself criticizing its members’ actions all the time–with passion and fervor. Certainly, many of those who would like criticism of the police or the military to be tempered and attenuated and channeled into more ‘constructive’ forms and venues have no problems in doing so either.

I feel free to offer such criticism because the effects of the actions taken by those I criticize are real, visibly tangible, and affect the lives of humans in wide-ranging ways. Sometimes it’s because I feel my critique should feature in the decision-making process that the powerful employ. Perhaps those in power should keep my perspective front and center when they begin some course of action.

The imbalance of power runs only one way in this relationship: my critique attempts to redress it.

The note of caution, the command to seek a broader and more synoptic perspective, directed at me, is misplaced. It should be directed instead at those who wear uniforms, carry guns, deploy deadly force; its passion should be channeled toward those who can imprison, torture, kill; it should stay the hands of those who can end the lives of considerably less powerful humans thanks to their flawed, made-on-the-basis-of-incomplete-information decision-making. How about if the police, in their interactions with citizenry, strive to achieve some understanding of, some empathy with, those whose lives they regulate and discipline and punish?

There is always some problem with critiquing the powerful: you didn’t understand their perspective, you know not what they do, you didn’t protest the right way.

Every argument that urges the weak, the less powerful, the subjects of often deadly state and penal power, to understand and integrate and internalize the perspectives of those with greater power, is a dangerous diversion, a sham, a participation in, and propagation of, an ideology that glorifies and valorizes the political structures that oppress us.

Speaking In Accents – II

In response to my post yesterday, a Facebook friend offered the following perspicuous comments:

I have no control over my accent and it breaks my heart when my dialect goes missing – and faking it/forcing it is difficult and problematic to boot. I just want so badly to rub my accent in the face of every stereotype of the illiterate drunken welfare bum, but code switching happens even when I don’t want it to. So often dialect becomes kind of trivialized, but really, in my experience, it’s at the core of cultural identity.

[T]he final point in the blog post about [Samir’s] unconscious ability as a linguistic sponge contrasted with the observation that Americans rarely pick up Indian accent features even if surrounded by them is SO IMPORTANT. Power and perception of prestige is such a huge dimension guiding whether accents are abandoned, modified, or clung to….in my own life, I’ve observed how so many Newfoundlanders move away and lose their accents – learn to speak ‘correctly,’ ugh – but I can’t think of examples of Canadians who move to Newfoundland and pick up the local way of speaking in a significant way. [links added]

Accents can be (are?) markers of privilege and power. The immigrant loses his accent, but not all kinds of immigrants; it depends on who is immigrating, and where.

Accents and assimilation go together; those that seek to assimilate, often seek to lose their accents; those that don’t want to, or don’t need to, do not. There is little you can do about skin color or physical appearance, but perhaps there is a great deal that can be done about the way you sound. (Witness the popularity of ‘accent removal classes‘ in the US, for instance.) And such linguistic assimilation can be crucially important.

A reminder of an accent, especially in mixed company, is a galling business. Even if you aren’t seeking assimilation consciously, it can be a simple reminder of difference, of outside status. These reminders can vary: sometimes its the request to speak slower, to repeat oneself; sometimes its the insensitive impromptu mimicry; sometimes its the well-meant but often awkward, “I love it when you pronounce X like that”; sometimes its the simple query, “What kind of accent is that?” The accented speaker feels the spotlight turn on him; he had thought he had sneaked in, but his papers have been asked for, and they’ve been found wanting. His cover is blown.

More problematically, an accent can simply disguise your content with its form; you might be making eminent sense, but the overlaying accent invokes a prejudice that clouds comprehension. In some kinds of conversation, some kinds of accents don’t work. It’s easier to talk about cricket in an Indian accent than it is about baseball or football; I’m supposed to be talking about, and dispensing wisdom on, the former, but not about the latter. I will not be heard in the latter case.

All accents are not equal, of course. In my twenty-seven years in the US, I’ve never seen an Italian or French friend told their accented English was difficult to understand, or asked to repeat themselves, or had it mimicked to their face. Their listeners strain to understand them; these accents are markers of sophisticated European cultures, signals of sophistication. On a related note, I’ve never heard complaints about Italian or French speakers talking to each other in their home languages in mixed company, a grouse all too often directed at other more ‘insular’ folk from lands a little further east.

I’ll never lose my accent; I wouldn’t know how even as it occasionally synchronizes with the speech of those around me. My daughter will realize, soon enough, her father sounds different from most around her. Hopefully, she won’t be too confused or mortified by the difference between her Brooklyn accent and my mutt one.

Samuel Delany on Power

I have finally taken down, from my shelves, my long-ago-borrowed copy of Samuel Delany‘s Tales of Nevèrÿon (Bantam Books, New York, 1979) and started reading it. Almost immediately, in the first story of Gorgik, the mine slave taken “as a plaything to Nevèrÿon’s imperial court” (‘The Tale of Gorgik‘), I came up on the following Foucauldian ruminations on the nature of power – as evident in the imperial court:

The social hierarchy and patterns of deference to be learned here were as complex as those had to be mastered–even by a foreman–on moving into a new slave barracks in the mine….Indeed, among slaves Gorgik knew what generated such complexity: Servitude itself. The only question he could not answer here was: What were all these elegant lords and ladies slaves to?….The answer was simple: Power, pure, raw, and obsessive. But in his ignorance, young Gorgik was again closer to the lords and ladies around him than an equally young potters’ boy would have been. For it is precisely at its center that one loses the clear vision of what surrounds, what controls and contours every utterance, decides and develops every action, as the bird has no clear concept of air, though it supports her every turn, or the fish no true vision of water, though it blur all she sees. A goodly, if not frightening, number of these same lords and ladies dwelling at the court has as little idea of what shaped their every willed decision, conventional observance, and sheer, unthinking habit, as did Gorgik. [pp. 24-25]

Gorgik….was, for all his unfocused thought, learning–still learning. He was learning that power–the great power that shattered lives and twisted the course of nations–was like a fog over a meadow at evening. From any distance, it seemed to have a shape, a substance, a color, an edge, yet as you approached it, it seemed to receded before you. Finally, when common sense said you were at its center, it still seemed just as far away, only by this time it was on all sides, obscuring any vision of the world beyond it. [pp. 37]

Here, especially in the analogies drawn with the fish, the bird and the fog, Delany captures some key aspects of Foucault’s theorizing about imposed power: its opacity, its ubiquity, its invisibility to those controlled by it. And it is precisely at its ‘center’ that this all-controlling power is the least visible.  And Delany is wise too, in his description of what is affected most by power: “willed decision, conventional observance, and sheer, unthinking habit” – the building blocks of our selves. The first is a key component in our ascriptions of agency to ourselves, the second and third play key explanatory roles in our self-understanding, especially as most of us are too lazy to do the historical investigation required to discover the foundational underpinnings of our actions.

Note: These observations are also very good, literary descriptions of Bourdieu‘s fields of power: “[A] system of social positions…structured internally in terms of power relationships…a social arena of struggle”.