Condescension, Contempt, and Beyond

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Kwame Anthony Appiah’s recent essay “Thank You For ‘Condescending‘” (published in The New York Times Magazine’s excellent First Words column) stirred up some thoughts about the American concern with status. Appiah argues that we have forgotten the old meaning of “condescension” (which Samuel Johnson defined as ““Voluntary submission to equality with inferiors”). Over time, “condescension” has taken on negative connotations; today we resist the notion that there are superiors and inferiors in the first place. Yet hierarchies persist, says Appiah, whether we like them or not–and so condescension, once honorable, has degenerated into “its curdled opposite,” contempt, which now fills the political sphere. I support this argument and the reveille it brings; I would offer just a few complications.

When thinking of the benevolent kind of condescension, I remembered the Swinburne poem “To a Cat,” which begins:

Stately, kindly, lordly friend,
      Condescend
Here to sit by me, and turn
Glorious eyes that smile and burn,
Golden eyes, love’s lustrous meed,
On the golden page I read.

The poem expands in thought over its eleven ;stanzas it contemplates distant past and far future; near the end of the first part, it asks the cat, “What within you wakes with day / Who can say?” It is worth reading in full, many times. I think I first read it–or maybe just the first few lines–in a cat book, as a child. I remember being struck by the word “condescend”; I knew I had not  heard it in that way before. The poem stayed with me because of it.

Appiah says that condescension (in its old, kindly meaning) “denies distance; contempt asserts it.” I would add that condescension of this kind recognizes the unknown in others, whereas contempt denies it. To have contempt for another is to believe that you have summed the person up, that nothing exists beyond your own assessment (or that if anything does exist, it isn’t worth your time).

Moroeover, he suggests that contempt–and its counterpart, resentment–may arise from our insistence on erasing or ignoring the visible markers of status. In pretending to be equal (in fact as well as in principle, in specifics as well as in general), we put ourselves on edge, suspecting a hidden hierarchy behind the ways of the world.

I find this resoundingly true but would add a few caveats. Yes, hierarchies persist and make themselves known, often surreptitiously–through subtle cues, gossip, and such. Many Americans seem intensely interested in knowing who is who. If you go to a wedding, for instance, and someone even mildly famous or wealthy is there, you will hear about it (maybe in a whisper). When I was a student at Yale, someone would often point out someone and say, “You see her? She’s always going around in jeans, but she’s a multi-millionaire.” Or “He’s the son of so-and-so.” I continued to see this tendency later on, in New York, San Francisco, and elsewhere.

In addition to pointing out hierarchies (in undertones), people would also try to act as though they didn’t exist. When the boss drank with the employees–on the job or at a bar, sometimes late into the night–it could seem that there was no hierarchy at all. But part of the point of such drinking is to get employees to work longer and better. While seeming “cool” for hanging out with the lowly programmers–and perhaps being genuinely affable and appreciative–the boss has a specific agenda. Drinking on the job can also foster an “in-group” by excluding those who for cultural, religious, medical, or personal reasons do not drink (or prefer to spend their time in other ways).

Unspoken hierarchies exist in schools, too. I have heard–but have not verified–that when parents pay steep prices (through real estate or tuition) to send their child to a school, they may come to view the teachers as their own employees. In addition, with the rise of “helicopter parenting,” parents are more likely to supervise and judge the daily classes and activities in their children’s schools. The reverse, though, can happen as well: teachers may view parents as their assistants–not as well versed as they are in the subject matter but capable of, say, reading to the child before bed or making sure the homework gets done. While parents and teachers would like to view each other as their equals, they do not always accomplish this.

But let us distinguish between two kinds of equality: basic human equality and provisional, specific equality (say, in athletic competence or language proficiency). It is possible to believe in basic human equality–the idea that all of us have dignity and deserve basic consideration and respect–without believing that we all have the same abilities, attainments, virtues, or even, in some spheres, rights. In our zealousness for affirming basic equality, we have often confused it with the specific kinds; we fear to admit that some people have more musical ability than others, that some are more mathematically inclined than others, that some write better than others (at a given time or over a lifetime), or even that some exceed others in courage. Everyone is supposed to be equally special and capable, ever growing. Everyone’s voice is important.

Only we know that’s not so. Not only differences in ability, attainment, and circumstance, but differences between the “somebodies” and “nobodies” keep resurfacing. Media like Twitter reveal, on the one hand, the principle of equal participation (anyone can join the conversation!) and the blatant divide between those with thousands of followers and those with fewer than thirty. There are those whose every word gets attention and those who write for friends and occasional passers-by.

If you are perceived as one of the “nobodies,” especially online, you can be sure that someone will remind you of this–regardless of the quality of what you do and what you have to say. (“Why pay attention to you? Your comment has only two likes.”)

But there is yet another complication. A person can have higher status in one area and lower status in another. Also, people can be simultaneously each other’s superiors and inferiors. Consider an editor (of a well-regarded publication) and a writer. In some ways, the editor has higher status (through acting as gatekeeper, for instance); in others, the writer does (through creating a work that an editor might covet). The relationship may change over time. So status is more complex than it looks on the surface.

I have often felt uneasy among people obsessed with status–but I recognize that status is there, whether we like it or not, and that it takes myriad forms. I see Appiah’s argument that disavowed status leads to anxiety, contempt, and resentment.  So how does one acknowledge status without letting it dominate one’s life?

Perhaps that is precisely it: by acknowledging it, one does not have to worry about it. One does not have to put so much effort into detecting and interpreting social cues. Criticism can be more frank and at the same time less loaded; the recipient, knowing what it contains, can then choose what to do with it. This will allow not only for clarity and learning, not only for condescension (in the generous sense of the word), but for better sleep and waking.

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I took the top photo in Szolnok (near my apartment building) and the bottom one in Baja by the Danube.

The Bounty of Self-Doubt

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I depend on self-doubt for survival and prosperity. I don’t refer here to existential doubt, which does me little good, except as a starting point. (As a starting point, it has bounty of its own.) I mean the kind where I question my words and actions.

For survival, this allows me to recognize where I am going wrong and make corrections. For prosperity, it allows me to consider possibilities, to look further into questions, to find more in a person, book, or other entity than I have seen before.

The other day a baby kitten came meowing up to me, right outside my apartment building. Then he ran up to someone else who was buzzing one of the apartments. He seemed to know the building and to want to be let in–but his scrawniness and ticks suggested that he lived outdoors.

I had a thought of adopting him. I brought him upstairs, gave him water (which he drank avidly), and let him relax in Minnaloushe’s crate. After a while, I brought him out.

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Minnaloushe seemed relaxed at first, but then she let out a long hiss. I remembered that something similar had happened five and a half years ago when I adopted Aengus. It took Minnaloushe a little while to understand what was going on, but when she did, she wasn’t happy. I held the little kitten on my lap, and he purred and purred; Minnaloushe gazed off into the abstract distance, thinking, “here we go again.” (I have no idea what she was thinking.)

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I didn’t want to put Minnaloushe through this again–especially now, when I am about to leave for the U.S. for a month. It wouldn’t be fair to her or to the cat-sitter to introduce her to a kitten in my absence. Also, the kitty would need a medical exam first;  he might well be sick.

So I brought him back outside. A woman sitting out on the bench told me that he was known to people here–that he had a sibling, and that he was safe near the building. He retreated into the shade of a plant; I comforted myself with the thought that I had brought him back home.

But later I began questioning myself. Couldn’t I have brought him to the vet–to give him shots, have his ticks removed, etc.? Granted, I leave in ten days–but I could explain that to the vet, and we could figure out the best plan. So I will keep an eye out for him; if I see him again, that is what I will do.

In none of this, even the questioning, do I feel that I “did the right thing”; instead, the questioning pulled me out of self-satisfaction. Rarely is it possible to do the right thing completely. Imperfections come up everywhere. Nor is doubt always constructive; you can doubt your way into a tizzy, like the Underground Man. But doubt combined with searching can result in a reasonably good idea, at least something worth trying out.

How does this differ from “growth mindset,” a concept I criticize? I find that the division between growth and fixed mindsets oversimplifies reality. Even in questioning myself here, I stayed within limits. There are courses of action I didn’t consider, even afterward. That isn’t because I am deficient in “growth mindset”; rather, some options were outside of reasonable range for me, and others held no appeal. In much of we do, we combine limit and possibility; the combination allows us to bring actions to completion while still thinking beyond them.

I hope this kitty fares well, and I hope to see him again so that I can take him to the vet.

 

I took the first photo at the farmers’ market in Szolnok and the second photo at home. The third photo (of Minnaloushe) is from a week ago; it doesn’t quite convey the “here we go again” look, but it comes close.

Books and Leaves

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My book—the one I have been writing over the past fifteen months—has been accepted for publication by Rowman & Littlefield! The final manuscript is due March 1; the book should appear in late 2018 or so. I will give updates as they come.

Each of the book’s twelve essays examines an overused or misused word or phrase; it plays with language while commenting on culture. The working title is still Take Away the Takeaway; the final title will be different.

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The teaching is going well; I look forward to each day. I am learning students’ names faster than I expected, though not as fast as I would like. I know the names of the students in two of my eleventh-grade and one of my ninth-grade sections; that leaves five sections where I need to learn some names. (I teach eight sections in grades 9-12; two I see just once a week, two twice a week, and the others four or five times.)

The November bike rides have been glorious. The pictures above are from Alcsi sziget, I think. I followed an arrow to Üdülőtelep but ended up in Alcsi sziget (see the update below). In the second picture, if you look carefully through the branches, you can see a fisherman in a boat. Here’s another view of the water:

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Back in town, I visited the Szolnok Gallery, which was once Szolnok’s synagogue. I was alone in the museum, except for the office manager, who sold me a ticket and cracked the first joke I have yet understood in Hungarian. It was simple; he told me the price of the ticket, “háromszáz” (300), and then added, with a chuckle, “Nem euro, hanem forint” (Not Euros, but Forints.) I thanked him, climbed the spiral staircase, and walked around slowly. I don’t think I have ever been alone in a museum before. I took time with the art and the building and the silence of it all.

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Speaking of synagogues, I have begun leyning at Sim Shalom in Budapest, which has services every other Shabbat (and many other events in between). It seems that I will read Torah at each Saturday service (or as many as possible) and will eventually teach others to do the same. Each Saturday Shabbat service is followed by a shiur (Torah teaching and discussion) over Kiddush lunch; I love the focus and gathering.

I can’t end this without mentioning Aengus and Minnaloushe. They have been wonderful sports. They have started enjoying the porch, though shyly; they like going out late at night, when it’s all quiet except for the birds and leaves. Here they are: Aengus behind the curtain, Minnaloushe on the dresser, and the two of them considering the world.

It is late here (after 11:00 p.m.), and I have much to do tomorrow. So that will be all.

*Update: I originally assumed that Üdülőtelep and Alcsisziget were little towns outside of Szolnok. Later I realized that they were not towns at all; “udülőtelep” means something like “recreation site,” and “alcsi sziget” something like “sub island.”

Fall Gratitude

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In celebration of this autumn day (a welcome change from the heat of the past few weeks), I offer some short and memorable readings.

The first is Jeb Sharp’s essay “On The Wind in the Willows and Going Home.” I was tempted to quote it, but the part I wanted to quote deserves everything preceding it. After reading the essay online (months ago), I found the journal in which it is published, Clockhouse, and ordered a print copy, which sits now on my desk. It’s coming with me to Hungary. (The desk is not.) It’s one of the most moving essays I have ever read.

The second, which I have mentioned here before, is William Lychack’s magnificent (and very short) story “The Ghostwriter.” (If you don’t have access to JSTOR, you can find it in his story collection The Architect of Flowers, which, like Volume Three of Clockhouse, will come along with me.)

The third and fourth are poems: May Swenson’s “Water Picture” and Edward Hirsch’s “Wild Gratitude,” both of which I first read about thirty years ago and reread with different understanding today.

Hirsch’s poem holds all of this together, including the photo above, taken earlier this month, of the ceiling of the Ady Endre Libary, formerly Baja’s synagogue, and the one below, from this morning’s outing to the corner store. I wish I knew what the cat saw at that moment; I’m pretty sure it was something I did not see.

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The Cats of Istanbul

Yesterday I learned from David Costanza (Art of Flying) about Kedi, Ceyda Torun’s documentary about the cats of Istanbul! It looks absolutely wonderful; I will write about it after watching it in full.

Speaking of Istanbul cats, it would be a shame not to assemble the photos I took of some of them. Here is a slideshow of fifteen pictures. What moved me was not only the omnipresence of cats, but the love with which they were treated. The first two pictures–of a mother and baby cat inside a restaurant–came thanks to a stranger on the street. He saw me photographing cats and, with hand gestures, urged me to go inside.

While in Istanbul, I sent Andrew Gelman some cat photos in case he wanted any of them for his blog. So far, he has used two; you can see them here and here.

Istanbul Memories in Advance

IMG_3053When I step outside of the school, this is the first street I see. Before I’ve walked a block, I see pictures of kebabs on restaurant walls; I hear an approaching motorcycle or a clattering wooden cart. Café tables and chairs fill the sidewalks. By 11:00 a.m., people are sitting outside, observing the day, drinking tea, talking with each other. Cats amble along, picking up food and affection along the way.

My time at the Sainte Pulchérie Lisesi is passing quickly; tomorrow I teach my last class. Today we held a long-anticipated Skype conference with the editors-in-chief of CONTRARIWISE. Selin, Zeynep, and Pinar participated on this end; Kelly, Alan, and (Professor) Kim Terranova on the other. (Nimet and I listened and took pictures; at one point I lifted up the laptop to show Kelly and Alan the view through the window.)

I have not seen my favorite musicians again, but I will keep on looking. I heard many other musicians, including this wonderful Syrian group playing “Habibi Nour el Ayn.” (Someone else posted another lovely video of the same group and song.)

This blog conveys only a fraction of these two weeks; I do not want to sum them up, so I will end here.

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Crossing the Threshold

In honor of the end of the school year, here is a picture of the shadow of my cat Aengus, who has started to contemplate emerging from the den.

Here, also, is a link to my most recent article, “Curriculum: A Springboard to Creativity” (The Core Knowledge Blog, June 20, 2013). In it I discuss a piece by one of my students. Well worth reading for the latter alone! (2017 update: The article is now gone from the blog–as is everything posted before 2014, apparently–but you can read the student’s piece here.)

To top it off, here is a photo of the Philosophy Roundtable held by fifteen of my students on June 5.

I will post a new piece here soon.

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“Through hollow lands and hilly lands….”

aengus2I met Aengus (formerly Thomas) last Thursday. At first he shrank away from me; I saw that he had only one eye. But when I put my hand inside the cage and began to stroke him, he cuddled up to my hand and purred, and rolled and purred some more.

I knew that I would give him a home, if someone else didn’t do so first; I spoke with the staff at Sean Casey Animal Rescue and explained that I couldn’t come back until Saturday but would come back then. When I returned on Saturday, I heard Aengus’s story. I may have a minor detail or two wrong, but most of this is correct.

Two months ago or more, he was hit by a car (at least it seems that was what happened). His right jaw, palate, and right eye were smashed, but he survived. Because he was feral, he wouldn’t let anyone near him, apparently. It was only after he had become weak and emaciated that someone found him curled up in a flower pot and took him to the animal rescue center.

The rescue staff took him to the veterinarian, who saw that he was too weak for surgery. So the veterinary staff force-fed him and gave him antibiotics until he was strong enough for the medical work (this took several weeks). It was a precarious situation: his injured eye had become severely infected, and his other eye was on the verge of infection.

At last he was ready; the vet removed the injured eye, performed surgery on the jaw, and reconstructed the palate. During his recovery at the veterinary hospital and back at the shelter, he became gentle and affectionate. Many people grew fond of him; I had a strange knowledge, as I took him home, that I was responsible not only toward him, but toward those who had saved his life and spent time with him day after day.

minnaloushe2I named him Aengus after the Yeats poem “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” My other cat, Minnaloushe, is named after the cat in his poem “The Cat and the Moon.” (My Minnaloushe is female; the cat in the poem is male.)

During this time, I was finishing George Kateb’s wonderful book Human Dignity and thinking about his acknowledgment of tensions: in particular, the tension between humans’ capacity to act as stewards of nature and their massive failure to do so. Aengus’s being reflects these two sides: he was almost killed by a human, and yet he lives and purrs, thanks to the dedication of the rescue staff, vet, and visitors.

To keep Minnaloushe and Aengus separate for the time being (except for now and then), and to make sure each one gets what he or she needs, I have worked out a complex system. At night, I have Minnaloushe in my bedroom, with door closed; Aengus gets to roam the apartment. When I am out of the house, or when Aengus is eating, Aengus stays in the study, with door closed, and Minnaloushe stays anywhere else. When I am home and not sleeping, and Aengus is not eating, I keep him in the study but leave the door ajar. Minnaloushe comes in now and then and rolls over on the floor. She stays about three feet away from him but seems relaxed at that distance. If she gets testy, I take her out of the room and play with her a bit. Tomorrow I return to teaching, so Aengus will stay alone in the study all day long (with food, water, and litter, of course).

Sometimes Aengus gives me a probing stare with his one eye. Often he rolls over and invites me to scratch his belly. Minnaloushe does similar things. She plays, and he doesn’t yet, but today he batted at a toy (once) for the first time.

This is a departure from my usual pieces about education, but it’s a worthy aberration. Long live Aengus and Minnaloushe, and Happy New Year to them and to you.