Sunday, November 3, 2013

Facebook, Boxes, Possibilities and Incivility

Warning:  This post is long and I have no idea where it is going.

When I woke up this morning I told my husband I was probably going to get in trouble.  That happens to me from time to time.  I know I'm wading into something and I brace myself for the fall out.  My husband's response to that was, "If that's what you want.  Are you planning on blogging about something controversial today?"  I told him I had been thinking about education for a few weeks and the events in my public and private life finally collided in a way that made me need to just belch it out onto the page.  So, I began with a metaphor on my Facebook page, and then I blogged about my annoyance with the current atmosphere of attacking teachers.

I expected to hear from people who read my blog, either complaining about my ideas or my experiences or even telling me that they disagree with me about teaching in general.  What I was not expecting was to get pushback from the pretty innocuous Facebook post.

This is what I posted on Facebook:

Some kids are inside the box. Some kids are outside the box. 

I have discovered that this very simplistic view of children is absolute lunacy.

I am raising a physical scientist who loves visual arts and theatre, and a a visual artist who composes music and loves the biological sciences.

My daughter designed her own box. She changes its shape, proportions and colors to suit her needs, but as far as I can tell she's never gotten inside of it.

My son didn't know there was a box until recently. Upon discovering its existence his first reaction was to laugh at the concept. His second was to look at around in a bewildered fashion and ask, "What on earth would I do with a box?"

I am privileged to have these two characters in my life.

How would you describe your child's relationship with this mysterious box?

My motivation for this post is simple.  I have always been labeled as 'outside of the box'.  I don't tend to move in 'traditional' tracks of thought and I am a bit off the wall at times...most of the time.  I accepted this very simple idea most of my life, and then I had kids.  What I discovered was that this very simple description didn't really have anything to do with the two people living in my house.  Their potential to be, do and see things was phenomenal to me.  I began to wonder when we set the 'box' and what happens to us as we grow older.  I thought about the people who were 'brains', 'pretty', 'jocks', and I began to wonder if we sold them and ourselves short in life.

What if I took the simple metaphor of the box and made the thing more interesting or applicable to what I saw?

I used to say, "People say you are either inside the box our outside of the box.  Well, one of my children built her own box and does what she wants with it and my son doesn't know there is a box."

Lots of other parents would look at me for a moment, and often they would go right back to saying their child was either inside or outside, but over time, people have begun expanding on that metaphor and they have begun to answer me with things that are interesting and probably more descriptive of what makes their kids tick.  I believe in a dynamic view of our relationship to what is 'normal' or within the bounds of 'traditional' when it comes to how we live in our society.

We are more that we ever thought we could be and the labels we use and accept often limit who we could be.  When I think of the 'box' I think of being trapped and forced to conform to something that is already here.  Then, I think of Einstein, Florence Nightengale. and Wright Brothers, George Washington Carver, Neil Degrasse Tyson, Isaace Newton, Bessie Coleman and I ask a simple question, "What would their lives have been like if they'd been put in a box they couldn't escape?"

So, I am ever expanding the idea of the boxes.

It is never my intention to offend anyone...that doesn't mean I don't offend people, it just means I'm not trying to do that.  I have a very open idea of dialogue.  I want to know what you think especially if you disagree with me.  I want to know if we can find common ground.  I want to know if there is some way for us to understand the world together, because like it or not, we are here together.

One thing I find unhelpful on all levels is incivility.  I really dislike being uncivil to someone.  it ends discourse and changes the conversation into bomb throwing.  The moment you are throwing bombs, you are not talking.  You are not listening.  You are no longer communicating in any helpful way.

This brings me to Facebook.  I have gotten in trouble on this medium any number of times.  Sometimes it is because I have waded into a conversation all unknowing and trod on someone's toes.  Sometimes it is because I don't tend to take Facebook very seriously and lots of other people do.  Sometimes it is because I am extremely opinionated and people don't like my opinions.  Sometimes people misinterpret my intent because I have typed a hastily worded reply that does sound incredibly insensitive or out of step.

I have learned to be much more careful rather than cavalier.  Even so, sometimes I end up embroiled in something that is either odd or distasteful.

That happened this morning.  I posted my, what i feel to be a rather innocuous post about boxes, on my page and I got a quick and annoyed reply from a fellow who I had accepted a friend request from because he used to go to my church.  His reply seemed rather disgusted.

He informed me that I was naive to believe that people weren't in boxes.  We were all in boxes.  Our lives were proscribed by boxes.  We even died in Boxes and that was just how it was.

I responded that my intent was to say that we are more than what we are labeled and that our lives have more to do with how we perceive the world around us than how others perceive us.  If we go forward with that point of view, our options are bigger.

He wrote back at once, demanding to know why I was a storyteller and not a painter or a mortician.  He wanted to know who I was to go about defining everyone's boxes.  He wanted to know how I could be so foolish to believe that people have so many choices.  He wanted to know how I could think I was so free to make choices in my life.  He told me I clearly thought I was as free as the birds, but even birds aren't free.  Then he threw in something about a boy who just wants to grow up and be a truck driver who comes home and watches the playboy channel.  He demanded to know why I thought I had the right to say anything about boxes.  We all live in boxes.  That's just how it is.

I have discovered that when dealing with people who have such strong viewpoints it is often best to just say straight up that it is perfectly lovely that we don't agree.  This person isn't going to make me wish for a box to hide in and I am clearly not going to convince him he doesn't have to be in his box.  If he wants to be in a box, that is fine with me, but I don't believe he has the right to try to limit my world to what is in his.

This is where things took a turn for the worst.

I pointed out that I love to tell stories and I do it because I can make a living at it.  Doing what you love means you don't have to fight yourself to go to work.  I pointed out that I do paint.  I also pointed out that I have no interest and possibly no skills in the field of being a mortician, but what does that have to do with not having choices?  I tried to explain that as adults we often feel trapped in life, but the true places we get put in those boxes occurs when we are younger.  The younger we are when we accept that we are trapped in a box, the smaller our future becomes.  I explained that I wasn't suggesting people could sprout wings and fly around a room if they thought about it hard enough, but that they always had more choices than they realized.

I wish I'd been more articulate about it.  Perhaps I should have included phrases like, 'You could be a tap dancing doctor, a sculpting sales associate who surfs, a truck driver who writes poetry, a writer who enjoys working with neuroscience.'  I didn't though.  Who thinks of such things while they are typing a quick, though lengthy, response on Facebook?

I concluded my response with,  'Who is to say what you are and aren't?  You and I have very different world views.  I am not trying to define the box.  What I am trying to do is talk about our relationship to this mysterious box and how our view of it can limit us.  You are welcome to live in a box if that is what you wish, but we do live in America and it is a free country after all.   Inside or outside doesn't suit me.

His response sounded a bit unhinged.

First, he began with calling me 'Sister', in a familiar and uncomfortable way.  I wasn't certain if he was doing this to mock me being black, mock me being a woman, or if he was being condescending, or if he thought it was endearing.  He told me I needed to go back to school because I was ignorant.  I needed to go back and take logic 101 because I wasn't making any sense.  He went on to tell me that black belonged with black, white belonged with white, and yes, green belongs with green.  He informed me that maybe, since I was such an expert on all of this, and I was as free as the birds that I should take the next few days off so I could teach a logic class.  He said he'd sign up for it and sit in the front of the class and maybe the birds could come in and pee on the floor.

It was strange.  It had nothing to do with what we were discussing an I realized we were no longer talking about boxes.  He had degenerated into insulting me as a person and insulting...I don't know, my life?

I went over to his Facebook page.  There was an image of Adolf Hitler as his identifying photo.  I went through the posts on his page.  They were unhinged, insulting and uncomfortable.  I found out a number of things from his posts that stated that his life was not going well and it was obvious he was angry.

I wondered if he'd wandered over to my page and discovered that I, a black woman, was married to a  Jewish man, and if he was basing his new responses/attacks on what was on my page.  Not a clue.  All I was certain of was that there was nothing to be gained by this discussion.

I rattled off a quick response to his post.  "I am living the life I chose.  I have a great family and I love what I do.  How is it going in your boxes?"

I posted it and then looked at it.  I realized I had strayed far from my desire to engage and I had become a bomb thrower.  I deleted the post.

I went back and deleted all of the posts from this fellow and then I deleted my responses.  Next, I unfriended him and blocked him from ever friending me, commenting on my posts, and even seeing me online.

I felt a bit better after least, right at first.  Then, the crazy liberal who lives inside my head said, "Why did you do that?  Perhaps you should not have been so hasty.  This is a human.  You could have found some way to speak to this person.  Maybe, if you kept on keeping on this could have been salvaged.  Maybe you could have come to some sort of understanding.  Maybe..."

The above is also the teacher, communicator, hoper, wisher, dreamer, and lover of discussion even if it is heated or uncomfortable, that lives in my eager heart.

The person who unfriended this guy?  That person is the one who believes in civil discourse.  I don't care if you don't agree with me, but can't we talk about things like rational, normal people?  Why must it descend into dismissing someone who doesn't agree with you as stupid?  Why don't we seem to understand that brilliant people can have different world views and that doesn't mean one is more intelligent than the other?  Are we so locked in the zero sum, black and white world that we do not know that everything is GRAY?  What is wrong with us?

Then, of course, I thought, perhaps the idea of a box that doesn't stop you is too much for some people. If they cannot blame their circumstances on the boxes, who can they blame?

In fairness, there are some boxes that are hard to overcome, but somehow, we have managed with the help of the few who throw the box away.  Where would we be without Aristotle, Rosa Parks, Imhotep, the Arabic numerical system?  These are people and things that destroyed the boxes that existed at the time of their birth or invention.  They changed our whole world.

In the end, I decided that it is hard to have a conversation with someone who is only interested in telling you that if you do not view the world they same way they do you are an idiot.  I find it sad, but luckily, in my world, I don't have to stay in a cage match with this man who thinks I am a fool for believing in possibilities.

I will continue to tell stories.  I will continue to believe that we have more potential that we think.  I will strive to share that with anyone who wants to believe it as well.  I will continue to respect the folks who do not believe that, and work hard to find a nice safe box and get into it and stay there.  They are welcome to their box.  I will, however, resist their every effort to put me into one.

Incivility can only lead to bomb throwing.  Once we begin to lob verbal assaults on the people we are trying to engage, everyone loses.


  1. In the interest of conversation, posting the comment here as well as on FB:
    As many have already said - great post!

    I enjoyed your discussion of boxes - I'm in a bit of transition/at a cross-road in my life, and not really sure where I'll end up or in what direction I'll head. To work with the boxes metaphor - I think I simultaneously feel both inside and outside the box, or that one path would be an act of stepping in while the other would be remaining out [of the box], but perhaps this reinforces your idea of the limitations of thinking in terms of boxes at all.

    I really loved this: "I thought about the people who were 'brains', 'pretty', 'jocks', and I began to wonder if we sold them and ourselves short in life," especially the part about selling both others and ourselves short. An individual is multifaceted, and it's hard to see the whole rather than to focus too much on just one or two of those aspects, in part perhaps because those aspects can at times be in conflict and so it can be easier to reduce them to their fundamentals in order to wrap our mind around it. But yes, boxes, in their convenience can lead to forgetting humanity and the complexities of an individual.

    Hmm, now, I'm wondering about the nature of metaphors in general (wondering if maybe there's a better replacement for the concept of boxes), and it seems that part of what makes a metaphor a useful tool for explaining a concept/event/whatever is the way it reduces and simplifies. So, perhaps the problem is not the metaphor but the metaphor taken too far, i.e. believing that life really is as simple as all that.

    As another side note, perhaps, I don't think I fully realized that children were thought of as being either inside or outside the box - I've certainly heard of the idea of "thinking outside the box," but that's different, no?

    1. I think that what you are talking about is not getting inside of boxes so much as choosing what you want to do with yourself. Being stuck in a box is about following a path that is prescribed for you by someone else. You don't have to be a doctor unless you want to be one. Explore, let the farthest reaches of your imagination and skill take you where you want to go. You have more choices than you imagine, but you are the one who decides what to do with those choices. Transitions are hard. Transitions make it difficult to decide where to go or how to go. As long as you are making decisions based on your needs and wants, and not because someone has made you settle for something, you are free to move around. Don't get trapped inside a box, look up in twenty years and discover that you are living someone else's dream and not your own. That isn't likely to make for a life you will enjoy living.

  2. Glad I missed the facebook dust-up but got to read your two blog posts today, both of which are reasoned, logical and encouraging. Your stories and insights are valuable. I read a lot on facebook and on blogs but don't necessarily comment. I always love your postings and I'm glad you're willing to stand your ground. You do us all a favor by blocking someone who is insulting and baiting -- they aren't there to converse but to stop conversation and any story that doesn't fit their ideology. Glad you don't fit his and you're telling such wonderful stories. By the way, I saw your CD Fun, Foolery and Folktales at the Kenton Library in Portland Oregon just last week. You're stories are soaring around.

    1. Thanks for stopping by my site, and I am glad you missed the dust up as well! This is only the second time I've ever blocked anyone! Yay to seeing my CD in a library! I hope we have a chance to share stories somewhere down the road.