A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Fitch the Homeless"

Does pointing out problematic aspects of "feel-good" texts have to make you a kill-joy? Does liking these problematic texts make you a bad person?

When I saw the “Fitch the Homeless” video, I laughed. When I read criticisms of the video, I (mostly) agreed with those criticisms. I do not think that these two things are mutually exclusive.

Texts are ambiguous. Novels, essays, speeches, movies, jokes, YouTube videos—any kind of text will inherently convey multiple messages, sometimes self-contradictory messages. There might be a wrong way to interpret a text, but there is rarely (if ever) only one right way to interpret a text. If this ambiguity weren’t an inherent facet of communication, there would be no need for English professors.

Stacy Bias mentions the “displaced rage I get flung at me when I point out the damaging parts of ‘feel-good’ social phenomenon.” This sounds very familiar. It calls to mind some of the discussions I saw around the Dove Real Beauty Sketches ad that came out a few months ago. It also calls to mind conversations I’ve had about the Human Rights Campaign and its problematic place in the gay rights movement. And the memeification of Charles Ramsey. And Kony 2012. And the place of “green” consumerism within the environmentalist movement. And so on and so on.

It’s a common reaction to feel defensive when confronted with the problematic aspects of a text that you enjoyed or found value in. The critique of the text can easily feel like a critique of you for liking that text. Am I guilty of cultural appropriation because I reposted a Harlem Shake video? Am I anti-feminist because I saw some satirical value in Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar jokes? Am I an imperialist because I thought Zero Dark Thirty was an anti-torture movie? As a way of avoiding self-recrimination, we often feel the need to defend the original text in ways that can escalate quickly. That’s how someone with good intentions can paint themselves into a corner and end up sounding like a jerk. While I don’t think I’ve ever felt “rage” when confronted with the damaging parts of these feel-good texts, I have been on both sides of these defensive feelings more than once.

I think guilt of this sort is counter-productive. Bias titles her post “Feminist Killjoy,” but pointing these things out only kills joy if you allow yourself to focus on self-recrimination rather than on the opportunity to create a (humanities instructor cliché alert) teachable moment. I recoil at absolutist language—words like “nothing” or “completely”—because they tend to shut down those teachable moments. Using those sorts of absolutist terms might be appropriate when talking about material matters, but they are rarely helpful when analyzing texts. This is one of the first lessons that I teach my writing students.

That use of absolutist language is the only criticism I have of Stacy Bias’s post, which is representative of a tendency that I see in a lot of similarly “killjoy” criticism (again, I have done this as well). For example, Bias writes, “the very crux of this joke on Abercrombie & Fitch is that their clothing will now be associated with the stigma of homelessness. This project does nothing to eradicate that stigma.” That wasn’t how I initially viewed the video. I saw it in contrast to these guys. The purpose behind “HoboJacket” is to create an association between the rival school and people who you consider "lesser." The message behind the donation inherently reinforces the stigma. With "Fitch the Homeless," the purpose behind the donation is to assert that it's wrong to cultivate a brand identity that's based on excluding people who you consider "lesser." It's certainly possible that that message reinforces the stigma in the same way, but that's not the only way to interpret it in this case.

Again, texts are ambiguous, and if you draw out a message that is of genuine positive value from a text, that can be just as legitimate as an interpretation that draws out a negative message. That, to me, is the definition of “problematic.” By starting with an acknowledgement of the ambiguity, nobody has to sacrifice the positive aspects when they acknowledge the negative. In that way, a conversation about what a text is transforms into a more nuanced conversation about language, structure, speakers, audiences, and contexts. Determining the point of emphasis--positive or negative--can be tough: there are few bad texts out there without some redeeming qualities, and few good texts without some problems. The ultimate test is what people do with the insights that the texts provide--what material impact they have on the world. Those impacts are uncertain, difficult to measure, and often indirect, but determining whether those material actions are damaging or helpful strikes me as far less ambiguous.

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