Charles D’Ambrosio and Permission to be Unsure

In the face of “fake news,” it feels inappropriate to gracefully accept ignorance and incomplete knowledge, as I feel I must do every time I sit down to write. In the week before Trump’s inauguration, journalist and activist Masha Gessen, as the first controversies and confusions began to simmer, tweeted “We are now fully immersed in the anonymous, the unverified, and the unverifiable. And he hasn’t even taken office. Trumpism sure is fast.” The complete breakdown in mainstream means of information delivery has meant that the drive to be truthful, complete, an expert, weighs even heavier, and every conversation carries the rhetoric of urgency. Where is it acceptable to have a conversation that begins with, “I would like to know more?” The world is slipping to memes, so I must be as thorough, precise, nuanced and careful as possible. The ease with which people can now take another’s words and drive them into the ground as signposts pointing in wildly differing directions is horrifying. And so, to put a sentence on the internet and make it, in essence, able to be stolen from you and your intent, seems almost ludicrous. I have found myself recently paralyzed by the need to be iron-clad. Every argument I make must be authoritative, unquestionable, fully-researched and sound.

But the result of that has simply been silence on my end. Ironically despite all my commitment to wabi sabi, I have done a terrible job of incorporating it into this facet of my life, where I have let perfectionism stop me dead. Inspiration to move forward with essay writing, especially in a time when it seems even the most basic rational thought process of human beings are, extraordinarily, being mocked, comes only rarely. But Charles D’Ambrosio, in prefacing his recently published book of essays, provides a bit of relief.

A good essay seemed to question itself in a way that a novel or short story did not—or perhaps it was simply that the personal essay left its questions on the page, there for everyone to see; it was a forum for self-doubt, for an attempt whose outcome wasn’t assured. That one mind would speak so candidly to another mind held a special appeal to me at a time when I didn’t even know I had such a thing. Late at night, sitting on a cold stoop, waiting for the bus, the free and easy conversations I fell into via the essay seemed to suit my station in life perfectly. (D’Ambrosio, Loitering. 2015)

How I envy the ease with which he embraces a lack of surety in the long-form. I wonder though, why he has such permission and another might not.

The BBC published an article shortly after inauguration on what a group of 8-year-old “Trump supporters” were saying. Childish racism, “Mexicans just take our jobs,” the unthinking regurgitation of parental rants. They are unexposed, but also simply, undeveloped. Why did we need to hear these views? Are they relevant? Other than simply the shock of a child’s voice chanting “build the wall?” But apart from the lax journalism of it, what horrifies me the most is the fact that these 8-year-olds are now in a way beholden to their 8-year-old perspectives. In 8 years, when these children are now teenagers, this article will forever exist in the archives of the internet. How much more difficult is it to go through the necessary identity-crises, the need to rebel and form selfhood, when your name is already attached to a political viewpoint? How desperately unfair.

Perhaps unnecessarily so, this potential circumstance has haunted me. I can give myself permission to change and grow in my views and perspectives, but do others? How can I lower the stakes, so to speak, in what I post under my name, to be forever preserved by the archiving bots of the web?

I’m not sure. I’m not sure how to be successfully unsure, as D’Ambrosio seems to have discovered.

And with that lack of finality, I’ll end. The pages of unpublished posts are building up, and they need my attention.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Maria Souliotis says:

    What a well-written post! 🙂

    As I read your essay, my mind kept returning to the same Bertrand Russell quote: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.” We hear the tirades the fools and fanatics perpetually, while the wise contribute sporadically. I’m convinced there’s something to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, that it takes a certain amount of self-awareness (let alone intelligence) to know one’s own shortcomings, and that the lack of self-awareness is at the root of Trumpism and idiocy. (Or, as John Cleese points out here, “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are”: http://www.openculture.com/2014/12/john-cleese-on-stupidity-and-a-cornell-study.html)

    I too am amazed at what you describe as the “complete breakdown in mainstream means of information delivery.” We’re living in a paradoxical age where information is more accessible than ever before, but the quality of such information is more uncertain than ever before. The World Wide Web has an uncomfortable permanence: at heart, it is an unforgiving archive of The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, and The VERY Ugly. The availability of online artifacts, coupled with the sheer volume of these items, exacerbates whatever problems that the printed word of old had with shifting perspectives.

    The way the Information Age treats children, or, rather, the blindness of adults to the negative consequences of archiving their histories with “technological advances,” is distressing. The youngest members of society are routinely put on computerized display, but cannot consent to how their likenesses and developing personalities are portrayed. Even the most innocuous of Facebook photos taken by proud parents on their child’s birthday are subject to possible criticism, even humiliation, and in the worst cases, exploitation. I feel fortunate to have been raised by a family that never “overshared” anything about me, my successes, or my failures when I was growing up, and that social media was non-existent in my formative years. I am sorry and sad that today’s children do not have those basic luxuries of privacy.

    I think the best we can do when engaging with online content is to use the oft-citing Internet Posting “Acid Test” in which we ask ourselves, “Is it [what we’re posting] necessary? Is it true? Is it kind?” It feels like a platitude, but it cuts the crap we are subjected to when we go online. It is also our responsibility to issue genuine apologies for past short-signed posts, and to issue enlightened changes in perspective, in order to counter misunderstandings and criticism and to mitigate the complications of digital permanence.

    Knowledge as presented in the final written document (whether an essay, a book, or something else) is always incomplete. It is, in many ways, a snapshot of the author’s frame of mind during the writing processes, and a product of that author’s relationship with his/her times. The best writers acknowledge something the chair of my graduate department communicated to me when I began my Master’s coursework: that “Good Writing is never ‘done.’” Likewise, the best written works invite further discussion and (intelligent) debate. As long as you keep moving forward with your writing, you’re permitted to be “successfully unsure.”

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