Thursday, September 08, 2005


"Should" is a funny concept. Often, I think, it has a tendency to flatten out reality.

In personal life, it is common enough to say or hear things like this: "He's a jerk and she should leave him." Or, "She is wasting her life. She should finish journalism school." Or, "Dear, you really should lose those extra pounds. How will you ever find a boyfriend?"

Each of these pieces of advice may or may not actually be a sound course of action for the person in question (whether for the reasons provided or for better ones). For the purposes of this post, I don't really care about that. What interests me is the way that individual context and complexity get submerged under prejudice, inherited and often oppressive narratives of what our lives should look like, and a one-size-fits-all understanding of how difficult decisions are made.

Yes, they may be good advice. But what if he's not a jerk and the person speaking just doesn't like him? Or what if he is a jerk, but the most important immediate thing for the woman in question is not making changes in her love life but figuring her own stuff out, so that a year from now or two years from now her decisions about staying or leaving or whatever are going to be strong, sound, and followed through?

What if journalism school is really what your father wants and not you? What if you want to be a journalist but you just can't stand the racism and sexism you've been facing in your journalism school so far? What if you really would actually prefer to live on lousy, minimum wage jobs and produce 'zines and blogs and radical art, rather than spend three decades churning out articles on gardening and car shows for a mid-sized daily that makes you want to be ill whenever you read it?

What if you just get angry at the thought of modifying your body to please others, and it is more important to you to learn to love yourself than to reduce a mild to nonexistent health risk factor? What if you really want not a boyfriend but a girlfriend, and the women you're interested in couldn't give a f*** if you're chubby or not?

All of these example are rather obvious ones, of course, where the speaker lacks some rather significant knowledge of the subject of whom they are speaking. But the difference for those with more intimate knowledge, if they still presume to speak in "shoulds," tends to be one more of degree than of kind. Seems to me that the role of an intimate in such situations is, for the most part, to ask questions and even to challenge and provoke if it seems called for, but to do all of this with a firm grounding in their own location in the situation rather than some imagined, objective place from which verifiable "shoulds" could be issued. Not that I won't engage in interpersonal "shoulding" when it really seems important, but I try to keep the threshhold of proof pretty darn high.

But what about applying "should" to the broader world -- after all, whatever we actually say, whether we actually use that particular word or not, whether it is explicit or implicit, isn't most writing (and broadcast or beer-side oral commentary) about social and political issues inevitably linked to some kind of "should"? Aren't political blogs just layers upon layers of "shoulds" with hyperlinked references? Is it really acceptable to be so cavalier with our "public" shoulds, when it is clear that "private" shoulds are in such blatant risk of trampling the autonomy and agency of others?

Yes; of course they are; and, definitely.

I think there's an argument to be made in here somewhere about citizenship and participation, and how the collective "should" of the body politic can only come to be when individual (and sub-societal group) "shoulds" are shouted from rooftops, pounded into keyboards, and made material through actions of various sorts, just as the different and conflicting psychological currents within each of us need to battle it out about leaving a lover, making a career decision, or taking action around how one wants to live in one's own body. Properly articulated, it would account for the fact that oppression means not all "shoulds" are or can or should be treated equally in the abstract liberal sense, but that participatory public "shoulding" is, in general, a social good. But I'm not going to give that the attention it would take; I'm still more interested in how "should" does or does not reflect the complexity of the real world.

Let me use an example. I commented in my original post on the destruction of New Orleans about the ways in which Hurricane Katrina is a parallel to 9/11. One way this is true is how the political opponents of the current radical right extremists who control two and three quarters (and, after Roberts is confirmed as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and the other vacancy filled, a full three) of the branches of government have responded to these tragedies: by talking a lot of "should." Unlike some commentators (and the White House talking points) I don't think there is anything at all wrong with mixing a direct response to human need in a crisis with a sound analysis of where the need came from. But despite the parallels between the events, and the fact that "shoulds" have been deployed in both cases, I think there are important differences in how those "shoulds" correspond to a complex reality.

To outline what I mean, let me construct a couple of simplifications to facilitate discussion. I would say that there are two broad kinds of "shoulding" that have gone on with respect to these two tragedies, which we can superficially (but not without a basis) label "left" and "liberal" variants. The "left shoulding" often includes much or all of the "liberal shoulding," but generally the converse is not true. Another way to look at it is to differentiate between "shoulds" that focus on large-scale issues and root causes (with a particular emphasis on power) versus more immediate issues (which often have to do with competence, efficiency, a simple notion of "fairness," and basic foresight).

In terms of the "left shoulding," both disasters point in roughly similar directions. The emphases are different, but the systems which can be shown to be responsible for the problems are the same: It comes back to what Paul Street has summarized as "empire and inequality" in the title of one of his books. The only big difference I can see between them is that Katrina is more obviously linked to environmental destruction, but a lot of the things that created the broadly-experienced rage that nurtured the tiny grouplet of nutters that blew up the twin towers have to do with oil, which in turn has everything to do with the imperative to maintain access to the means to continue fuelling global warming, so they are related. Anyway, the root causes of both are very related, and they tend to be underplayed by those oppositional or pseudo-oppositional commentators who have the most access to mainstream media space.

But just because their most visible articulators tend to miss out on the systemic stuff doesn't automatically mean that the more immediate stuff is irrelevant. In the case of Katrina it is things like the complete absence of a disaster plan in New Orleans (which the mainstream media persists in claiming was actually a fatal deviation from plans, despite the refutation provided by their own facts) and the lack of adequate maintenance of the levees despite plentiful warning that this was a big, big problem. Folks from diverse oppositional spaces are going to push these facts hard, as they should, and some may even link them to more systemic issues like racism and capitalism, though many will not. In this case, even though the version of these "shoulds" that will probably become most visible will leave out what I consider to be pretty important stuff -- they will erase context and complexity to a certain extent -- they will still have some political purchase because the erasure and simplification is not so much that meaning and credibility are lost. Obeying those simple "shoulds" could very clearly have saved many lives.

This is in contrast to the way in which immediate "shoulding" has been deployed with respect to 9/11. In that case, the story goes, the president had been warned that terrorism was a danger, he deployed resources in ways that disregarded the danger, he kept reading My Pet Goat when he should've been doing something presidential, and 9/11 happened. In a way, it is much the same argument as with Katrina. But in the case of 9/11, I find the liberal "shoulding" to be much less powerful because it simplifies too much. Certainly there is evidence that Bush & Co. were not terribly interested in the issue of terrorism before 9/11. It is plausible that, if they had taken it seriously, they would have done a few things differently. But the problem with those who harp on about the August 6 National Intelleigence Estimate and the warnings of Richard Clarke and all of that is that they presume that administrative measures will actually be effective in preventing terrorism, which is not only silly but is also a presumption that much of Bush's political credibility since 9/11 has depended on as well. Such measures might reduce the likelihood of one specific attack, certainly, but it is a crucial and (by those who make this kind of argument) excluded point that terrorism is really pretty easy to commit, and it will keep happening unless you remove the underlying conditions no matter what administrative steps you take to try and prevent it.

This may be a very long way of making a fairly simple point. I can understand why it is important for some commentators to harp on immediate "shoulds" and give rather less attention to systemic "shoulds." I don't agree and I don't plan on doing the same, and I may criticize specific instances, but in the service of the informal left/liberal united front against the current incarnation of radical right extremism, I can see why others might. But it is when the simplification in this "shoulding" occurs to the extent of taking advantage of and reproducing serious misunderstandings in how the world actually works that it becomes a real problem. I can't totally predict how the broad spectrum of folk from the moderate conservatives in charge of the Democratic Leadership Council within the Democratic Party on out to the sectarian Marxist left, anarchist rabble rousers, and so on will end up translating the current tragedy into words and arguments once the initial furor has died down, but I would exhort those who are less inclined towards systemic analysis to be very careful in their "shoulding" so that it, in its inevitable simplification, does not dishonour the victims by losing political and analytical efficacy for the sake of palatability. For example, as important lack of disaster plans and inadequate funding for levee maintenance and enhancement are, if Democrats who are almost as laden with oil money as Republicans dwell on that rather than facing up to the environmental elephant in the room, they will win short-term political points, but the number of lives likely to be lost to environmental/social calamity over the next century will continue to rise. We can't escape the ideological and institutional pressures to employ "shoulds" that flatten out reality, but we can resist them.

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