Wednesday, October 20, 2010

U.S. Const. amend. XXVIII: Valarin as Official Language

Terrific discussion on Ta-Nehesi Coates's blog on how inability to code-shift nearly smothered a burgeoning career:
[A] person who I'd written about (not an employee of Atlantic Media) came into the tent and aggressively challenged me on something I'd written about him.

We spent ten frankly embarrassing minutes jawing back and forth. That's fine. People should aggressively challenge you. Toward the end, Carr, wondering where I was, came in and saw me in mid-argument, which by this point had gotten heated. He gave me that "you damn fool" look and said "I'm going to be there, [whatever the restaurant was] either you're coming or not. But this is stupid." He left, and shortly thereafter I started walking away with Alyssa and few of the other bloggers who were hanging out. The gentleman kept after me, even following me out the tent, and by this point, taunting.

At the door of the tent, and I looked at him and said, "You really need to back off."

He looked back and said, "Or what."

I closed in on him, and quietly but seriously, responded, "You really want to find out?"

He walked back inside.

I think as a younger man, I would have been proud of that moment. For surely, I had adhered to Article 2 of the Code Of The Streets--"Thou Shalt Not Be Found A Punk." Had the gentleman stepped outside, I had already made the decision that I was going to swing. I didn't believe in threatening people and then not following through. Perhaps as 14 year old, on the streets of West Baltimore, back at Mondawmin Mall, the response would have been correct. In fact, I was a 33-year old contributing editor at a well-regarded magazine who'd just implicitly threatened someone on the property of my brand new employer.

Coates uses this embarrassing moment as fuel for a more general observation on the effect of a "culture of poverty":
I think one can safely call that an element of a kind of street culture. It's also an element which--once one leaves the streets--is a great impediment. "I ain't no punk" may shield you from neighborhood violence. But it can not shield you from algebra, when your teacher tries to correct you. It can not shield you from losing hours, when your supervisor corrects your work. And it would not have shielded me from unemployment, after I cold-cocked a guy over a blog post.

I suspect that a large part of the problem, when we talk about culture, is an inability to code-switch, to understand that the language of Rohan is not the language of Mordor. I don't say this to minimize culture, to the contrary, I say it to point how difficult it is to get people to discard practices which were essential to them in one world, but hinder their advancement into another. And then there's the fear of that other world, that sense that if you discard those practices, you have discarded some of yourself, and done it in pursuit of a world, that you may not master.

Some of the commenters, though, pushed back, asking

[W]hat about the other fellow? That is, what is it in his personality, upbringing, and so on that convinced him haranguing, provoking, and so on was a way to exact some sort of justice for whatever he had perceived as an insult worthy of rebuke.

With that reframing in mind, I read this comment with a different perspective:

I feel this ties back into "the ignorance of what's possible" thread in a couple of different ways. Most obviously there's the realization that the rules of the street aren't the bedrock of reality, that there are worlds of people where the threat of violence doesn't underpin the hierarchy.
The ignorance goes both ways. It's quite easy to muddle along in our WEIRD bubbles, but sometimes ignorance of what is possible---namely, that wrongdoing on your part may be met with more than just bluster---can be dangerous or even deadly.
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