Re-rebranding: What we talk about and how we talk about it

Adult concepts warning.

Today, a colleague teased me saying, “Sean has the talent to use one hundred words where ten would suffice.” While my previous sentence had only contained twenty-five words or so, it had a definite grain of truth in it. I let her know the horror behind – that the truth is if I use one hundred words it’s because I’ve edited what I have to say down from five hundred.

Before my blog hiatus, I had been working on deriving an editing method in search of truth. While not aiming for sparsity, I discovered I am capable of brevity, and created a series of micro-short poems before sputtering into relative silence for a time.

Relative silence was comfortable, and I’ve spent most of intervening time exploring the most meaningful phase of my adult life – the discover of my perfect other and the birth of our daughter.

This place used to be called “Discourse Analysis Overdose”, a wry nod to various wrestlings with my own language and the language of others. A place to disassemble and explore. In a way, this is still my intention, however I’d like to suggest the exploratory phase is over, and I’ve outlined a mission I’ve perhaps been working on.

I’m inspired by Plato’s Cave, in which we’re said to be in a cave watching shadows on the wall and confusing them with reality. Plato (or Socrates, as the case may be) suggests should we be dragged towards the light of reality we’d cry out in fright and run back to the comfort of our seat with the fire at our backs.

I myself am not proposing to drag myself or any readers from the cave. I am suggesting we work together to study the shadows in order to create better theories about what they reflect. To agree, or disagree, but talk. Language may be an imperfect tool, but in using it (and together if possible), we can move from being frightened gazers to actors. We can decide what we find to be true and act on that decision.

I believe this to be a healing process; therefore the new blog name of “The Discourse Analysis Cure”.

An example culled from a recent conversation on Facebook. A friend shared the following:

What's the real issue?

An online discussion, for discussion online.

My immediate thought was to agree with the wit of the counter-argument but question who were the imaginary “guys” asking to masturbate as a response to breastfeeding. I felt the responders were preparing themselves to fight shadows. Fi breastfeeds our daughter, and on occasion we have had need to arrange this in public spaces. We are yet to encounter someone angrily exposing themselves to prove a point, for which we are thankful. While I can’t concretely verify this has never happened, I can reasonably state that those arguing for public masturbation as equivalent to breastfeeding are not doing so in ways that will gain them time in jail.

This idea must have originated from somewhere. The Huffington Post lists it as the first of four arguments countered in a post called “If you don’t support breastfeeding in public, you don’t support breastfeeding.” So who’s the original “guy”?

Possibly it’s Bill Maher. While he identifies as a liberal, I tend to view him – largely because of his anti-Islamic rants – as a possible closet conservative holding on to a liberal label while sneaking in very illiberal ideas. At least, that’s how the shadow he casts on the cave wall appears to me. I may be wrong.

His stance on breastfeeding was expressed in his commentary on an incident that took place at American Chain restaurant, Applebee’s. In the original story, a mother organised a nurse-in protest in response to poor treatment at the hands of a manager of a branch of that chain in Kentucky.

I have been unable to find the original video online. Only eight second soundbites remain. I did find a synopsis on a Wikipedia Talk Page which linked to a now-nonexistent video of the full segment. It suggests the argument was originally used as hyperbole by Maher to excuse the overbearing family restaurant manager. His conclusion wasn’t that masturbation should be allowed, but that breastfeeding should be discreet where possible. I don’t 100% agree with this in all cases, but take away the teenage joke and it’s a fairly arguable position. Yes, people shouldn’t have a problem, but some people do and so long as children aren’t being caused distress it is appropriate for their parents to manage the situation so as to nurture their child without provoking unnecessarily. I say this both as the parent of a breastfeeding child and someone who has delivered children’s entertainment to groups including breastfeeding mothers.

The context was that the feeding woman in the restaurant did so while packing a copy of the relevant Kentucky State Law, which at least suggests she was aware that a conflict could arise. Then again, the manager was (a) acting illegally and (b) extremely rudely, suggesting that the feeding take place in a public toilet. We ourselves enjoy the opportunity to use a feeding room while out. Our daughter feeds poorly when distracted, and a calm environment with a privacy curtain allows everupme to relax and complete the job to best satisfaction. We have on rare occasions been recommended a toilet as a feeding space, and found the experience highly distressing.

Back to that copy of the relevant legal code. It seems to me it could only have been on her person should she have been anticipating the manager’s reaction and wished to deliver a strong response. I may be wrong. If I’m right, she was using her child as a tool in her political fight. This is something I personally feel very strongly about. I’m supposing a first incident at the restaurant. Was she not able to round up support the first time she was asked to feed her child in a small room created for the elimination of bodily waste?

What of Maher’s argument. Is it being used widely? There’s no evidence of that. A search for “breastfeeding masturbation analogy” shows one link to Maher at the top, one link to a reddit discussion mocking a single commenter elsewhere on reddit for using the argument, and a second on page three linking to a discussion of breastfeeding in public on a gaming site. Again, the person deploying the argument is being roundly derided.

So, there are two guys who aren’t Maher, and they’re not in cahoots, and nobody agrees with them. In fact – everybody thinks they’re funny, special and a bit stupid.

So who are the “guys” the post above is referring to? Nobody in person. Hardly anybody online, and you’ll have to queue up for your turn to mock. Where does the perceived universality – the mass of shadows – for this argument come from? My guess is from the Lactivists (breastfeeding activists) who responded to Maher. Time and time again they focus on Maher’s masturbation analogy before, and sometimes to the exclusion of, other parts of his discussion. My suspicion is that at some subtle point, the once-current volley of criticisms of Maher entered the group’s annals of victories secured over ignorance and became anonymised so the argument was now attached to a more nebulous “guys”.

So Maher originated the idea but it seems to have been vastly more publicised by its opponents than by Maher and his army of two internet commenters. While there is a litany of individuals and companies that have made statements against public breastfeeding in attempts to justify policies or practices, there simply isn’t an organised anti-public-breastfeeding community in opposition to the organised-to-the-point-of-protest pro-public-breastfeeding community. There are companies that are choosing which customer complaints they handle, and individuals who feel ooky in the way one might feel ooky about seeing a stubbed toe (a better analogy I think than the one Maher used). Yes, people who are vigorously offended by stubbed toes should get over themselves, but feeling ooky and misreacting happens. I personally know breastfeeding mothers who themselves aren’t comfortable with the notion of very public breastfeeding. If they have a right to that feeling, surely so does anything else.

This is where I think our shadows come in. A community can do productive work scotching instances of injustice, but it surely feels frustrating – like shadow boxing. They can’t really stop the looks from the next restaurant booth, but they can focus on companies. If the people targeted are just managers doing their best to deliver on company policy and getting it wrong or sarcastic tv stars, they can be challenged and silenced but then nothing is to be done until the next instance arises. A cabal of “guys”, evilly laughing as they show their privates, can be infinitely used as a target. Their nonexistence is unimportant as their possible existence validates an important need – to defend our rights and the rights of our children. Articles can be written every day to inspire the troops against such an invisible cohort.

Inspiring the troops is good. Mothers have a right to feed their children without feeling under attack for doing so, or retreating to unsanitary cubicles. My concern is energy spent fighting largely imaginary fights dissipates as much energy as it generates and alienates fence sitters.

We are each others’ shadows. If concepts of authentic selves are valid, we still face the problem of presenting ourselves to the world-as-seen. Maher chooses to couch his serious discussion in knowing quips to provoke reaction. The Lactivists choose, or respond to at least, the knowing quips because they are easier to contradict than the notion that parents could, where possible, use discretion to achieve the important goal of feeding without risking the distraction of being interrupted by an irate interloper. Each chooses their strongest position; and each stops stating their truest opinion. A public figure arguing for a moderate position slides into caricature and a movement to protect children wastes energy fighting ghosts.

In my re-rebranding I will hope to draw out other conversations where substance has been replaced entirely by the play of shadows on a cave wall. I hope to hold myself accountable to this as well. With that in mind, I mentioned earlier a journey to brevity in search of truth. If it finished with my finding one key truth, it is this:

I may be wrong.

Or, at the risk of offending my athiest friends: For now we see through a glass darkly.

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About seanmurgatroyd
Library (Shared blog): http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Personal including infoculture, book reviews: http://diligentroom.wordpress.com/ Music: http://seanfishmusic.wordpress.com/ Last.fm band page: http://www.last.fm/music/Seanfish @seanfish

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