Monday, March 26, 2018

Andrew Maynard, When the Facts Aren't Enough

When the Facts Aren’t Enough

Andrew Maynard


In his most recent Netflix comedy special, Dave Chappelle addresses the comedians standing in the back of The World Famous Comedy Store. “Motherfuckers you have a responsibility to speak recklessly.” Chappelle is not my subject, but I agree with the sentiment, a call to arms that should extend to essayists. 

I first read Charles D’Ambrosio’s essay “Casting Stones” from his tiny collection of essays (could fit in your pocket, about the size of a secret), Orphans, while an MFA student. My teacher had to email D’Ambrosio directly to find copies of the book, and D’Ambrosio was quick to respond. After a small initial print-run and, due to a string of shitty luck that had nothing to do with the actual collection, it fizzled out. It has since been reprinted between larger covers, retitled Loitering, and re-released to mass acclaim, but there was something about the initial run and size and obscurity that felt better suited to house “Casting Stones,” an essay about the media’s inability to cover Mary Kay Letourneau’s story with any hint of coherence or sympathy as she was tried in court for raping a 12-year-old child, her student. It was like nothing I’d ever read, daring to whisper compassion toward a woman who had only been met with glaring, pious denunciation. 

In Jerrod Carmichael’s first HBO comedy special, Love at the Store, he tells a joke about how “Money changes you.” With his burgeoning fame and success as a standup comedian and actor, he can now afford to live in a building with a security guard, Joe. And when Jerrod, sporting a hoodie, enters the building without resistance, he is concerned by Joe’s inaction. “I pay a lot of money so niggas who look like me can’t just waltz in here.” His message to Joe is simple: “Stand your ground.”

In 2017, Aziz Ansari went out on a date with a woman, took her home, and, at the very least, was persistent to the point of obnoxiousness, ignoring verbal and nonverbal cues, in his attempts to sleep with her. I’ll leave it at that. You probably know the rest. If you don’t, a Google search will fill in the gaps before you finish typing his name.

In “Casting Stones,” D’Ambrosio doesn’t make a point of condemning Letourneau, a 34-year-old woman on trial for sleeping with a child. He seems averse to moralism, at least in the obvious sense, and instead takes exception to the habitually unoriginal takes of pundits who refuse to alter the established narrative. He also takes shots at lazy reporting: journalists and radio personalities content with the skin of the story. He’s concerned with language, sympathy, and our unwillingness to take Letourneau seriously when she said she loved the boy. A grown woman feeling adult love for a 12-year-old boy is messy, creepy, illegal when acted upon, but not beyond the realm of possibility in D’Ambrosio’s estimation. 

Spike Lee directed Love at the Store, and he did not want Carmichael to tell the joke surrounding Trayvon Martin. Probably because it’s risky, insensitive, triggering. You can imagine it going viral on Twitter, quoted without context, littered with remarks censuring Carmichael as a race traitor. But the joke in its entirety is also thoughtful, provocative, and intentioned. He cuts through the dermis of the narrative to reveal the organs. And though it’s clear that Carmichael takes pleasure in the audience’s muffled displeasure, the joke is a necessary setup to an important question. Do you, disturbed (probably white) audience member, actually care about Trayvon Martin? 

Confession: I’m a fan of Aziz Ansari. And in no way do I think Ansari should be exempt from criticism just because he writes himself onto the screen as a good dude or provides a platform where a gay black woman can showcase an important, untold story for mass consumption, resulting in an historic Emmy. My problem is that it feels way too American, in all the worst ways, to so quickly and summarily publish a story that strikes a tender chord with men and women alike, an indicator that the material is urgent and essential and should be treated as more than a who-is-at-fault confessional and warrants a deeper, more potent dialogue about men and women being culturally conditioned into unbalanced roles in sex and relationships, and handled it in a way that minimized a glaring cultural deficiency surrounding the errors of a single man of color.
     I don't like the way Katie Way handled the reportage of Aziz Ansari's evening with pseudonym Grace on the website Babe. The title "I went out on a date with Aziz Ansari. It turned out to be the worst night of my life." is heavy-handed and operates as a thesis statement, which is problematic because it's not a particularly good one. She quickly establishes the piece as a portrait drawn by Grace depicting an encounter reduced in scope to simply a night. The inquiry is reduced to the didactic, to who was the victim and who was the perpetrator, a bummer because this piece could have been so much more. It could have been an essay. Way could have taken longer than a week to report it. Babe could have given Ansari more than six hours to respond. The anecdote could have been stretched and interrogated, scraped for nuance, dusted for clues to highlight cultural history or trends of normed backwardness, crafted with room to infer a path moving forward or to illuminate a trail we never knew we’d been hiking. Essays are meant to strike chords, not just single notes. And it would be naïve to suggest that this piece didn’t connect: it amplified an all-to-familiar scenario of lopsided power dynamics and selective understanding of non-verbal (and sometimes verbal) communication. But to what effect? What were we supposed to take away?

I wonder how “Casting Stones” would be received today in an age where social media provides the platform to cast spawning, un-hatched opinions before they’ve been properly incubated, let alone matured. It’s not an essay that can be captured in a tweet. “Casting Stones” feels like an apt springboard to examine not only rote click-bait “reporting” but also the way we demand it, how we use half-baked analysis to support half-baked assumptions and think that adding those two halves will make a whole. But we’re not adding fractured ideas; we’re multiplying and in turn reducing them.

The next time you walk into a comedy club, fix your attention on the audience; the lit-up comic with the microphone is not the only one performing. You’ll find that crowd reaction can be as timed, measured, and calculated with intent as the punch line itself. This is particularly transparent when audience members who are white are watching comedians who aren’t. When the black comic addresses white privilege, notice how the audience members might go up an extra octave in laughter, might yelp or clap or nod in seeming agreement, a signifier of liberalism. They are both white and aware of their undeservedly inflated status, maybe even against it, and hence exonerated via laughter, separated from the herd that is the problem. And let’s assume it’s performed with genuine intention. I am sure I’ve been this audience member, and that’s fine I suppose—we all want our intentions, when pure, to be known—but it’s precisely why Carmichael’s joke feels different. He turns the reaction into the subject. “You guys went ‘ah’. Really? Because that Trayvon shit is really affecting your day-to-day?” He asks the crowd if they think about Trayvon over their morning coffee, blow a kiss to the picture they have framed of him as they leave for work. “Because you don’t. Can I tell you the harsh reality of life? It’s that events happen—really, really sad things happen, and we all pretend to be mad.” This line of thinking—outrage as performance—continues in the context of 9/11 and other subjects, but Carmichael ends the Trayvon bit on a somber note, no punch line.

Outrage as performance is center stage every time I try to use Twitter threads or op-ed Google searches to follow a scandal. And I’m concerned about the general unwillingness to read the responses to the Ansari scandal with any sense of flexibility, much less uncertainty. There is a problem when “evidentiary” articles are being shared on Twitter to prove a point before the person posting could possibly have read, let alone reread, let alone digested, let alone properly considered the nuance of the questions posed in the statements and reflections. Two op-eds in particular (one in the Atlantic, the other in the New York Times), released quickly after the story broke, questioned whether this type of account does more damage than good for the MeToo movement. Both were written by women. Both were widely met with two basic responses: 1) Fuck these woman haters! and 2) See, even women think this bullshit! I didn’t particularly like either of the essays: they felt short-sighted and pointed (which can be expected in a world of same-day responses) as opposed to exploratory and assumed angles that seemed to miss the point, diluting themselves to partisan fluff, refusing to examine anything but easy, the obvious. But I was more turned-off by the reaction’s reactions. To be clear: I want readers to hold and express strong opinions, and it’s a problem when more and more often it seems we read these, let’s call them essays, solely to support or denounce a pre-established, unflinching point of view. Here is my question: What is an essay if not an attempt to shift perception, complicate norms, offer a space to reflect, inspect, reconsider? The best essays push. Always. So what’s the point of reading if there’s no room to budge?

“This sense of understanding as fossil sample occurred throughout the story, and after many readings of just about everything written on the Letourneau case I entered a near-mad state of chicken/egg confusion where the habitual priority starts flipping around, and I couldn’t tell anymore if people were trying to understand and describe Letourneau or invent a theoretical prototype.” —Charles D’Ambrosio, “Casting Stones

It’s not easy to discover the angle we’ve all been missing, but isn’t that what makes it worth digging for?

Were you lucky enough to have a pediatrician who hung framed prints of cognitive illusions on the walls that from a distance might looked like a candlestick, but as you moved closer transformed into twin brothers nearly touching their noses for whatever reason? To my five-year-old self, these illusions epitomized the possibilities of visual art. And though I don't particularly care for them anymore, nor have I seen one in a long time, they echo what I admire about “Casting Stones” and Love at the Store: an insistence that if we look closer, what once seemed in total focus will reveal itself as having been something else entirely, all along.

The responses to the Ansari/Grace story made the mistake of categorizing its readers as either critics or supporters of the encounter. We might be critics of shoddy reporting? Sure. Critics of Ansari’s disbelief that a woman might come home with him and not want to blow him? Yep. Supporters of women who refuse to silently abide a culture where they bear all the risk, fear, and futility of long-stagnant sexual dynamics? Certainly. But who is this terribly odd person who identifies as a supporter of that night? And if he does exist, why are we giving him agency? Why do we anoint him as the primary audience of the essay?

“But these days you get the impression people think it’s kind of a recreant to waver, as if by feeling and expressing, or worst of all admitting, doubt and uncertainty, you’re being disloyal to a guiding idea.” —Charles D’Ambrosio, “Casting Stones”

Maybe Carmichael didn’t feel the need to establish his antipathy to young black men being shot down in the streets because he trusted his audience to apply the context, to give a young black man the benefit of the doubt as not actually being pro racial-profiling and pro-murder. But what if they didn’t? What if they refused to accept the joke as layered with insecurity and sadness? What if the audience failed to notice Carmichael had no intention of representing an entire movement with his observation of hypocrisy and his admission to wanting to feel safe. What if the audience did not catch that the seeming tone of irony in that admission was not a fault of his but ours? Or maybe George Zimmerman’s name wasn’t mentioned because he had already stood trial and been predictably acquitted, so Carmichael made us the subject instead. It was our turn. The point was not the mere facts of the story but rather how we apply them to our own narrative.

This might feel like I’m pointing fingers at a culture for devolving as readers and writers. I’m not. I assure you I am way too selfish for that. I’m here to reconcile the way I finish hot-take articles and pat myself on the back as if to say “We’re still right, old friend,” because I am uninterested in cases where I am the plaintiff or the victim. I need to be the defendant. When I first heard the Carmichael joke, I thought to myself, that’s fucked up. In “Casting Stones,” it struck me as odd that D’Ambrosio for the most part did little to condemn statutory rape. And after I read the article on Babe, I immediately searched for op-eds to help direct me to a takeaway, as if a writer responding to a piece within mere hours after the breaking news would really have had the time needed to truly form an opinion, let alone offer something provocative to the broader conversation.

And maybe that’s my problem with the Ansari coverage. I was a mere witness at another man’s trial. And that felt wrong. I should have been on the stand, because I’m a guy who identifies comfortably as a feminist, often without considering what it really entails. And while male feminism should ideally be swung like an axe to dismantle a worn-out, rotting patriarchal system, it can also be used as a shield to protect oneself from being bludgeoned by the irony of the privilege said system provides said male feminist. I should have been asked to reconsider an evolving definition of consent, one that insists intention and power and equal footing are at play. I should have been guided to those moments when coercion felt like a part of sex, the times I only considered what I wanted, myself.

Maybe the point is this: we should refuse to share the work of writers who relay what we already know, just because it affirms that we’re not terrible, and demand more than hot-takes, more than the binaries of the agenda-driven “debate” between Talking Heads Skyping each other on cable news. There are few things less appealing than a speech-and-debate tournament where high school kids (aside: after typing this, I acknowledge there might just be a strong possibility of entertainment, but I think the point stands that it has no place in post-high school essays) prioritize slant over truth.

Maybe the point is that we need to do better as readers, and that our intention behind sharing an article with our peers should align more with the mind set “Here’s something new to consider” as opposed to “See!”

Maybe we should stop demanding writers to be so careful, stop nitpicking at straggling phrases dangling from the essay like frayed threads from a quilt, stop tugging at them just to make it unravel, because care is only essayistic when it refuses to thwart risk.

Maybe the problem is the fine line separating what should be reported vs. opined. The murder of Trayvon Martin had been reported, so rather than harping on the details of the actual crime, Carmichael expanded the conversation and asked: What does this actually mean to us? D’Ambrosio did the same with Letourneau, unplugging the spotlight we’d aimed at her in favor of a mirror. And it feels like we’re nearing that moment in discussions of sexual assault and harassment. The Harvey Weinstein narratives—the stories where the facts are the point—have been reported for consideration. And some of the strongest moments of coverage were none other than personal essays/accounts from the actual victims. We needed to be in the room with him to fully understand. I don’t think we needed to be in the room with Ansari, because we already know that room, and we know it well. When the majority of women acknowledge familiarity with Grace’s dilemma, we can assume that men understand too, whether or not they’ll admit their part. It’s time to investigate the room.

Maybe this story just needed a steadier hand. What would it have read like had it been written by Jia Tolentino, a journalist who can unpack an exchange at a doctor’s office to reveal the subtlety and ferocity of power dynamics? Who just finished a project investigating the campus-wide attempt at Columbia to keep students safer from sexual assault. But she didn’t write about Ansari. Maybe she didn’t have time. Maybe she just didn’t want to.

Or maybe it’s just me, a grown man who hasn’t been to the doctor in years. Maybe I avoid it because I know the picture is gone, replaced by an omniscient x-ray machine that mechanically exposes us for what we really are. I prefer the unexpected sleight-of-hand, the revelation born of a simple shift of gaze.


Andrew Maynard’s essays have appeared in True Story, Mud Season Review, DIAGRAM, Essay Daily, Switchback, Bayou Magazine, and elsewhere. He has taught creative writing at the University of San Francisco and San Quentin Prison. He lives in Arizona with his coonhound, River.  

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