Posted by: MC | June 10, 2011


Early this morning, I read email from “a cultural insider of the hacker community.”  He’s a student in a class I’m teaching this term and was writing to clarify the term troll as it applies to internet hackers.  A NYT article I’d assigned had used that word in a story of a man who drew people with epilepsy to an internet site that, unknown to the web surfers, presented a sensory blast likely to bring on epileptic seizure.  “The behavior cited is far, far worse than any troll,” wrote the student.  “Cyber-bully would be a better term. Or perhaps sociopathic cyber-bully.”

Later this morning, I heard two other students speaking of the pain and danger they experience when they are misunderstood for their sexual orientation.  These two happen to be a gay identified man and a lesbian identified woman, but they were talking specifically about research evidence indicating that mental health counselors tend to hold negative attitudes toward sexual minorities.  It gets worse when these counselors are asked about their attitudes toward people who identify as bisexual or transgender.  The counselors in a 2006 Psychiatric Services (vol. 57) study tended to describe themselves as therapeutically neutral, but their LGBT clients were far more likely to have “been denied services, discouraged from broaching sexuality and gender issues by providers, and secluded within residential treatment settings.”

These students of mine are people.  All three have lives and cares and passions and dreams.  All three are in society with all the rest of us.  And underneath the particulars of their very real lives, all three are asking to be heard, to be seen, to be allowed responsibly to live out the days they have been given without the needless suffering of being misunderstood and as a result told they aren’t right, they aren’t enough, they need to change.

In the instance of the misapplication of the cyber-term troll, the reputations of internet hackers – and by extension of my student – were at stake.  The stakes are higher for the lesbian and gay students who still face real threats to their physical and emotional wellbeing because of persistent social attitudes.  In cases of negative reputation and in the wearing circumstances of imminent threat there is the presence of a distal, even abstracted force – the oppositional other who by judging implies that changing to be more like the judge is the only way of being safe or respected.

All three students have changed; they will change.  They are changing by virtue of being in school.  It is arguably the case that we’re all changing just by virtue of breathing in and out to wake up each next day to whatever it may hold.  And in our days very many of us experience judgment, particularly when we choose not to change by compromising ourselves to appease the opposition.  In these very same days, we usually don’t see how we too participate in judging, in opposing.

The next thing I will do today is attend a meeting of academic faculty.  Super smart people will sit around a cluster of tables to deal with a major misunderstanding.  Yet, for the life of us we will likely fall prey to our habit of being awkward and stumbling, even resistant, when it comes to practicing listening.  It is as if there is actual danger in understanding one another’s perspectives, beliefs and motives.  We seem to need to be in opposition.  I’m as much a part of this bad habit as any of us in the group that is about to gather.

Scholars of rhetoric* and their philosopher siblings speak of opposition as a way people unconsciously (and sometimes not) maintain a sense of self.  “On thing is for sure, I’m not her/him/one-of-them.”  It’s like MSNBC and the Fox Network – or the most vitriolic Democrats and Republicans in positions of elected leadership – they need one another to exist.

This is, of course, flawed and ultimately dangerous logic.  And it’s not really logic at all, because it is largely unconscious.  The effect is evident in the ways I/we do lots of crazy useless things to avoid talking with, listening to, and understanding our opponents.  “How can I know who I am without the identity of being not her/him/one-of-them?”

It happens from all sides.  Hackers feel disrespect from and opposition to NTY reporters who get it wrong.  On the other side, they also bear little respect for newbies (the technologically naïve among us).  Too many heterosexual and mainstream counselors still carry more active and harmful bias against LGBT clients and, generalizing across all counselors, many in the LGBT community feel the opposition and keep their distance.  Red doesn’t talk with blue – tax progressive with tea partier – Mercedes drivers with bus riders…on and on and on.

This work day, I’m finding no shortage of opportunities to observe the oppositions.  The real challenge is to see the ones I set up in my own life – and to dare listening through them.

p.s., My colleagues and I showed up to the difficult meeting and, by unexpected turn, we actually listened.  Our differences didn’t disappear and we did not reach complete resolve, but we did gain understanding.  Oppositions will continue, but they need not dominate.  One thing I can say for sure is this listening stuff works.

*Thanks to Dr. Mark L. McPhail for the reflections on opposition.


  1. This is great. I can no longer listen to the news anymore, left or right, because I can’t stand seeing everything in opposition. One reason I liked Obama is because he genuinely wanted to bring people together. Sadly, it seems his election has created more opposition.

    I’ve spent most of my life on both coasts surrounded by like-minded liberal people. Now I find myself working in a suburb of Denver with people who are much more diverse in politics and religion that what I have been used to. Religion and politics are generally never mentioned, with is great, because without those hot issues, you get to work with and see your co-workers as just people like you. What a wonderful revelation that’s still going on.

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