Most of the time, it really doesn’t come up. Every once in a while, I get a lecherous/evil look when I hold my girlfriend’s hand in public; every once in a while, when I’m deep in argument with a male friend or colleague, I or my ideas are brushed off with such a patronizing, cruelly dismissive tone that all bets are officially off. (I like to keep friends for as long as possible, but when I lose one, this is usually why.)
But most of the time, it doesn’t come up. This is mostly because I’m wicked smart, hardworking, and ambitious–and I exhibit all of these traits in ways that enable me to play on the winning team.
By “the winning team,” I mean members of what Jim Gee calls the “dominant Discourse.” Gee differentiates “little ‘d’ discourses” from “big ‘D’ Discourses,” which, he explains,
are ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing, that are accepted as instantiations of particular identities (or “types of people”_ by specific groups, whether families of a certain sort, lawyers of a certain sort, bikers of a certain sort, African-Americans of a certain soft, and so on and so forth through a very long list. Discourses are ways of being “people like us.”
A dominant Discourse, for Gee, is the one that aligns most closely to a culture’s dominant groups. In America, we might say broadly that the dominant group is white, middle- to upper-class straight men, and that they adhere with the least amount of trouble to our culture’s dominant Discourse (because it aligns with the least amount of trouble with them). It’s hard, but not impossible, for outsiders to learn (or fake) this Discourse, which is why it’s mainly but not always rich white straight men at the top.
I may be gay, I may be female, and I may have blue-collar roots, but I learned the dominant Discourse early and well. It helps that I’m white, college-educated, and proficient in the finer details of language acquisition and communication. I may have to work extra hard to break into the first string, but I’m doing well enough to get to play–and being second or third string on the winning team is better than being even the star player on the team that (almost) always loses.
I spend so much time thinking and writing about how unfair it is that my team always wins that I forget sometimes that the dominant Discourse of which I am a part does not always work in my best interests either. It’s why I’ve spent so much time worrying about whether my work at Project New Media Literacies exhibits a latent racism without giving a thought for how it may exclude the voices of non-mainstream women and queers. After all, the Teachers’ Strategy Guide I’ve discussed here and here may or may not fail in offering authentic avenues for the voices of ethnic minorities, but we should be just as concerned about how our work marginalizes the voices of women and, even more problematically, in this case, the voices of gay, lesbian, and transgendered scholars, writers, and artists.
I suppose I don’t particularly enjoy thinking of myself as marginalized in any way. I suppose I don’t particularly enjoy the thought that some of the actions that have led to my “success” have worked against my own best interests. I like the American narrative that we can all, every one of us, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps–though interestingly, that idiom was originally intended to suggest an undertaking that’s literally impossible to accomplish.
And part of me wants to step away from what’s good for me and work toward what’s good for all. Here, I rely on what Jim Gee identifies as two conceptual principles governing human discourse. (I’m citing the language from the second edition, instead of the more recent version, of Social Linguistics and Literacies, for reasons I’ll identify below). Here are the principles:
That something would harm someone else (deprive them of what they or the society they are in view as ‘goods’) is always a good reason (though perhaps not a sufficient reason) not to do it.
One always has the (ethical) obligation to (try to) explicate (render overt and primary) any theory that is (largely) tacit and either removed or deferred when there is reason to believe that the theory advantages oneself or one’s group over other people or other groups.
Gee believes that these two principles are so fundamental to ethical discourse that all human beings would, assuming they understood them, accept them both. I agree, and I believe that my work, and the work of anybody working in any aspect of learning or education, is to use these principles to govern all discourse, all research, all engagement with learners and institutions. This is, to sum up an argument I’ve made more than once on this blog, the social justice work of the media literacy movement. Researchers engaging with elements of participatory culture are especially well-poised to break down and reshape the valued practices of new social spaces, to rework the hierarchy that keeps landing rich white straight men at the top.
Though Gee reworks the language, if not the basic sense, of these key principles in his most recent edition of Social Linguistics and Literacies, I greatly prefer the earlier edition. It’s fiery, it’s angry, and the chapter outlining these key principles ends with flagrant courage. After contending that any human being would have to accept the above principles as true, he writes that
failing to live up to them, they would, for consistency’s sake, have to morally condemn their own behavior. However, I readily admit that, should you produce people who, understanding these principles, denied them, or acted as though they did, I would not give up the principles. Rather, I would withhold the term ‘human,’ in its honorific, not biological, sense, from such people.
In the third edition, Gee continues to assert that if someone refuses to accept these key principles, the argument “runs out,” but he ends the section with this limp handshake:
An unexamined life isn’t moral because it has the potential to hurt other people needlessly.
I kinda want the old Jim Gee back–the one who wasn’t afraid to withhold the title of “human” from someone who refused to accept his ethical principles. Backing off from a fight, if that’s what Gee’s doing here, isn’t doing anybody any favors.