Growing Up in Public

This time last year, Public Seminar ran a piece I wrote about the People’s Climate March. I intended to make a simple point. The climate change movement, because it had asked for environmentally protective government regulation, had become a target of Tea Party accusations of “socialism,” and was now on the verge of actually satisfying this paranoid ideological charge by allowing the Revolutionary Communist Party to use it as a strategic opportunity to agitate for revolution. I recommended that given the high stakes of climate change, it would be prudent for the movement not to open itself up to unnecessary political controversy and instead focus on a broad persuasive platform that targeted the issue at hand.

I was surprised to find commenters comparing me to Rush Limbaugh. I think this was a misreading: they accused me of making the Tea Party argument myself. But beyond that, they were troubled that I had divorced capitalism and the environment. It’s a fair point. Though I am weary of essentialist conceptions of capitalism, it’s hard not to see that production geared in its pure form solely toward a profit motive will not take the environment into account. And that’s the root flaw of far-right logic here: that the freedom of the economy is more important than the Earth itself.

Of course, the criticism is a bit of a straw man. Drawing a link between capitalism and climate change does not neutralize the danger of having a Maoist group use environmentalism as an opportunity to become more visible and convert more people to its cause.

But then, some commenters had something to say about this as well. They couldn’t believe how many words I’d spent on Bob Avakian and the RCP. And here, I think they’re really onto something. I did say too much about them. It reads more like a personal grievance than an analysis, and I especially cringe at the conclusion, where I indulge in an uncharacteristic moment of rhetorical excess that threatens to cross the line — or maybe actually does so — into alarmism.

It was a mistake. An error of judgment. We all make them. The problem is, I can’t write it off, because it’s part of the public record. It has formed part of some people’s judgments about me. And, not that it’s a famous piece of writing or anything, but my discomfort with elements of it makes me concerned that it might always be an unwelcome influence on my biography. If it turns up in a Google search, it’s fair game. It’s evidence with which to interpret me.

At this phase in my life, I’m a doctoral student. I intend to spend the rest of my life in public, offering analyses and opinions that inevitably will not agree with everyone. And whenever I succumb to my humanity and slip — whenever I am not perfect — I open up myself to the threat of being discredited, and of having my mistakes tied to what others consider to be “me.” That’s the price of a public life.

Perhaps we are not celebrities per se, but intellectuals (not necessarily academics only, but anybody who is part of a considered public discourse) really do “grow up in public.” We do not experience the hyperdrama of a Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears, with all the foibles of our personal development open for the world to view and interpret and comment upon, but in a very real way the very nature of what we do is to commit our partially formed, unfinished selves to definitive statements, which remain in the public memory. At any given moment, we are a stage in our development; it is only at the end of our lives that anyone can look at our personal narratives and make a claim as to what we were. It is not until we are finalized that our identity becomes finalized. When that moment comes, others can conduct comprehensive analyses of the entirety of what we said and did and offer that as a credible definition of us. Until then, we are always subject to change, always capable of saying something new that complicates the current interpretation of us.

Public life is a complication between definition and fluidity. While we grow and change, stumbling and learning along the way, this fluidity is channeled into definitive moments: each visible expression of the transient self is received by its audience as concrete, as definite. What is possibly only a phase of ongoing development is treated as an artifact of an essential personhood, evidence of who we are. The public does not and cannot wait to see where we go next. It must respond to what it has before it.

Truthfully, none of us has absolute control over how others interpret us. To the extent that we have a social life, others always see us, and they perform this same kind of analytic work on our selves. But celebrities and public intellectuals commit themselves to their culture in an exacerbated manner. We inject our selves not just into social life, but public life, and therefore our identities become objects of public focus. Interpretation of us becomes exaggerated, and consequently the act of defining of our private selves gets spread throughout our audiences, and we hardly have the ability to counter it all, to clarify it. We constantly commit our incomplete, subject-to-change identities to a realm from which we will never be able to get them back.

Some of us handle this gracefully, subtly changing our positions later on and leaving it for our interpreters to notice that we’ve grown.

Some of us handle this via apologia, directly addressing our past failures in later works or actions, atoning for our sins and, in the process, reclaiming some control over the interpretation of our selves. (I’m doing this right now.)

And some of us handle it very poorly, with polemics and personal attacks, disappearance from the public sphere, or more pathological responses, such as depression, anxiety, and rage.

But we must all handle it. And for the intellectual, we must handle it in a culture where criticism is the sign of a credible mind. The moment the academic’s article comes out, or the blogger hits “publish,” it enters a world where others living the life of the mind are culturally beholden to tear it apart (whether carefully or viciously). Someone will always vehemently disagree. Someone will always notice flaws in your argument from differing perspectives or bodies of experience. And some will just be looking for failures because they are under pressure to distinguish themselves with their own contribution to the discussion, which involves repudiating yours.

Every scholar has read an article where another scholar was taken to task for “failures” of intellect. Every online personality has been eviscerated in comments sections. These can produce feelings of fear and trepidation. No one likes to be criticized, especially when that criticism comes from a public that holds the power to define you as a failure of some sort. But, this is what we do.

I’m going to trip. I’m going to stumble. I’m going to say things that people don’t like, and quite possibly I’m going to say things that future me won’t like, either. I’m going to miss things and I’m going to misinterpret other things. I’m a flawed human being like any other who is expected, by the nature of what I do, to be better than I am. And as long as I’m alive and capable of saying something else, nothing I submit for your attention is the definitive statement about me.

The only thing a person like me can ask — and we know it’s too much, because we can’t expect the public not to comment until further notice, but some of us will be compelled to ask it anyway — is: be easy on us!

Zachary Sunderman

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