Search This Blog

Popular Posts

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Reciprocity, (Ir)reality and Rachel

For years, going back at least to the time I was in middle school, I was always subject to imbalances in social reciprocity. I was always the one chasing my close associates for get-togethers, phone calls, or other interactions. I became acutely aware of this near the end of middle school when two people who I thought were my very best friends just dropped me cold, saying that they no longer wanted to be bothered by me. I was shocked, and I spent the next several months learning how to make new friends.

It was painful, but I did learn to make new associates, if not friends. I learned to be the savvy chooser rather than waiting to be the grateful chosen. Eventually I made up somewhat with one of my friends who had dropped me (the other one never spoke to me again). On the second go around, however, we were not as close, and I accepted the fact that a person doesn't have to be everything to you in order for you to interact with them. They can be your tennis buddy, or your research buddy or your joking at the water cooler buddy and not come anywhere near being your best friend. Sometimes, the individual interaction matters little in the grand scheme of things. Rather, it’s the improvement to your overall tennis game or to your research project or to your workplace enjoyment that matters.

Over the years the memory of the lesson that I learned in middle school has waxed and waned, since it is my nature to be all in with people when I declare myself to be closely allied with them. But then that old imbalance of social reciprocity starts up again, and I find myself excusing their failure to engage interestedly. I shrug off slights, saying, "My friend is busy and that's why I can't hear from him. I will be there when he's ready to meaningfully engage."After all, being the chooser rather than the chosen means that sometimes you have to wait for a response, hoping to figure out what is going on with your friend. You look and you hope for the signs that will vest the relationship with meaning, constantly sounding for depth that you hope is there.

And looking and hoping works just fine, until you get other associates who actually do seem to value you and who do reciprocate heartily and warmly, portending a relationship rich with valuable possibilities. And then you stop and say, "Wait, I am busy, too. I need to guard my time and save it for people who matter to me and to whom I really seem to matter." Yes, again I say seem, for much of life is irreal in the philosophical sense, not the opposite of reality or truth but an altered version with its own internal rules and consistencies. As my mother used to say, it’s no shame to engage with someone who only pretends to offer you value in return. But it’s sad indeed to engage with someone who doesn’t even pretend to do so. There is very good reason that one of my mother’s mantras was “Don’t put yourself on anyone or anything.” By this she meant don’t demand more out of people and situations than they are willing or able to give. It is not just a matter of being the chooser or the chosen. Attention and caring are forms of currency; I have said this before in other contexts. Before any expenditure there is a value calculation to be done.

This social reciprocity calculus works much the same way when it comes to addressing socio-legal or political issues.  For the intellectual crowd, issues sometimes pop up that take up all the space in the room, crowding out other more substantial matters. Some of these issues of the moment are not only attractive at surface level, but they offer the promise of depth of engagement, broad meaning, and the chance to make a difference in how people are treated or how the matter is perceived. However, whether we choose them or they choose us, these issues beguile us like a friend that isn’t. Digging beyond the surface level reveals that there is little takeaway and even less meaning to any singularly focused association. But like a tennis buddy or water cooler joker, such issues can be wonderfully valuable for how they contribute to our greater view of things.

So, whether it’s assessing Alice Goffman’s book On the Run or Rachel Dolezal’s claims of blackness, we should take them for what they're worth in the larger scheme of things, thus addressing what really (but what is realness?) matters. And speaking of the larger view of things: (a) It’s funny that these two women have in common fixations on black underclass life and victimization that may not be grounded in reality (b) renowned sociologist Erving Goffman’s (father of Alice, which may explain the seeming uncritical, even fawning reception of her work from graduate school at Princeton until the present) notions of stigma as spoiled identity and performance in everyday life may help us to theorize about Alice and Rachel as exemplars of a broader phenomenon.