I am ________

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the “I am” formulation. It started for me after the Virginia Tech shooting, when everyone on my new Facebook account was posting graphics that read “we are all Hokies.”

To me, that was the very day I was LEAST a Hokie, least able to imagine what students at VT were going through. Saying anything else, I felt, especially on social media, appealed at least in part to an instinct in me which is not uncommon in humanity, and that is to make everything about myself.

I understand the impulse to show solidarity, I suppose, although I am not sure what more can be said than “Boy this thing is terrible.” Or maybe, “Boy this thing is terrible; I feel bad and you feel bad, but knowing we both feel bad and we both want things to be better makes it a little less awful.”

That’s harder to fit into a hashtag, I admit.

At its worst though, the “I am” impulse recklessly elides; it glosses over importance differences. I didn’t even like the “I am Troy Davis” movement, much as I wanted him to live. I felt the point was that I wasn’t Troy Davis, and never would be, thanks to the status and skin color I received in the birth lottery. This was part of the reasoning behind one man’s “I am not Trayvon” Facebook post, which briefly made the rounds.

I can stretch my mind to accept a “what you do to him you do to me” kind of argument in proclaiming your Troy Davisness, but this is also plainly not true, and to believe otherwise is to deny the reality of the struggle. Had we all been Troy Davis, we all would be dead by now. I wanted Troy Davis to be Troy Davis. And keep being him.

It’s curious to me where the “I am” crops up, and where it doesn’t. No one ever thought to dub themselves Gabby Giffords after she was shot. No one presumed to believe they “were” making the brave and painful recovery she was, a recovery unique to her because there is only one Gabby Giffords, I am sorry to say. Can we only be other people when they are dead, and when the evidence of their individual burdens and successes do not physically confront us?

I concede that sometimes the point is that you could have been the person in question, and/or it may involve reclaiming an image: by saying you are Trayvon Martin, you create a broader possible representation of the young black male than is sometimes seen in the media. But I wonder how many would have claimed to be Trayvon, or Troy, if the doubts about their respective culpabilities had been removed. That is to say, if we no longer saw them as innocent, would we still identify?

I believe this question renders moot the distinction between “I am”ing a person and an institution, or saying it for someone you do or do not resemble or share the views of. I believe this question points to why there is only one “I am” statement worth making.

I recently saw this belief of mine stated quite clearly by the late Maya Angelou in her lecture for Oprah’s Master Class. I know I mentioned her in my last post (six months ago), but when you got it, flaunt it. Anyway, Angelou uses a quotation from Terence, a Roman playwright:

terenceHomo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.

I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.

Angelou says this:

If you can internalize the least portion of that, you will never be able to say of a criminal act, “Oh I couldn’t do that.” No matter how heinous the crime, if a human being did it, you have to say, “I have in me all the components that are in her or in him. I intend to use my energies constructively as opposed to destructively.”

So yes, perhaps “you are” Trayvon. But then you are also George Zimmerman. Making that into a t-shirt won’t make you many friends, but I think what is exposed by that fact is our willingness to turn our backs on the broken, the ill, the criminal, the insane. And I fear that means we may also leave out the dark spots, the inconvenient touches of evil, when drawing up our conceptions of our selves, and so give those things a better chance to catch us unaware.

I enjoyed reading David Brooks’ “I Am Not Charlie Hebdo,” in which he asks us to remember that “most of us don’t actually engage in the sort of deliberately offensive humor that that newspaper specializes in.” He is not blaming the victim, but describing the way most of us grow up and away from that kind of ridicule.

Ten years ago I was a militant atheist reading Sam Harris and frothing over what I perceived to be liberals giving kid glove treatment to Islam (I sounded just like Bill Maher). I remember in 2008 the bombing of the Danish embassy over the Mohammed cartoons, and I then as now condemn it. But then I wanted to strike back by writing some play in which Mohammed appears and does something filthy.

And now, I don’t.

I just don’t have the appetite for that kind of thing anymore, for better or worse. I think for better.

tree_caliban“This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine,” says Prospero of Caliban, finally, in the fifth act, and it’s one of the truest things the illusionist says in the whole play. But to get there he has to break his staff, drown his books, and receive a dose of humility, that blessing which points us to mercy.

So in the midst of 2014’s terrible spate of police killings, I was pleased to see the message that rose above the fray was “black lives matter.” This is a way of not co-opting someone else’s tragedy, but pointing to it, or lying down next to it, and saying, “This is, you are important to me.” So why not, to say something about the sadness in France, #satiricallivesmatter? Or #offensiveartmatters? Is this not closer to what we really wish to express, which is no more or less than a desire to live in a world where you are not killed for drawing a cartoon?

I am not one to denigrate clicktivism. I am not some grouch begrudging us the avenue of social networks to vent our feelings and find some comfort. I actually believe that as simple a thing as sharing an article or #Darfur can change the world, albeit minutely (and minute world changes are not to be sneezed at). But I am not a fan of the unexamined, easy viral sentiment, and I believe that’s what this too often is.