Monday, June 22, 2015

An Area Which We Call The Comfort Zone

In one of his early books on children and learning, John Holt told of watching a toddler playing at the beach while his mother sunbathed.  The child would wander off a little way, then hurry back to his mother, where he felt safe, then wander off again, a little farther this time.  This, Holt declared, was how learning works: we push against our limits a little, but we need to be able to go back to safety until we're ready to venture out again.  As we get older we can push harder, go further, and stay longer, but we still need to be able to retreat to home base to rest and recover.

I imagine the person who uttered the slogan embedded like a fly in amber in the above meme would agree with me, though I could be wrong.  One thing that impelled me to save the image and start writing this post was that I'd increasingly noticed memes that cast the Comfort Zone as a bad thing without qualification.  Maybe all of them took their texts out of context; I don't know.  And maybe it's just me, but I thought they took a punitive, even ascetic stance toward Brother Ass (as Saint Francis called his body when it broke down under his abusive treatment).  Most disturbing to me is that these memes are posted by people I know who are struggling with personal problems great and small, and who are therefore taking an un-loving, un-compassionate stance toward themselves.  They would never, I think, talk to their kids that way, because they know it's counterproductive.  I think it's counterproductive to treat oneself this way too.  And I really don't think, from what I know of them, that they're spending too much time in their comfort zones.

Another meme, posted by the same person who posted the one above, read "No matter how much you move, if you don't leave your comfort zone ... you will be walking in circles."  If you never return to your comfort zone, you'll be in a constant state of anxiety and pain.  One of the purposes and results of learning, after all, is to expand one's comfort zone.  At the literal level, the toddler at the beach wants and needs to be able to be comfortable progressively farther from his mother.  I can take chances because I know there's a safe place I can return to, to rest and prepare for the next expedition.  Far from being "the great enemy of courage and confidence," the comfort zone is not the enemy but the necessary precondition for courage and confidence, exploration and growth.

There was a controversy some months ago, when the writer K. T. Bradford issued a challenge to stop reading work by white male cis authors for a year.  Notice the "for a year" part -- that often got left out of the responses, even positive ones like Heina Dadabhoy's "Is it time to stop reading books by white men?"  (The time span was mentioned in the body of that post, but people often stop reading at the title or the lede, and even when they don't, they tend to forget the complexities.)   But there was something else that positive responders missed, epitomized by Dadabhoy's claim that Bradford intended her challenge "to focus on marginalized authors to support them and broaden readers’ horizons."  This is not what motivated Bradford.  As she put it,
Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn't enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.

Then I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.

Cutting that one demographic out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories. That's not to say I didn't come across bad stories or offensive stuff in stories or other things that turned me off. I did. But I came across this stuff far less than I did previously.
To put it bluntly, Bradford began seeking out work by non-straight, non-white, non-cis, non-males in order to retreat to her own comfort zone.  I don't think that's bad at all; it is one of the reasons why I sought out work by queer writers when I came out.  By the time I was twenty, most of the books I'd read (and I'd read a great many) were by or about heterosexuals; even if I'd stopped reading such work altogether, it would have been decades before gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers had balanced the straight ones.  And I remember how delighted and yet conflicted I was when I first read Marge Piercy's great Woman on the Edge of Time, because I had never before read a novel that effectively pandered to my prejudices about sex, gender, race, and politics.

Bradford concludes by asking the reader, "Are you up to this challenge?"  I wonder who she imagines her reader to be.  A straight white cis male could reasonably respond that he reads primarily work by straight white cis males in order to avoid writing that he actively hates, or that offends him so much that he rage-quits reading it.  (Something like this is the expressed motive of the Sad Puppies / Rabid Puppies who enraged a lot of science-fiction fandom by stacking the Hugo Awards ballots with work that didn't offend their sensibilities or politics.)  The challenge she offers her readers is not the challenge -- which is not the right word -- she offered herself, and I'm not sure she realizes that.  My problem with Bradford's piece is not that she focuses on race, gender, and sexuality illegitimately, as some of her white male critics accused her of doing, but that she's not clear in her own mind about what she's doing, or what it means.  To non-straight-cis-white-male readers, increasing the number of non-straight-cis-white-male writers they read means something quite different than the same program will mean to straight white cis male readers.  I must say, I was taken aback by her claim that she began reading only "stories by a certain type of author."  It seems to me that she chose to read stories by several different types of authors, unless she read only stories by queer transgender women of color, and it doesn't appear that she did.

When I thought about writing this post I considered going over the books I'd read in the past year and tallying up the different categories into which their authors fell.  That project quickly became too complicated, though I might return to it some other time.  For now, though, here's a month's worth of my reading log from earlier this year, with what I know about the authors in square brackets.  (I began keeping it in May 1977.)
7273.  The long tomorrow, Leigh Brackett, 4/09/2015 [white female]
7274.  The private life of Sherlock Holmes, Vincent Starrett, 4/10/2015 [white male]
7275.  Journeys and arrivals: being gay and Jewish, Lev Raphael, 4/11/2015 [gay white Jewish male]
7276.  The conjure-man dies, Rudolph Fisher, 4/14/2015 [African-American male]
7277.  Some love, some pain, sometime: stories, J. California Cooper, 4/15/2015 [African-American female]
7278.  Commodities and capabilities, Amartya Sen, 4/16/2015 [South Asian male]
7279.  Beast or angel?: choices that make us human, René Dubos, 4/18/2015 [straight white male]
7280.  A school for lovers, Jill Paton Walsh, 4/19/2015 [white female]
7281.  Improving Nature?, Michael J. Reiss and Roger Straughan, 4/21/2015 [white males]
7282. The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood, 4/22/2015 [white female]
7283. The longings of women, Marge Piercy, 4/25/2015 [white Jewish female]
7284. The forgotten beasts of Eld, Patricia McKillip, 4/26/2015 [white female]
7285.  The dark glasses, Francis King, 4/29/2015 [white gay male]
7286.  The Long War, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, 5/01/2015 [white males]
7287.  What are big girls made of?: poems, Marge Piercy, 5/02/2015 [white Jewish female]
7288.  A stranger’s mirror: new and selected poems 1994-2014, Marilyn Hacker, 5/03/2015 [white lesbian Jewish female]
7289.  Black thunder, Arna Bontemps, 5/05/2015 [African-American male]
7290. Alan Turing: The Enigma, Andrew Hodges, 5/06/2015 [gay white male]
7291. The paying guests, Sarah Waters, 5/08/2015 [white lesbian female]
7292.  Silencing the past, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, 5/09/2015 [African-Haitian male]
Four of these twenty books were written by straight cis white males.  I've made a conscious effort in the past two years to read as many books by female as by male writers, though I've made no conscious decision about writers of color, non-heterosexual or non-cisgendered writers.  Classifying writers for this project is complicated, and I may say more about that some other time.  (Do Jews count as white?  Who is white?) What concerns me now is another question:

Why do people read?

People read for a variety of reasons; the same person may read different things for different reasons.  There's my longtime coworker, who probably reads a hundred or so books a year -- but they're all best-selling mysteries and romances.  I've never seen her read anything else, except when she had to read material on cooking and sanitation for training at work.  There was a guy who explained that the reason he was able to reread so many books was that he read nothing but military science fiction.  There are people who read a great deal of nonfiction in a very narrow ambit: Civil War or other military history, inspirational religious books, self-help books, and so on.  People like these, who may read quite a lot, and get pleasure from their reading, are probably much more common than someone like me.

I read a wide range of material, mostly but not only for pleasure.  I've explored genres like women's Christian fiction and subject like sports that interest me personally very little but still give me insight into people whose lives are very different from mine.  I read for information in a wide range of nonfiction, though fiction about people from different cultures and subcultures also informs me.  Not infrequently I read books that I know will infuriate me, because I want to know what they say; I usually take a lot of notes and may eventually write about them here.  Especially in the past decade or so, I've been reading "classics," to give myself the background that I, as a former English major, felt I should have.  But often I read, or reread, books that have given me pleasure before by writers who have given me pleasure before.  These may be fiction or nonfiction.  I think it's not surprising that my reading log includes a goodly number of books by writers who aren't like me in the ways that K. T. Bradford considers significant.  That's because I see our common humanity as more important than the differences, even when the differences make me angry.  All this is, I think, largely because I read easily and quickly.  Someone who takes a week or month to finish a book she enjoys might well not care to range as far afield.

K. T. Bradford's reading of magazine stories was work-related, by the way, though self-assigned.  "I write short fiction, and I wanted to get better at writing it. To do that I had to write, write, and write some more. But just as important was reading, reading, and reading a lot more."  She began limiting the range of her reading when it began to make her uncomfortable, which brings me back to my point: her "challenge" represents a retreat to her comfort zone, not an attempt to move beyond it.  And that's not a bad thing -- it's just not what her supporters and she herself have tried to make it seem.

Paradoxically, narrowing her focus in one respect broadened it another: deciding to read more work by women, by people of color, by non-heterosexuals, and so on allowed Bradford to encounter writing and perspectives she might otherwise have missed.  There is too much to read out there, and no matter what we choose to read, there is vastly more that we can't.  But even straight white cisgendered men aren't all alike, and there's as much range among their work, as much to learn and discover in it, as there is among queer trans women of color.  And if Bradford hasn't discovered plenty of offensive, infuriating content in the work of non-white etc. writers, maybe she hasn't been paying enough attention.  (Notice, however, that she admitted that she did find such content in the narrow range of writers she set for herself.)

We need our comfort zones, and there are areas of life where we might as well leave them as they are.  I've written before about people who advocate broadening one's horizons through interracial dating.  Within limits this isn't a bad idea, but at best it means using other people to prove oneself a tolerant and unprejudiced person, which might end up raising hopes one can't fulfill.  "Might," hell -- it's likely to do that.  From one perspective, every relationship we begin is an experiment, with a significant risk of hurting another person or being hurt oneself.  Which is another thing that bothers me about the vilification of comfort zones by self-help gurus: it looks to me as if most people, and especially women, endure a great deal of discomfort in relationships because it's expected of them, and you have to remember that relationships take work, and so on.  People too often stay in relationships not because they're too comfortable, but because they're afraid that getting out will show them to be immature, neurotic, selfish, demanding.  At least a book doesn't care if you decide not to finish reading it.