Friday, March 29, 2013

A Problem of Definition

A friend sent me a copy of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain, published last year.  She loved the book and recommended it highly to all her friends on Facebook.  I was wary of it, partly because I'd recently tried to read Anneli Rufus's Party of One: A Loner's Manifesto (Da Capo, 2003) and became terminally annoyed within a dozen pages.  But I promised I'd get to Quiet as soon as a copy became available at the library, and that's how a copy arrived in the mail.

I procrastinated, because I had a lot of books I wanted to get through first.  But then I found I'd gotten through most of them, and Quiet was washed up, as it were, on the shore.  So today I gave it a try, and got bogged down very quickly.  I switched to William Benemann's Male-Male Intimacy in Early America, and found myself making notes about things I disagreed with, so I'm going to begin here by explaining why I object to Quiet.  I'm determined to finish it eventually, because I love my friend, respect her intelligence, and feel obligated to get through the book -- but it is going to take a while.  For now, here's how Susan Cain got off on the wrong foot.

Cain begins by telling the story of Rosa Parks, who on December 1, 1955, refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, and whose arrest set off the Montgomery bus boycott.  She contrasts Parks with Martin Luther King, Jr. the eloquent preacher.
I had always imagined Rosa Parks as a stately woman with a bold temperament, someone who could easily stand up to a busload of glowering passengers.  But when she died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two, the flood of obituaries recalled her as soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature.  They said she was "timid and shy" but had "the courage of a lion."  They were full of phrases like "radical humility" and "quiet fortitude."  What does it mean to be quiet and have fortitude? these descriptions asked implicitly.  How could you be shy and courageous?

Parks herself seemed aware of this paradox, calling her autobiography Quiet Strength -- a title that challenges us to question our assumptions.  Why shouldn't quiet be strong?  And what else can quiet do that we don't give it credit for [2]?
As so often, I found myself asking irritably, "What do you mean 'we'?"  The idea of strong, quiet people is proverbial, even a cliché.  Still waters run deep, for example.  If Parks hadn't acknowledged it herself, I'd have suspected that the tributes she received had more to do with reassuring men (yes, and women) that she wasn't forward, she wasn't a termagant or a virago, she was a nice little woman who knew her place and just happened to find herself on the stage of History, almost by accident.  She took a wrong turn on her way to the ladies' room, perhaps, and ended up under the bright lights. The work of black women in the Civil Rights movement and the Black Nationalist movement has too often been downplayed to appease male insecurity.  That is certainly the way Parks has often been depicted, through no fault of her own, but it's false.

Even if Parks was a shy and humble person, and I have no doubt that she was, she was also an activist before she took her stand on that bus. She joined the Montgomery branch of the NAACP in 1943, and became secretary soon after.  "I was the only woman there, and they needed a secretary, and I was too timid to say no," she said later, but she stayed in that post until 1957.  And she did more than take the minutes: she investigated the gang-rape of a black woman in Abbeville, Alabama, participated in other actions, and not long before that day in 1955, she "had recently attended the Highlander Folk School, a Tennessee center for training activists for workers' rights and racial equality."  So she was not a loner who walked into town one day and took on the bad guys: however quiet and shy she was, she knew the value of working with others, and knew she didn't stand alone.  She knew that her arrest would lead to organized action; she wasn't the first black person to refuse to give up a seat on the bus, but she was the one chosen by the Montgomery civil rights organizations to support.

None of this is exactly obscure; so why does Cain perpetuate this myth?  No doubt because it can be used to support her thesis, but the historical reality is quite different from her (and mainstream America's) version of the story.

Beyond that, do "timid," "shy," and "humble" really equal "introvert"?  Maybe Rosa Parks was an introvert; I don't object to the classification, but Cain hasn't really given any reason to put her into that box.  I'm an introvert, and I'm not particularly humble.  Though I'm shy, I have also been a ham ever since I was a child; give me an audience to speak to or sing to, and you'd never guess I was shy, or introverted.  From the list of famous introverts she provides in the introduction, it appears that she thinks "introverted" means "socially inept."  As the Publishers Weekly reviewer said of Rufus's Party of One, it's a "compendium of everyone who was anyone who ever spent a moment alone".  That set me to wondering.  From what I remember and my mother's occasional remarks, I began to be less gregarious around the time I learned to read, and because reading came easily to me, I found books a fascinating world to explore; reading, like serious thinking, is something that you must do alone.  (There are ways to read with other people, but they're slower.)  There were probably other reasons and factors, but I think that was one of them for me.

Later in the book (I peeked ahead) Cain discusses Asian-American kids who live in communities with large numbers of serious students, so that they have a community of people to share their nerdy interests with.  She still thinks they're introverts.  I grew up in a small midwestern town, with few if any eager readers or scholars around, so I had no such community. Would my personality be different if I'd had a bunch of friends who loved to read?  I can't know, but I suspect so.  I've also read that European mathematicians and scientists are less likely to be monomoniacal isolates than their American counterparts; they're more likely to have a good grounding in the humanities as well as the sciences.

It seems that Cain embraces the very clichés and stereotypes she's set out to refute.  She also thinks that the marginalization of the introvert is something new, and even peculiarly American.  I doubt that just on principle: human beings are a social species, so a person who won't immerse himself or herself in the group will always be suspect.  And unless you're devoted to the idea that there's something wrong with being different, is it really so bad to live on the margins of the Group?  (Which doesn't mean you aren't still part of it.)  It's a difficult job sometimes, but someone has to do it.