March 29, 2018
We are a nation of consumers. We take things in; Smartphones, Cool Ranch Doritos, Netflix series, overpriced coffee drinks, tabloid gossip, and countless internet posts. It is all digested by our collective guts. We consume so much and yet produce so little. The question that hangs in the air is – what do you give back to the world? Are you a human trade deficit importing more than you are exporting?
If I have a life philosophy it comes from my Eagle Scout father who, when we were off camping, always reminded me to leave the campsite in better shape than I found it. I’ve taken that to have much broader meaning, especially now as a father. Put more in than take out. But what do I have to give? I have friends that house African refugees and write exposés about the criminal justice system. Big stuff!
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because my services as an “expert” on hate and extremism have become increasingly in demand, whether it’s consulting on murder cases or running anti-bias workshops for federal employees. I have an invited opinion piece out this week in Huffington Post on gender and white supremacy, which means a bunch of people are going to think I must know something about something. But do I? What is criteria by which one has taken in enough information that they are qualified to start exporting information out?
In academia, one measure is the drive to “publish or perish.” In my path to tenure, I published books and articles, but, although I made it all the way to the top rank at Portland State, “full professor,” it never felt like enough. (Some of my fellow criminologists are publishing machines!) I balanced my academic work with sociological fiction that I hoped would reach a wider audience than a journal article or overpriced textbook. Parenthood has now stolen much of my writing time. I’m currently working on a book on prison culture, a chapter on the impacts of hate crime on the local Muslim population, and a journal article on my research on prison visitation. I was going to get much of that done during Spring Break. Yeah, no.
When you are young and hungry and moving up the ladder, obsession becomes your work ethic. I watched zero TV in the early nineties because I was too busy reading all the stuff you have to have read to be “knowledgeable.” I had to force myself to watch Melrose Place just so I could participate in conversations with my peers. You’re a sponge, taking it all in, and synthesizing it, and waiting for the time to be right to put your version out into the world for some other young upstart to consume.
Now that I’m older, I’m starting to take confidence in my ability to export my knowledge. All that experience has value, monetizable value. There’s no end to the learning. I certainly had a great lesson learning about white fragility this year. But the time is right to share these lessons and, when appropriate, get paid for it. Traditional cultures revere their elders for the wisdom they’ve collected. I might not be Yoda yet, but I’ve got some ideas to share.
This popped up because I was recently invited to present my work at a workshop on violent extremism and gender in Abu Dhabi that is being hosted by the UN. I balked. First of all, the United Arab Emirates is pretty much on the opposite side of the planet. It’s a long way to go to talk for an hour. But also, why me? Am I really that much of an expert to merit these good folks to flying me to the Middle East (and putting me up for four nights)? Everyone told me to go, of course, and that if I could actually help people to understand this issue I really had to go. “If people will be helped by your experience, you need to get on that plane,” said one friend.
Every person is an expert on their own lives. As an ethnographer, I love to talk to people about their journeys and what they’ve learned along the way. Along my way, I’ve learned that talking about what I’ve consumed and processed is not just about hearing the sound of my own voice, but exporting insight that can actually make a difference in this crazy historical period that feels like a giant backslide. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with the “sage on the stage” role, but experience matters. Your experience matters and so does mine.
Before I fly off to Abu Dhabi, I fly off to Chicago, and after Abu Dhabi, I fly off to Oslo, Norway. It’s all to talk. Andrea made me a great website (www.randyblazak.com) so I can talk more. It might be okay to say that sharing what I’ve learned to make the world more livable is what I’m going to give back. We’ve got a campsite that needs to be cleaned up.