15th Reflection, “Addictive Relationships”
In March 2008, an argument occurred at the Cross Examination Debate Association National Championship that became a popular youtube viral video resulting in the employment termination of Ft. Hays University Director of Debate, dr. bill shanahan (he chooses not to capitalize his name). In July, 2009, I, Dr. Ede Warner, Jr. the Director of Debate at the University of Louisville, was arrested on four charges, and later plead guilty to a different, lesser crime. I spent a night in jail and received two years probation. On April 27, 2010 the University of Michigan Director of Debate, Joshua Hoe was arrested.
Brazilian Educator Paulo Freire believes that critical consciousness comes from reflection and action. Scholar bell hooks (she doesn’t do capitalization either) says that purpose should guide our educational choices. My purpose since 2005, as stated in the mission of the University of Louisville Debate Society that I direct has been to “increase effective decision making in a multicultural democracy.” The events in my life over the last nine months created what I call “Lessons of an Affirmative Action Professor .” This lesson is about “Addictive Relationships.”
Today as I listen to ESPN discuss the possibility of Lebron James moving to Chicago and attempting to step into the footsteps of perhaps the greatest athlete ever, my thoughts turn to a broader consideration of what it means to be the “greatest”. LeBron James is being criticized for his lack of effort in his last game and for even considering the idea of trying to fill Jordan’s footsteps, while Jordan today is being revered as the best ever. As a lifelong Bulls fan, born and raised just outside Chicago, I would like to ask a question? Do you think Michael Jordan is human? I guess it depends on what day you ask.
I suspect an ESPN Sports nation poll would have reported results last fall that Jordan isn’t after his Hall of Fame induction speech. Criticisms were levied that he lacked the the human qualities of humility, took cheap shots, and acted out in unnecessary arrogance and bravado, which all ran rampant during the speech. His decision to engage in a trash talking barrage that stood in sharp contrast from the respectful, dignified expectations of the event created a relatively serious media backlash. Fueling a less known legacy of arrogant and belittling behavior, womanizing, and gambling all support the possibility that he has an addictive personality engaging in unhealthy human relationships in a variety of ways, even if he has effectively stayed out of a media crisis in ways that other famous black athletes like Serena and Tiger have found themselves in for similar moments of inhumaneness.
But why would we expect human qualities out of someone whose athletic drive, will, and ability lacked much relationship to the rest of us mere mortals? Is it a fair expectation to desire, long for, and fantasize about his non-human greatness, as we do all athletes, celebrities, and entertainers we give “rock star” status by deciding they are bigger than life? Why do we turn around and pile on when those “non-humans” display negative personality traits that seem consistent with what it took to produce non-human greatness?
Is the problem Jordan’s addiction to his own greatness or our inability to understand our addiction to desire his greatness and the unrealistic expectation that he act like us? It’s an interesting dilemma. Does our apparent contradiction not also create an addictive relationship when we perceive ourselves as humans and sensationalize those we perceive as non-human, both because of their great non-human achievements as well as their negative inhumane personality traits? And if we are succumbing more and more to both addictive personality traits and the unhealthy relationships they create, what does that mean for our self development and growth?
My personal reflections starting as a black child, trying to evolve into black adulthood may shed some light on the discussion. For me, I have a strong sense of agency, a belief that I can do anything, even change the world. This belief however, is not happenstance or arbitrary, and is part of the black experience in homes of black activists and intellectuals. Part of my education as a black boy was to learn about the Civil Rights struggles of my parents, and their ability to fight for the rights of passage of which I was the beneficiary. Included in that education were the stories of my ancestors, and an understanding that if slavery and segregation can be overcome, then almost anything should be relatively easy by comparison. To others that belief may seem simplistic, but to me it is the most logical way I can honor their sacrifices, by having the courage, the commitment, and the desire to continue the pursuit for civil rights and social justice.
Such a strong sense of human agency can create human problems. When I was arrested, and I made contact with unjust non-human processes like overcharging in the criminal justice system, overreactions and oversimplifications in how domestic disturbances are handled, and over-sensationalization of the media, I wanted to immediately challenge ALL of these issues. My friends, most of who are resigned that while perhaps unfair, these problems couldn’t be changed, especially in that moment, where afraid for me and concerned that my choices to “fight” could only inflict more personal pain and suffering.
For the most part, they were right because I lacked the patience in the moment to create social change in smart, strategic and effective ways, and I failed to understand the lack of credibility that I carried in that moment to affect change. In the end, I had to follow the conventions of the system to stop the pain being inflicted on me and my family, which included taking responsibility for my actions, regardless of what others did, and show compassion for the people in those systems, because they are “caught up” in them, just like I am. That was a reasonable human reaction.
My agency works best as a teacher who has worked towards learning a curriculum of educational liberation, even though I’ve missteped many times along the way. My criminal justice experience allowed me to reflect through the pain and suffering I endured searching for a positive meaning for the moment. My purpose in life grounds my every decision, allowing me to eventually understand how my pain even when caused by my own addictive personality and the unhealthy relationships it creates, could transform into a curriculum that connects to students and their pain from their addictive relationships, in ways that I had never done before. That’s how I can best effectively change the unjust world I personally experienced.
As for Lebron, Jordan and others who create non-human human achievements with inhumane costs, I hope people can find their human qualities of compassion for them and understanding the unhealthy personal consequences of becoming addicted to both those beautiful gifts they share with the world and our obsession with criticizing them when they act inhumane. The ultimate goal is to find where one’s personal agency can best produce change by learning from the trials and tribulations of others.
Ultimately, I’ve concluded that in spite of, and perhaps because of his Hall of Fame speech, Michael Jordan is still a Blessing from God that we all should revere, respect, and appreciate for his human nature, despite his human failings, and so I choose to no longer criticize those flaws, but rather to have compassion and try and search for personal lessons for me from his actions.
I wish that I had learned this lessson when the youtube video was released. Thinking I was being a good friend to bill, by publicly supporting both he and Dr. Shanara Reid-Brinkley during the crisis, the reality is that I was far from it. Privately, when bill and his wife Kim spoke with me, I criticized bill for his choices. My decision to criticize in that moment was exactly the WRONG decision at so many levels. Why? Because it prevented me being a good compassionate and supportive friend, it prevented me from using my agency to help a friend in that moment, and ultimately it prevented me from considering the similarities between bill’s life and mine had I reflected correctly, perhaps I could have avoided my negative fifteen minutes of infamy. Kim and bill, I’m very sorry for not being a better friend in your time of need.
I may have noticed that bill was addicted to fighting for change and difference in debate. His choices were a product of who he was, the culture of the community he had a love/hate relationship with, and the implications that accompany the decision to fight for difference in a competitive activity which can turn potential allies into enemies in a moment’s notice.
In so many ways, bill’s life was a mirror image of my own including the toll that his professional choices had on his personal life, the personality traits necessary to engage the world the way he did, and the ultimate inhumane consequences that are an inevitable consequence of anyone attempting to create outcomes that don’t presently exist in any human community.
I ignored that the video could have just as easily been a similar fight that I had with bill. I ignored that the same modes of competition that created bill’s difficulties in fighting for difference were impacting my life in similar ways. Most importantly, I ignored that in my moment of criticism I forfeited the ability to learn from bill’s crisis, ensuring that I would become a victim of the exact same circumstance.
The impulse to criticize difference, like when we see someone else commit a societal wrong, and our inability to balance that with appropriate levels of self-interrogation of who we are and our relationship to that difference is a societal problem that our education system (including debate as currently practiced) reinforces. Compassion is a necessary precondition for considering a different context for an act that we want to criticize because it allows the possibility for understanding a different relationship between ourselves and the actor, the action, and the potential decisions we should make for ourselves.
And that brings us to Josh and the impulse to criticize. I choose to think about the broader context of our activity of debate which includes the type of personalities it attracts and why, whether or not our community has sufficient balance to engage a diversity of personalities needed to create a healthy community, or whether some of the problems that exist in our community are due to a foundation emphasizing a limited number of similar personality traits establishing a foundation that privileges other similar personality traits. Having compassion for Josh allows me to see myself in him, which doesn’t prevent criticism but wholly changes the nature of what I choose to criticize.
And all of that gets back to agency. I am not responsible nor have much power to affect the consequences that will be levied on Josh and as such that is not a place where I should focus. In this moment, the role of a friend is love and compassion and support. My black experience teaches me that love can take many forms, including being tough when needed.
However, my agency is largely tied to understanding the larger consequences of a debate community that has recently lost many lives of people I deeply care about way too soon, the possibilities of a debate lifestyle that contributes to their early demise, which all stands in conjunction with a series of societal missteps like my arrest which I believe share a relationship to shortened life spans. I can look for relationships among these events as part of my agency in an effort to look for effective solutions before determining what and how to criticize.
I remind myself as I self-reflect that my personality as a debater and debate coach, is both similar and different at times to my identity as a black man, a professor, a friend, a guy who loves Michael Jordan, a baseball fanatic, a husband, and a father. Studying all of those relationships is important if I am going to use my agency to make me better, which for me, includes my effort at making debate better. My agency still envisions an ideal college debate community within reach that trains us in better understanding the ideas I’ve talked about recently like criticism, shared purpose, balance, privilege, and unconditional self-love. That debate community can in fact change the world in some profound ways if we find it, and I’m willing to do my part.
But just as Christopher “Biggie Smalls” Wallace tells Puff Daddy in the movie Notorious, “We can’t change the world Puffy, until we change ourselves.” Better understanding my addictive personality and the unhealty relationships produced from it is a first step in adopting Biggie’s theory of changing the world.