Who Does a Guy Have to Piss Off Around Here?


Better to win by admitting my sin
than to lose with a halo


Vance offends half the world: 115 views, and a crapload of comments.

Vance apologizes for the offense and attempts a reformulation along more sensitive lines: 25 views, and one comment.

How’s that for a MasterCard commercial?

Welcome to the wonderful world of bits and pieces. A world in which one’s image depends on the snippet view. A world in which, as Madalyn at Wary Wonderlust pointed out, opposition often carries more weight than fellow feeling, and anger becomes the motivating force that both drives and derails our desire for communication.

Last week, I set off a barrage of protest with a post I wrote about race and gender relations. Most of the protest centered around the fact that, being neither Black nor a woman, I should check myself before venturing an opinion. Much of it was valid. And there was much of it: my blog stats went through the roof. One of those situations where your graph looks like it’s flipping you off: nothing, EVERYTHING, and then nothing again.

In my perceived offensiveness, I became a momentary celebrity. Not because I said something worth celebrating, but because I opened myself to easy attack (perhaps justified, but attack nonetheless). I painted a bullseye on my head, and people opened fire.

Okay. Fair enough.

The day after everything exploded, in an attempt to rectify whatever foul I had committed, I wrote a second post, in which I tried to explain myself more clearly and less offensively, and to acknowledge the possible poverty of my initial approach.

Then, I sat back and counted the tumbleweeds.

The pitchfork-laden crowd that had done such an effective job of raining criticism down upon my head the first time around apparently had other barns to burn. A couple of the people who had taken me to task stopped by, but for the most part…silence. No linking, pretty much no commenting. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Now, you may be tempted to take this as me making everything about Me. But I’m really not out to be patted on the head, or to be showered with compliments for addressing my own misstep. That’s just what decent people do; no big whoop there. It is telling, though, that given the central remonstrance (men never listen) offered to the first post, no one had much to say when one of us tried.

But it’s a broader point I’m making here:

This bloggy-sphere of ours is the quintessential typecasting machine. It nails us to the lowest point in our rhetoric, and leaves us there to rot. It catches us on our worst day, at our darkest moments, and etches the image in stone. We become the villain of the story no matter what that story really is.

Now, I’ve been told exhaustively that it isn’t the blogosphere that does this, and that’s a valid point. The Internet doesn’t kill people; people who use the Internet kill people. At the end of the day, it’s us. We’re the ones who determine the nature of this beast, and the fact that its nature is so prone to conflict and confrontation says far more about us than it does about the medium in question.

We tend to choose the shortest possible route from A to B, and the shortest route from post to response is too often a bloodthirsty yell. It is your label of choice. It is the distance from the target, the remove that displaces responsibility from the one who pulls the trigger.

We are all human, and we all respond to criticism or disagreement in human ways which are often less than constructive, if not outright destructive. We all have our dark side and our light. We all have our triggers, and we’re all quick to pull them. And we all leave little chalk outlines strewn behind us as we go.

Sometimes we are the villains. More often, I think (I hope), we are simply people with complicated things to say and little clue how to say them, desperate for the patience and understanding of others, but unwilling to grant either ourselves. And here’s the rub: when we’re not willing to extend the same consideration to others that we desire for ourselves, everyone becomes our enemy. We arrogate to ourselves the best of intentions while assuming everyone else is out to get us. And you know what they say about assumptions…

They make bloggers out of U and Me.

Sins of My Fathers


Without ash to rise from, a phoenix would just be a bird getting up.

– Schmidt

I want to talk about race, and gender, and some of the other things I’m not supposed to talk about because I’m white and male. Which characteristics I of course chose for myself when the gene genies contacted me for that traditional prenatal identity consultation. This was after the prenatal press conference in which I explicitly endorsed all the injustices committed by all the white males before me, throughout history.

I have news for you: Hogwarts is not real, and there is no such thing as a Sorting Hat. I was born, and I have acted (for better and for worse) on my own account and no one else’s; my impact as a person can be judged fairly only by that rubric.

But that is not the rubric against which I find myself measured. I am told that, regardless of who I am or what I have done, I am complicit in a multitude of previous sins. I am presumed guilty, and am placed beyond proof of innocence. And anything I say can and will be used against me in the court of public opinion.

I’m told that men shouldn’t be involved in the gender debate, that they should just listen quietly and be educated. Fair enough: quiet listening is necessary to education, and speech before learning leads only to Fox and Friends. But there is a time for quiet listening, and there is a time for taking what one has learned and getting into the conversation, respectfully but actively. Otherwise, there isn’t much point in learning in the first place.

I’m told that Black Lives Matter. And they most certainly do. But I’m also told that this is a claim that must exist in isolation; that to suggest, as a member of the white community, that my life also matters, that indeed all lives matter, is an act of imperialism and violence. I am told by those speaking out for their own worth and meaning as people that if I do the same, I am worthless and meaningless. Meanwhile, on many levels, the whole argument misses its own point, given that we are prosecuting it as a multitude of refugees stands helpless and homeless at our borders, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens stand helpless and homeless on our street corners, and all the rest of us stand idly by demanding more attention for ourselves.

I refuse to accept this. I will not play this game nor will I acquiesce to these rules, any more than anyone should give in to the arbitrariness of socially-imposed classes and categorizations. Justice is never about taking dominance away from one voice and giving it exclusively to another. Justice can only come about by way of dialogue; it must involve both the wronged and the perceived wrong-er.

The debate over feminism cannot thrive if it is framed in a such a way as to intentionally alienate or shut out the male voice, not because women are incapable of solving their own problems, but because men are a fact, unfortunate though it may be. We exist; we are everywhere. And if we’re the problem, then we have to be a part of the solution. Otherwise, you’re repairing the roof by tearing down a wall.

Black lives matter. White lives matter. Middle Eastern lives matter. Unborn life matters. Life matters. Wherever it is found, behind whatever sort of face it hides. This is the underlying problem: we think that in order for one group to matter, another has to matter less. This misconception of meaning has provided the framework for every violent human arrangement in history, from slavery to the Cold War to the War on Terror. Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter is but one more example of this false dichotomy. If we are to reach a point at which either black or white lives truly do matter, then it must be in tandem with one another, and alongside all other life. This is a zero sum issue: either all lives matter, or none of them do.

Recently, I read the following quote by radical feminist Alicen Grey:

It’s painful when I hear/see quotes from men, waxing poetic about how violent and inhumane “we” “humans” are “to each other”. When historically and globally, males account for the vast, vast majority of violence. Mostly against women. I used to wonder, how could these men – fancying themselves profound and in-on Truth – possibly call “humans” violent when they are technically the source? But I guess that’s what happens when the only people you consider humans are other men.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what I say, or in how many positive ways I contribute to the quest for social justice, gender and racial equality, or anything else. I am, in the most literal of senses, worth-less, beyond any possibility of betterment, trapped in the web of my original sin: the penis. I am generational evil incarnate. Regardless of my individual character, I am defined by my class and, consequently, disenfranchised. I am refused the right to contribute on the presumption that anything I say is by definition suspect. I am barred, not just from the conversations surrounding gender and racial issues, but from any conversation at all. How’s that for violent, imperialistic speech?

I hear her, and I appreciate (if I cannot fully understand) the pain that animates her words. Women have been sorely mistreated by men, African Americans have been devalued by white America, and ethnic minorities the world over have been abused and murdered by majorities the world over, for far too long. But anger, while a powerful and constructive tool, becomes merely destructive when wielded as a weapon. This may be temporarily satisfying, but it is not ultimately productive. Alienation as a response to alienation only creates greater alienation.

I will not apologize for things I did not do and have not done. No one should have to. What I can (and will) do is my best with my life to ensure that the unjust actions and words of my predecessors and contemporaries are, through my own actions and words, to some measure counteracted. I will honor, respect, and speak out for the rights of women, African Americans, and any others to whom they have been denied, and I will fight alongside anyone (Alicen Grey included) who is interested in bringing about a more just social order for all people. I may not move mountains, but I’ll go down swinging. I will be your ally.

Assuming, that is, that you’ll let me…



Do not go tweet-ly into that good night;
Rage, rage against the dying of the write.

Not Dylan Thomas

A brief announcement:

After two weeks of shoe horns and crowbars, @magnificenttoad is no more.

I will not sell my soul, I will not eat my words, and I will not pretend there is true creativity in enforced brevity. Concision is for wimps. And those determined to make a point in 140 characters or less.

Dickens makes my soul sing; Hemingway makes my soul shrink. Twitter makes my soul nauseous.

So enjoy your tweets.

I will speak my own language. In complete, punctuated, grown-up sentences.

P.S. I am fully aware that the foregoing is a statement dripping with condescension and assumed superiority…

I’m okay with that.

Two (or More) To Tango – Revised Ed.


I thought I heard the captain’s voice
It’s hard to listen while you preach
Like every broken wave on the shore
This is as far as I could reach

– U2

Listening is the hardest thing we will never learn to do.

Why? Because we take ourselves far too seriously. We give too much weight to the things we have to say. We assume our contributions to be greater than they really are.

Take this very blog, for instance: I would like to think that, from time to time, I say something someone might find encouraging or useful. But in and of itself, my little corner of the blogosphere really isn’t that important. To me, the Toad’s adventures may be truly great, but to others–to quote Randy Jackson–they may be “just alright.” Especially if I ignore everybody else’s.

Blogs are an excellent example of the fact that we’re far more willing to be heard than we ever are to listen. Case in point: Do we “follow” others because we really want to know what they have to say, or are we merely fishing for followers of our own? Mea culpa. If I’m honest, I’d have to say that even fifty-fifty is an estimate hopelessly lacking in self-awareness. I find myself “following” a couple hundred people, and paying attention to maybe a third of them. So I “purge the list” and heave a sigh of relief, only to find myself three months later back in the same over-crowded boat.

What I’m saying is this: I have 950 followers. To think that means I have 950 readers is just absurd. How do I know this? Because truth be told, I ignore most of the people I supposedly “follow.” There just aren’t enough hours in the day. Each of my however many followers each follow however many people, and will have just as hard a time keeping up with me as I with them. Bilbo Baggins said it best: “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.” And for this I sincerely apologize.

The truth is, I would rather have a small group of dedicated readers, of whom I could be a dedicated follower and with whom I could have a meaningful conversation, than a neverending list of faceless, unidentified “followers” and “follow-ees” with whom I never ever interact. This is do-able. There are enough hours in the day for that, easily. As long as I remember why I ought to be here.

At the end of the day, though, I find I don’t always want a conversation. I often just want to hear myself talk. And then I wonder why no one’s responding to questions I’ve never bothered to ask. Even now, see? Here I am, preaching again. No matter how hard I try, the sermon must go on.

Here’s the problem: by definition, we are pushers of what we believe in, simply because we believe in it. There is nothing wrong with that, and there’s really no way around it. But there is a very fine line between arguing that what we believe is right, and arguing that unless our interlocutors accept the rightness of what we believe, they are wrong. Once we cross that line, dialogue is dead. We’ve decided we know, which is a dangerous decision to make. More importantly, we’ve decided we cannot know more, which means we’ve decided there’s nothing more we can be taught.

If that day comes, we might as well pack it in and head for home. If, as the soldiers of GI Joe used to say, knowing is half the battle, then learning is the other. If I refuse to do that, then I’m fighting with one hand tied perpetually behind my back. And I can’t learn unless I listen.

And sometimes it seems I’ll never learn.

Your Assistance, Please!


I need your help!

In August, I am participating in the 2015 JIS (Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies) Symposium. I will be sharing a paper on the effects of long-distance online interaction (blogging, social networks, comment feeds on news outlets, etc.) on public discourse: Does it raise or lower the bar on how we communicate with one another?

So, I’m conducting a quick, informal poll to see what you long-distance online communicators have to say about the issue.

Here’re my questions:

1) Overall, does online interaction improve or weaken our ability to communicate with others?

2) What is the most positive aspect of online communication, and what is the most negative?

3) How many different online social outlets (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.) do you use? **No specifics necessary; just a number.**

4) What percentage (rough estimate) of your social interaction takes place online, as compared to the percentage that takes place in person?

If you wouldn’t mind taking a few moments to jot down some brief answers to these questions, I would greatly appreciate it. No names or personal information will be included in the finished product, but this will be helpful in establishing some baseline statistics as I proceed with this project.

Also, please pass this along. I can use all the “sample” I can get!

You are all Awesome!

– The Toad


I feel it necessary to address the tendency of people today to take offence at pretty much anything. It seems that everything from a sonnet to a sneeze must these days be accompanied with a declaration of the issuer’s non-participation in the opinion thus expressed. “The views I express in my own words in no way reflect my own views or opinions, and anything in my views or opinions which resembles my own views or opinions must be taken as nothing more than pure coincidence.”

If I like vanilla, but you like chocolate, you take offence. If I am a Republican and you are a Democrat, you take offence. If I’m a dog person and you are a cat person, you take offence. If you’re in the street and I hit you with my car…well, a pattern emerges. I mean, seriously, people–is there no end to the cycle of indignation?

I long for a forum in which honest debate is not only welcomed but encouraged, where opposing viewpoints are taken as helpful contributions rather than personal attacks. Where the conversation proceeds along lines other than: “You suck!” “No, you suck!” A forum in which we can tell each other the ever-lovin’ truth, for Pete’s sake!

Orthodoxy is the refuge of complacency and intellectual cowardice. Answers are to be found not in constant, rote agreement, but in the midst of sharp disagreement; not in the isolation and segregation of the like-minded, but in the collision of disparate worldviews; not in unanimity of opinion, but in unanimity of purpose.

In any case, the answers are not what define us. What defines us is how we deal with the questions.

But you didn’t hear that from me…


Tea and Sympathy

Tea goes well with sympathy
(or else you could not spell it),
and also with sincerity,
or else you could not sell it.

The world as seen
through jaded eyes
is just a pack of faded lies,
a long list of belated tries by
moral midgets cut to size.

When media’s the meaning-maker;
when life resides in pepper-shakers
and spoutless teapots fill the papers:
then all of life’s become the taper
atop the crumbs of maddened bakers.

Tea and sympathy will mix,
no matter how you frame it;
but tea may also leave a stain–
and, really, who can blame it?

Right to Remain?

Freedom of speech is easy to
Harder to learn.
The world turns on turn of phrase:
Rhetorical flourish, meaning malnourished,
Pundits ablaze with long-distance courage.
And somewhere inside, where
Sincerity hides, the heart opens wide,
Screaming in silence, and
Breathes its last, its moment
Long past.

How Much Do You Really Want To Know? (Redux)

Recently, I wrote a piece on that paragon of insincerity, the “How are you?” routine. I received a number of different responses, ranging from the “well said” to the “seek help” ends of the spectrum. I’ve even been told that, emotionally disturbed as I apparently am, it’s a good thing I don’t want kids, ’cause God knows what lunacy I might pass on to them if I did. Yes, it seems that my imbalance may well be contagious…

I fear, consequently, that some clarification is in order.

My purpose in writing the bit in question was not to elicit sympathy from the teeming masses. It was not a cry for attention. I was not out to be patted on the head and clucked at in a soothing manner. I am not in need of a tender rendition of “Soft Kitty,” or anything at all like that, anymore than anyone else. (Although, to those who did express encouragement or support, I extend many sincere thanks.)

Yes, I did use myself as an example, but that is simply because my own mind is the only one I can come anywhere close to actually knowing. The things I shared were the scary little tidbits I rarely allow out of their cages because there’s a very good chance that if I do, they will turn on me and swallow me whole. We all have them, and we all keep them hidden. Because, after all, who wants a visit from the white lab coats? Who wants to be that box in the far corner of the moving van that nobody touches, because it’s marked “Fragile” and looks like it’s two prods from falling apart?

My goal was not to highlight my own issues; it was to point out that this tendency toward “stuffing,” as they call it, is very much a part of the unspoken social contract by which we regulate our lives in community. It is strong in all of us, all the time. It fools us into thinking we’re healthy and strong, when, by very virtue of accepting the status quo of silence, we are rendered sickly and weak. We are less than we can be because we share less than all of our selves.

But it goes even further than that: Our deathly fear of interpersonal honesty often causes us to forget how to be honest even with ourselves. We don’t ask life’s important questions because we’re afraid to admit their legitimacy. We don’t shine our inner flashlights into that particular nook or cranny because that’s where the real shadows are, and they’re best left alone. Like children, we pull the covers up over our heads in the desperate hope that what we can’t see can’t hurt us. If we stay still, maybe the lions will go away.

The range of responses I’ve received since my original post shows that, out of practice as we are, not only do we often not know how to be honest, we also often have no clue how to deal with honesty when it comes our way. Suddenly, we’re missionaries stuck on Bourbon Street: we will snap our own necks trying to look anywhere but at the peepshow in progress. Which is an apt metaphor because, as it is understood, the act of revealing one’s true self–pain, problems, and all–is tantamount to removing one’s clothing in public. We become spectacle at best, public nuisance at worst. And there’s a good chance we’ll be taken into custody and tossed in a cage somewhere, if not for our own good, then at least so no one else has to deal with us anymore.

I come out of the Christian tradition which is, if anything, more coercive than society at large in the vow of silence it enforces among its adherents. Because, you see, things can’t be wrong without the entire foundation of the tradition collapsing around itself. Things can go wrong, mind you; but even then they cannot be wrong, since everything happens according to divine plan. That being the case, any acknowledgment of dismay is transmogrified into “whining” or “complaining” or, worse still, “questioning the will of God.” And how dare we do that?

In this scheme of things, honesty becomes not only difficult but downright suspect. Perhaps your faith is weak, Grasshopper. The Force is not strong in this one. Suddenly all interpersonal communication turns into a Twila Paris song (which, like much CCM material, seems on the surface deep and meaningful, but turns out on closer inspection to actually say little or nothing). And all of this is designed, not to provide a solution to the problem at hand, but to serve as a distraction from it.

In this sense, at least, Karl Marx was right: Religion is the opium of the people, and the supposed heart of a heartless world. We are, all of us, caught up in what is broadly termed “the human condition,” and religion (in this case, Christianity) is often set up as the only viable outlet, the only feasible response to a situation beyond our control. We can’t stop this craziness; surely there’s Someone out there who can. In seeing through the pretensions of religious thought, Marx also understood that we have another option. What is structural can be demolished and redesigned, rebuilt. It can be replaced. His genius lay not necessarily in his specific solution–socialism–but in his general point: the true solution to the human condition is a reimagining of community. We have, if nothing else, each other. It is not religion, but we, who are the true heart of a heartless world.

We all have baggage, a nice array of Samsonite we carry with us as we move from experience to experience, cradle to grave. Life is about what we do with those pieces of luggage: we can conceal them in our closets, locked and impenetrable, or we can open them, lay out the contents, and deal with the jumble. Life is about what we do with where we’ve come from. But in order to do this, we need to be free to air all that dirty laundry conventional wisdom encourages us to pretend we don’t have; we need to be free to strip our selves bare for all to see, to be the broken toys we all become, to one degree or another, as life plays with us through the years. We need the freedom to be weak, because in vulnerability we will find strength, if not in the eyes of others, at least in our own.

Weakness lies not in admitting the painful nature of life; weakness lies in pretending we are strong; weakness lies in not having the courage to face our pain head-on. Life is not just a flesh-wound. It is a gaping, bleeding, oozing GSW to the chest, and we need each other like an assault victim needs a paramedic. So, instead of hiding our struggles and whispering them at the sky, we need to take a look at our fellow travelers (I mean this not as a political label, but as a genetic one). We need to talk to one another, freely and openly, and listen to one another in the same way.

Perhaps this is pie in the sky, but it has to beat the idea that there actually is pie in the sky, and nowhere else…

Just Be

My interest as I move through my life, day to day, is in doing right. Being right, on the other hand, concerns me less and less with every step that I take.

We waste so much time in this life trying to be right. We enter every conversation as if engaging in battle: communication is nothing; ammunition is everything. Politics, religion, social concerns–all the things that define us as individuals–there’s a reason they tell you never to talk about these things in public. There’s a reason they call them hot-button issues.

Don’t get me wrong: I make arguments for and against things as much as the next guy (possibly even more). But there is a foundational principle I seek to embrace in every conversation I have, every defense I undertake, and every explanation I attempt to give. It is a simple one: say what you believe, and expect to be wrong sometimes. Nay, even a lot of the time.

Now, I daresay my success in upholding this foundational principle is probably spotty at best. I am, after all, still human; I still enjoy the selfish satisfaction of a point scored at the expense of a mate or two. And I understand that the way I try to present myself and the way I come across to others may not be one and the same: as much as I want to value understanding over one-upmanship, the fine line between listening and pontification is rarely walked with complete balance, and this failure often determines whether I’m perceived as opponent or confidante.

Nothing kills heart-to-heart conversation so quickly as a participant who feels himself so justified in everything he thinks or believes that he assumes the other person has nothing substantive to say. This leads to the infamous one-sided argument (if you use Facebook at all, you’ll be quite familiar with this phenomenon): ripostes and parries fly with little or no attention paid to anything anyone else is saying; there is no chance for growth because the underlying assumption is made that my presence in this discussion can serve as corrective only, as I am right, which means everyone else–by definition–is wrong. So why listen, when I can talk instead?

I’m not pointing fingers here–we all do this, at least from time to time. And we often don’t notice, precisely because we’re all convinced that we have, a la Ben Franklin, overcome this particular weakness and moved on to the next. We all like to believe that we’re just a little better at attaining that “objective view” everybody talks about all the time, be it through advanced education, or spiritual discipline, or whatever. We all fancy ourselves paragons of humility. But, as a professor of mine once noted, humility is an interesting thing: the second you claim it, you lose it. Oh, yes–it is a strange thing but true: one of the world’s greatest sources of unadulterated (and destructive) pride is too strong a confidence in one’s own humble nature. If you don’t believe me, just ask Uriah Heep.

As long as conversation is perceived as contest, we are all just ships passing in the night, and tooting our horns as loudly as possible as we go by. We miss opportunities, not just to impact the lives of others, but to be impacted ourselves. We wear our opinions like bullet-proof vests, and fire them off like armor-piercing rounds. We never learn new lessons, and we teach them much more rarely than we often realize. We walk in a world of strangers, thinking ourselves kings.

So, let’s stop worrying so much about being right, and spend some time learning to just be. We might learn something else in the process.