March 2023: Even If Your Voice Shakes

Folklore & Fiction

The March 2020 Folklore & Fiction dispatch has been recorded as a podcast, and you can both read and listen to it here. In it, I'm discussing charms with help from scholars J. Stanley Hopkins, Jonathan Roper, and others, discussing the use of charms in storycraft, and providing you with an example and an exercise on the topic. I also wrote a supplementary dispatch that month, which I've recorded as a podcast, and you can both read and listen to it here. In this one, written just after the pandemic was declared, I'm discussing the value of keeping a journal you can pass on to others.

Even If Your Voice Shakes

“Leave safety behind. Put your body on the line. Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind – even if your voice shakes. When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say. Well-aimed slingshots can topple giants. And do your homework.” - Maggie Kuhn

Many of you will have encountered the part of Maggie Kuhn's quote that reads "speak your mind - even if your voice shakes." It's brilliant advice, and it comes from a woman whose words deserve more context than they often receive. Here's what the National Women's Hall of Fame has to say about her:

In 1970, forced to retire from her career with the Presbyterian Church at age 65, Kuhn and a group of her friends in similar circumstances organized and founded an organization which became the Gray Panthers. The organization was created to work on issues of concern to the elderly, such as pension rights and age discrimination, but also to concern itself with larger public issues, such as the Vietnam War and other social concerns. At the core of the Gray Panthers’ message was that older people needed to seize control of their lives and be in the active world working for issues in which they believed.1

Kuhn found her voice at 65 and went on to advocate for the elderly and for social justice until she died twenty four years later, but her advice is more important now than it has ever been. We must find a way to be unafraid in the face of those who would silence us and thoughtfully engage with the issues of our time, and we must also do our homework about these issues. Part of that homework is coming to understand the landscape of public discourse, how our thoughts are shaped by it, and how to critique our own thinking. These processes are critical to artists and storytellers whether or not their work comments directly upon the political and social issues of their time, because their work might comment indirectly upon these issues from a lack of understanding or an unexamined bias. With this in mind, I'm following last month's discussion of positionality with a discussion of the ways we are shaped by political and social narratives, the ways those narratives are shaped by institutions of power, and what we must do to think beyond these narrative structures.

Italian journalist and revolutionary Antonio Gramsci wrote about political and social discourse while he was in prison for opposing Fascism in Italy. He argues that the political and social circumstances of our birth and upbringing leave us with a set of embedded assumptions about the world he calls senso comune, or common sense. Kate Crehan writes that senso comune "is that accumulation of taken-for-granted 'knowledge' to be found in every human community" which provides a "bundle of assumed certainties that structure the basic landscapes within which individuals are socialized and chart their individual life courses."2 This common sense is not vernacular wisdom as we understand it but rather a loose collection of "multiple narratives, some closely connected and overlapping, some conflicting and contradictory, but all of which are, to some rational beings, self-evident truths."3 

However, senso comune is dangerous for us as individuals and as a society because it emerges from imperfect political and social systems that favour the powerful, systems Gramsci calls hegemonies. Worse, those who have hegemonic power manipulate common sense to serve their own interests in ways that encourage the consent of the people, leaving the average person completely unaware that other, more equitable possibilities exist. Gramsci only sees one way to counter this, and Crehan explains it quite well:

Gramsci’s argument is that while we may have no choice but to begin from the common sense into which we are born, we should not accept its comforting familiarities unthinkingly, but continually question them, dragging into the light of day all the implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions buried within that which presents itself as simple reality. We must subject everything we are told is just “the way things are” to careful and rigorous questioning. As an individual, one has an obligation “to work out consciously and critically one’s own conception of the world and thus, in connection with the labours of one’s own brain, choose one’s sphere of activity, take an active part in the creation of the history of the world, be one’s own guide, refusing to accept passively and supinely from outside the moulding of one’s personality.”4

 Unfortunately, the challenges of everyday life prevent most people from questioning the common sense into which they are born. However, some people do manage it, working out their own conception of the world, taking an active part in its creation, and refusing to accept the outside moulding of their personalities. They begin to push back against their senso comune and the legal, political, and social hegemonies that use it to stay in power. They break unjust laws, they defy political authority, and they try to change society. Gramsci calls this counter-hegemony. Of course, those with hegemonic power respond to counter-hegemony with fearsome tools. Laws are changed to quash dissent, while activists are arrested, silenced, and branded as socially deviant. Gramsci himself died in prison, as it happens. These powerful groups also work behind the scenes to cement hegemonic narratives that support them and appropriate counter-hegemonic narratives where possible. Greenwashing is an excellent example of this process, in which large corporations use advertising techniques that usurp images of the natural world, words like "sustainable," and other touchstones of environmental activism to sell products that are destructive to the Earth. I would argue that this is the more insidious of these fearsome tools because it gaslights people into believing those in power are responding to their concerns, when in reality they are not.

This sort of manipulation is commonplace on social media. On February 15th of this year, The Guardian posted the results of an eight-month investigation that revealed "A team of Israeli contractors who claim to have manipulated more than 30 elections around the world using hacking, sabotage and automated disinformation on social media." The services of this disinformation group "were available to intelligence agencies, political campaigns and private companies that wanted to secretly manipulate public opinion...across Africa, South and Central America, the US and Europe."5 This is not an isolated abuse of hegemonic power to shape common sense. China and Russia do this too, and so do countless other governments, corporations and corporate lobbying groups, churches, and other institutions. The more powerful the group, the more resources it can muster to shape public discourse, and the more difficult it is for us to think our way beyond its efforts to maintain power. This layer of disinformation exists atop a foundation of algorithmic polarization social media platforms have used for over a decade to maximize engagement for the sake of advertising revenue. Former Facebook product manager and whistleblower Frances Haugen said as much to 60 Minutes in 2021, and later CNN reported on her interview, writing that "When misinformation is the main weapon in an ongoing war of ideas, the massive company has chosen the profits it reaps from capturing eyeballs and engaging users over its moral responsibility to cut down on the toxic stuff spread on its platform."6 Twitter is similar in this way, encouraging polarization for profit while misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation spread across the platform.78

While some polarization in political and social discourse is understandable, this is not a natural expression of human debate. Rather, it is a construct created by social media platforms that manipulate our need for human connection to shape what we think using algorithms that serve their interest in selling our attention. Hegemonic institutions capitalize on this polarized attention to manipulate us into accepting intellectual realities that are not real in the service of their own power. For two generations, our minds have been shaped by these processes, have come to see this as "the way things are," have taken it as senso comune. As a result, human rights issues have become weaponized, thoughtful discussion has been marginalized, and nuanced opinions have been lost to self-censorship. In short, we're doing the work of hegemony while believing it is counter-hegemonic. We're mistaking common sense for our "conception of the world." If we make art or tell stories in this environment and do not first become our own intellectual guides, if we do not speak the truth we have gained by way of "careful and rigorous questioning," we run the risk of perpetuating these problems in our work whether or not that work is intended to comment on politics or society. As artists and storytellers, we owe it to the sacred tasks we perform for the world to approach them with minds free of this manipulation. Our opinions and our commentary will be problematic from time to time, but they will have the virtue of being ours.

Dispatches from the Word Mines

The American Folklore Society graciously featured my writing and my Folklore & Fiction work in its "Featured Folklorists" segment last week. You can read the article here.


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  • 1. “Kuhn, Maggie.” n.d. National Women’s Hall of Fame. Accessed February 20, 2023.
  • 2. Crehan, Kate. 2016. Gramsci’s Common Sense: Inequality and Its Narratives. Durham and London: Duke University Press, Common Sense.
  • 3. Ibid.
  • 4. Ibid.
  • 5. Kirchgaessner, Stephanie, Manisha Ganguly, David Pegg, Carole Cadwalladr, and Jason Burke. 2023. “Revealed: The Hacking and Disinformation Team Meddling in Elections.” The Guardian, February 15, 2023.
  • 6. Wolf, Zachary B. 2021. “What We Learned from the Facebook Whistleblower -- and How Facebook Responded” CNN. October 4, 2021.
  • 7. Barrett, Paul, Justin Hendrix, and Grant Sims. 2021. “How Tech Platforms Fuel U.S. Political Polarization and What Government Can Do about It.” Brookings. September 27, 2021.
  • 8. Blankenship, Mary, and Carol Graham. 2020. “How Misinformation Spreads on Twitter.” Brookings. July 6, 2020.