Personal Issues #2: The Culture of Not

An attempt to explain a amorphous culture that defines my past.


Over this summer I took a trip to California for a research conference, visited Disneyland to celebrate my partner’s graduation, and visited her family. After I got back home I was in a state of consternation. During my trip, I experienced several different cultures — familiar, design, professional, and others — but upon reflection, I realized where my troubles lied. I could not define a culture either familiar or otherwise for my hometown of Savannah. This was wrong, I knew it. After all, everyone knows about Southern Culture, everyone knows what it means to be Southern and to be a Southerner. But the more I tried to describe the culture of my past I couldn’t find a solid descriptor. That is until I realized something. The culture of my past is a culture of not; a culture that used negative space to define its shape without having to define what exactly it is.

Already I can feel the specters of my past swarming up from my unconscious screaming counters to my mental argument, but I must ask: Does it matter? My past is my past and these memories sure are defensive of such a simple idea. Maybe it is because, much like the rest of my past, they are created from nots: “you’re the good son,” “you don’t air dirty laundry,” and “family comes first.” But those are actually defined statements with clear understandable meanings, right? Well strap in, my past is one where context, and the lack thereof, plays a key aspect of everyday life.

To dip into language studies for a moment: Language and Culture are inexorably tied. To understand one is to better understand the others. This holds true for foreign languages, hobby cultures, and societal culture. Why do I say this? Because the culture of not might be based on the American English language, but it is one that relies heavily on context and implication. On what is being implied by the words, not what is being said. This combination of language and culture causes many of my present day hangs up, all due to the ill-defined space created by these nots. For example, the high praise I received from my high school coach at my final football banquette: “You’re not strong, you’re not fast, you’re not athletic, but you follow directions.” Explicitly, this reads, at best, like a backhanded compliment. Implicitly, and with the proper context, he was attempting to compliment my intelligence and ability to adapt to the strategies during the football season.

The example above is why I struggled during my trip. The places I visited wore their culture on their sleeves. And even still, digging into these areas revealed more explicit subcultures. There was a definition to them. Something I could point to or explicitly state what was the core or part of the area. However, reflecting upon my past I couldn’t do that without needing to explain implicit asterisk of each example. The stories from my past, when shared, bring gasps of revulsion from listeners unable to understand just how, what seemed normal during the occurrence of the story, could be commonplace. If I ever meet you in person reader let me regale you with how I learned that “Love is Like a Crockpot.”

So how do I explain where I come from, what I was raised in, and what shaped the first two decades of my life? How you do paint with negative space and get a clear definition? You cannot, and this willing obfuscation is purposeful. This haze of meaning is likened to that used by H.P. Lovecraft to describe “indescribable horrors beyond time and space” in his various works. However, whereas Lovecraft used this negative space to attempt to describe things unknowable to man, my past used it for duplicity, deception, and control.

Perhaps the best way to show this is the phrase “Southern Manners”. Now to those without context this recalls people pulling out chairs, polite society, and saying all their Sirs and Ma’ams. To those with context, you know Southern Manners as being two-faced; appearing to care and be polite then immediately turning around and undercutting the very person your hosting. Examples of this permeate my past, to list them all would be too laborious and time consuming for everyone involved. And it shows in the culture. The south is a people of “not this.” It has the appearance of civility without the need to be civil. Best still, this negative space creates a hard control structures where those with clearly defined characteristics unwelcomed or unwanted by the community can be ostracized and push away.

A control structure that is great for creating “teaching moments,” as my family and school use to say. Moments where, because you are not describing something explicitly, you are allowed lots of wiggle room to exasperate and manipulate people. A simple version of this is the old stereotype of the used car dealer. The dealer sells you a junker by telling what is fixed or needs repair, but never any of the good or negatives of the car. Then, when you drive off and it breaks down a week later, the dealer can defend themselves by claiming they you never asked about X, Y, and Z problems when you bought the car. Now, this is a simple trope example, but with a bit of imagination, dear reader, I’m sure you can think of much simpler and commonplace uses of such a technique. Such as politics.

Yes, let us deal with the elephant in the room. Politics in the South. The culture of not is one of politics. Which, with the context of the tie between culture and language, seems fitting: Both rely on duplicitous language and propagation of self-constructed mental ideals without concrete definitions. But there is more such as dog-whistle politics. I’m sure at some point in the past few years you have heard this term being discussed. To those not in the know, dog-whistle politics is a means of using coded language to target specific subgroups in an address to a larger group of people. To put it another way, it uses selective, explicit terms to provide implicit understanding to those with the context to understand. So next time you hear a Southern politician talk about “returning to the good old days of the past” make sure you take into context who and where he is speaking. To most individuals of the previous generation, the “good old days” means the ill-remembered Roaring 50’s. However, to a certain sub-group, the “good old days” are the even more distorted and “idealized” time of the Antebellum era.

So, what does all this rambling mean? Well, unfortunately, I can’t tell you. See, the evanescent nature of the culture of not serves as a defense against understanding. I must rely on the same tactics of implication to try and provide context to the issues. At which point I can be rebuked, or in a more common move gas-lighted, by defenders with a simple, “No, you miss understand.” So, therefore, I penned this blog to try and put to paper my understanding and feelings, while also trying to provide context for further exploration of this topic. I haven’t figured out my past or where I came from, but I will continue to dredge my memories to see what I can find.

Personal Issues #1: The Presidential Boogieman.

President Trump represents the perfect storm of fears about my past, present, and future.

I have been in a terrible mood for the past month. Mostly, this is due to our standing President Donald Trump. This man represents a perfect confluence of all my fears and anxieties made flesh. He stands as a boogieman that reminds me daily of the horrors of my past, my fears for the future, and my anxieties of the present.

I have not spoken to my immediate family since 2013. I will not go into much detail, but the events that led to me fleeing my family and deciding to never contact them again have had a lasting effect on me: I have a lasting fear of financial matters, I know how to emotionally manipulate and control people, and I “understand” that everything in the world is out to get me. Most of all, I understand that I was raised and trained to see people as objects to be used to further my own goals. This mindset, this training, these skills make watching our current President horrific. I cringe every time he speaks, diverts, and projects. His actions are transparent to me, even sloppy to a certain degree, but still many numerous people I know, including my late family, have fallen for the man hook, line, and sinker. Every day, I struggle to keep up-to-date with the issues all the while watching a gestalt of the worst aspects of my family make a mockery of my life.

When I left my family, it was thanks to friends, allies, and supporters. These individuals saved me from a fate worse than death, and possibly even my own death. They gave me shelter, allowed me to find my place in the world, and encouraged me to seek out my own horizons. Many of these people are in or tangentially related to academia. I grew to respect teachers and what they could do for the world. How they could inspire people to look within and how they could delve into vast thickets of information to emerge with a through-line path so others could continue the exploration. And in time, I realized I wanted to be a teacher as well. I wanted to be one of those people who delved into the tangled mess of the world and hoped to one day provide the beginnings of maps for others to use to expanding human knowledge. So, when I decided to continue my education, something my family had bashed into me as a “waste of time, effort, and money,” I was shocked by what I found. I had just emerged from an abusive lie, a place where everything was perfect if you know your place, use people, and keep your ruler happy. What I entered was a place where I was the source of my own, and the world’s, problems all due to the situation of my birth. Being a CIS, white, male meant that I was the source of the evils in the world. Now, I know this is not doing justice to the topic, but this exposure and thought process is only amplified by my past and by President Trump. Near daily, I see on my social media feeds the stereotype of the “CIS White Male” is further being influenced by Trump’s irrational ranting and system abuse: “Trump is the quintessential white man,” “We need to stop promoting white men,” “We need to stop white men in academia.” Worst still, these are colleagues, advisors, and mentors that post these articles. These articles read like a slap in my face: “You are not wanted here. Go back to your family. Live in their lie, at least then you can fake being happy.”

Yet even still, with these, most assured, inadvertent insults there is more Trump does to make me fear him. Let me regale you with a crystal clear lasting memory of my youth. I was a teenager, I was in football — a tradition in the Deep South –, and I was talking to my father about summer workouts. I was trying to express how I was going to try and get fit for the next season. I wanted his advice or acknowledgment or something. See my father was an ACC championship quarterback; “I’m a ‘never-was’, not a ‘has-been’” was one of his more descriptive personal reflections. So, with his experience, you would think he would be a source of good advice and guidance on these issues. I explained how I wanted to try to work out properly, get fit, and generally try to better myself.  I remember so clearly his response. As he laid on the couch watching the TV, he listened, smiled and turned to me without adjusting the TV: “Look at me boy. This is your future,” he gestured over his overweight 300 plus pound body spilling over the couch with eyes reddened from all the weed he had been smoking, “You can’t escape it. Just accept it.” This line has been drilled in my head consistently throughout my life. Another quote by the man, “a father’s goal is to have his son surpass him in every aspect.” This is hard to do when your father consistently tells you to not attempt things – especially sports or other challenging activities –, routinely gets so high he forgets to pick you from school and seems to have no emotion or goals in his life outside of getting high, watching sports, and sleeping. This implicit line: “I am your future” is the most terrifying thing about Trump to me. He is the embodiment of the worst aspects of my past and my greatest fears of the future. He is, according to my father, society, and academia, what I am destined to become. A fat, narcissistic sycophant. Someone who does anything he pleases despite the consequences to others. A man who will forgo seeing and being with his son for the sake of a nap, getting high, or playing golf. A perfect example of the “CIS White Male.”

And even this spirals back into my present anxieties. I currently work as a delivery driver at a sandwich shop in Portland. My education, from one of the “best schools in the country”, is worth nothing. My parent’s warning of college being a “waste of time, effort, and money” mockingly echoes in my mind in the darkest parts of my day. However, I still fight these phantoms knowing I made the decision myself and am proud of my accomplishment. I struggle to find time between my job and my research, and all the while I watch as the economy of this country crumbles. Watching as it becomes more and more expensive to live, to eat, and to survive. Meanwhile, I’m also watching people with beyond enough means store it away, keeping vast wealth to themselves because “they need it”; just like my family “needed” it. Just like how they made sure I was convinced in my youth that I wasn’t upper-middle class but was toeing the constant poverty line. That we could have our electricity lights cut out at any moment, because of the private school my parents sent me too was so expensive and we would have to “tighten the belt” to survive. That because of our Christmas, a bloated extravagant gathering more for pomp and circumstance than love or family, we would have to cut back for a few months. Just like how I nearly bankrupted myself in my undergraduate trying to avoid straining my parent’s financial situations only to find out upon moving back home there was “more than enough to pay for your entire college, if only you had asked.”  Yet every day, that easy answer is there. Every day as I watch wages go down, rent goes up, bills pile on, and student loans accrue, I know I can just call back “home,” give up my independence, and once again accept the easy lie and be “safe” with the family again.

I’m old enough now to realize my hometown and past was never the shining city I remembered. Looking back now with open eyes I realize it was more of a breeding ground for zealots. More and more I’m witnessing these zealots cheering on a man who cares nothing for them and is actively trying to destroy what they need to survive. I do not hold out hope for Trump. He, much like others of his generation, are too far gone to be saved. I do, however, hold out hope for the other people of my country. Maybe, they will prove me wrong, maybe they will prove me right, but until then I keep looking for the lining in the clouds. Yes, despite my love of horror, death, existential crisis, and dread I am hopeful. Maybe it is because I must face the embodiment of horrors every day. Maybe it is I’m just too stubborn to give up.