Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: Fun New Travel Edition!

In my last post I did the most "duh, you dumb moron don't do that shit" thing I could possibly do, and in a moment of self-righteous idiocy posted criticisms of my colleagues (a bad idea to begin with) based on rash, ill founded assumptions that made sweeping generalizations of people that, on the whole, I actually admire quite a bit. My last post focused on a really, really shitty experience I had with four people who I have come to regard as friends over the past month, and in my haste to relate the incidents of the evening I felt were completely unjust and horrific, I lumped several frustrations I had with my overall experiences here in Bali into one general criticism of my fellow grad students studying here with me. Not only was this just a generally shitty thing to do to people who have consistently gone out of their way to be nice to me, my criticisms were founded on a few very minor general irritations about things which were absolutely none of my business in the first place.

In the original version of my Tourism Apartheid post, I wrote the following:

For the past two weeks of our academic program here, I have grown increasingly irritated as my fellow students rent hotel rooms for the evening to study and get hot showers. I have been berating myself for my even bothering to give a crap about it, but for whatever reason it has kept getting under my skin. Stumbling angry and embarrassed through the small street leading to the beach, my nebulous feelings of irritation with my fellow students’ behavior, partnered with the current experience, solidified into a hot anger. Why the f’ck would you come half-way around the world to learn about another culture- and the conflicts rising from horrific, exploitative government mismanagement- only to continuously remove yourself from engaging with people that actually come from/identify with said culture?

In addition to making vast assumptions about others and being just strait up rude, my comments raised several issues of misrepresentation of not just my fellow grad students but also myself.

For starters, the heavy criticisms I levied at my colleagues were based on a very few isolated, minor incidents that I swept into one heap, unto which I poured the gasoline of anger from the club incident. I conflated my mild irritation about our group dynamics with the feelings brought up from my friends being barred access to the Kuta club, and then shot my mouth off in a really, really inappropriate way. This painted the other grad students as being here only to party and indulge in tourist activities, which is not the case and moreover I didn't have any right to throw out this assertion because I have not spent much time with them! I am not super comfortable in group settings, I have always been much more comfortable one on one or with a handful of very intimate, long-standing friends. I turned my own discomfort with the group dynamic into a criticism against people who I really don't know, and if I am really, really honest, I never made a great effort to get to know them, which is truly my loss as they are vibrant, caring people who come from interesting background and have interesting reasons for pursuing research in post-conflict Bali. I criticized- an ungrounded criticism- for coming to other country and not trying to spend time with people from here, but the true criticism should have been self-directed, because I never worked to get to know the people from my own university.

More than the criticisms I levied at my classmates, the bigger issue from a representation standpoint is that in criticizing 'them' (as if six unique individuals who had never met each other prior to a month ago were some unified collective)I positioned myself as some sort of 'authentic' researcher, 'truly' immersed in local culture, more rigorous and legitimate an ethnographer than my fellow travelers. Sheesh. For all of the breath I have wasted- and, likely, all of the people I have annoyed- by talking about the politics and ethics of representation I completely blew it. I have been greatly influenced and cautioned by feminist ethnographers' work on how Western researchers and conflict practitioners come into 'developing' or third world countries to do research and superimpose their own versions of reality on what they are seeing. Even the much beloved Margaret Mead has been criticized for doing this during her time in Bali, and it's something I have tried to be so hyper-aware of that the irony that I ended up blatantly subverting the actions of my colleagues by my own assumptions would be almost comical if it didn't so glaringly speak to larger methodological and ethical flaws I clearly need to work out in my own thinking and actions.

So, where to go from here? For starters, cleaning up my own side of the street, to borrow 12-step parlance, involved frank inventory of where I had fallen off the beam: being critical of others rather than evaluating what my criticisms were hinting at in my own actions; painting myself as a particular 'type' of 'authentic' researcher when, in case this wasn't blatantly clear from earlier posts, I have absolutely no idea 'how' one 'does' ethnography; and, most importantly, not treating others as I would like to be treated. I can't take back what I said (although I did rework the original post to be reflective of the fact that I am being a tourist here just as much as anyone), I can't change that 200 people read my criticisms before I was able to edit the post, and I can't repair the boundaries of trust with my fellow students that I violated through my actions. I have apologized, been willing to listen to their frank critiques of my (mis)representations of myself and them, and to the best of my ability reflected on the ethical and methodological issues called into questions by my actions.

Although I am not relishing the thought of another ten days of (well earned) cold shoulders, in some ways I am truly grateful for my colossal fuck up because I am learning so much from it. Some lessons, like don't post critical shit on a public blog might be fairly obvious, but other things have popped up for me that I think speak to larger issues involved in studying abroad and studying emotionally strenuous material.

One of the reasons I wanted to keep a blog of my experiences abroad is I wanted to have a frank conversation with other students who are considering spending time in post-conflict zones about the upsides and, yes, pitfalls, of engaging in study in emotionally charged situations. Studying away from friends and family is difficult enough to begin with, then to add the challenges of studying subject matter like mass violence or rape (or, if you're really sick like me, you can lump them both together! Whee!) creates even more psychological dissonance and strain. One of the ways I think this strain manifests itself is in tension within the group dynamic. I am absolutely not a psychologist or even a well-traveled student, but in the very limited experiences I have had studying emotionally charged issues be it in a classroom in the US or on a front porch abroad, tensions seem to be expressed in the ways students relate to one another. I can think of at least three examples from my "Gender and Violence" and "Gender and Conflict" classes in the US where groups of us were ready to come to blows with selected individuals in the class who had the uncanny ability to be assholes. (For those of you keeping score at home, I have resolutely claimed the title of designated class asshole for this course. Ten points to me.)

I'm not trying to say that people become scapegoats in these situations, or play off my actions as anything less than a really poor decision. My point is that emotionally tense situations like studying charged subject matter don't always bring out the best in people (even if it's sometimes super amusing, like the guy that consistently referred to vaginas as 'cookie jars' in my "Gender and Conflict" course last fall). When you compound disturbing subject matter with the challenges inherent in studying abroad in a group- not only are you studying with these people, you are living with them, writing with them, researching with them, eating with them, etc- things can get a little gnarly. To have a successful group dynamic I think you really have to be considerate of the fact that people are growing and facing challenges that might not arise at home, not just things like a lack of hot water or (super icky) bugs in your sheets, but also the general growth process that happens when you step out of your comfort zone. I can only speak for myself (a fact I forgot in making the comments in my original post), but I know that over the past four weeks I have come to some uncomfortable realizations about things in my life at home that need to be reevaluated. Stepping away from the day to day of studying, vacuuming, grocery shopping, hanging out with friends, family commitments, etc has given me an uncomfortable amount of space in my head to mull over details of my personal life that need a little tinkering. This is not easy, and I am not the only one in my class having some of these feelings. Being in a group of a bunch of people together for an extended amount of time all reevaluating personal stuff, you have to be a little sensitive to the fact that people are going to be off of their game. The people in my group were sensitive with me. They gave me the utmost understanding and support while I talked through my thinking with them, never bothering to question if they might be looking for a similar sensitive ear. I was arrogant and selfish, consuming myself with reflections about my personal life and not bothering to reflect on how my actions might affect others.

So blogosphere, this is my official mea culpa. I screwed up, I dropped the ball, I fell short of standards of decent human being behavior. Did I learn something along the way? I sure hope so, because I really don't want to have to screw up in this particular way again.

To all those who I offended, my deepest apologies once again.

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