Scared of my own voice

I publish under a pseudonym, that of the ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’. This suits me as it’s like donning a mask and going to a party. You get to attend, participate, enjoy yourself, express a different side of yourself, be a little bit risky but not compromise your real self, because after all, you were wearing a mask. You’re putting on or trying out another personality perhaps, one that is less accountable because all the threads can’t be drawn together as in real life. Real life is contextual, we add all the pieces of information that we know about a person together to form a picture, a view, and get a sense of a person. But that doesn’t happen when you wear a mask, unless you are exposed and we get to see who you ‘really are’. But wearing a mask too allows us to show who we really are as we participate in the truth telling of the bus stop syndrome. So it’s this paradox of both being able to shield oneself yet at the same time be more fully exposed in the display of oneself that I wish to explore in this essay blog.

Anonymity, like donning a mask, is protective because it allows you to express yourself through a voice that is uncensored, unafraid and keen to tell the truth. You get to explore truths in a way that is unfettered. You don’t worry about what people might make of what you say, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve suffered. You get to spare yourself the judgement. Even if you the reader judge, it is an anonymous judgement of an anonymously expressed piece of writing.

There is a history attached to anonymous writing but the common theme is that of wanting expression and not being able to, or not seeking to publish under one’s own name. People have had very real reasons for doing so, often political, related to gender or to the expression of truth that is hard to bear.

This form of communication also has its downside. By distancing myself from my own, my real voice, I’m also distancing myself from the experiences, feelings and situations that I relate here on the page. I don’t own them, they don’t come from me. That is both liberating, yet suffocating. I’m free to perform, to narrate and to share. But at the same time I’m more stifled, less, understood, less comprehended because I am not known and therefore not attached to those experiences.

And worse than that by writing in this way it is a tacit acknowledgement, indeed an agreement between myself and the reader – you – who are also party to this process through your acceptance of this writing regime, in your approval through your participation in the act of reading. Of what? Of conspiring with me in my attempt at stifling my real voice.

So this begs the question: what am I afraid of? Why have I been complicit in silencing myself all these years? In the old days I kept a private diary where I worked things out on the page. Even if I didn’t work it out, I certainly got it out. But blogging is different. Blogging includes an audience wider than one. Blogging means that there is an audience who will participate, who will imagine through my writing, who will visualise and ponder what I say, and how I’ve said it and most importantly ponder that which I’ve left out of my writing on the page.

So what am I afraid of? Am I frightened of the truth? By stating it in my own voice, with my own name attached to it, I give it an authenticity, a reality that my truth deserves. Through authoring this privately/publicly through an anonymous pen, I don’t really have to own this truth. It’s like little kids when they tell, that’s when they get upset, that’s when it hits them, that’s when they feel the emotion and that’s when they cry. Because that’s when it’s dawned on them and their truth has become REAL.

That is the issue: writing anonymously is like writing naked. You have a shawl wrapped tightly around you, and that shawl is made up of fabric, texture, materials, shades and colours that are reflective of you, that constitute your personality, your self, your personhood, known, accepted and acknowledged by others. You have it wrapped very tightly around your naked self, it holds you together, it holds you in, it keeps you bound and consistent in your interactions with the world. But for this bright, or sombre, thick or thin, expensive or cheap, mass produced or handmade garment that binds you, you would be NAKED, exposed and vulnerable.

And when we write anonymously we drop the shawl, drop the self that binds us and write freely in an unencumbered way. Our self is not limited to the materials and textures of our ordinary lives: you don’t need to know that I am the engineer, that I work in a factory or that I write science text books for a living. At this moment when the shawl has dropped I am just another human being with a story to tell. Tasteful or distasteful – that remains to be seen – but it is an experience with which you seek to participate because of the promise of the representation of an authentic, free and unencumbered voice.

But in our naked, exposed and vulnerable writing through donning a mask, a pseudonym, or just dropping the veneer of our selves, paradoxically there is greater freedom. It’s a risk to write, and it’s a greater risk to divulge truths about oneself. Once they’re said, well, they’re out there, whatever they may be.

There is such a cult of personality and even as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’ I too will be prone to this as I continue to write, continue to share my truths. Will you continue to read me if I become known? Will I want to write if my ‘real’ self wraps herself up in the shawl that details her name, her ego, her persona, at least the one that she shares with the wider world? So many industries require the success of a name, you have to be a flagrant self-promoter to get by, to move forward in so many creative industries. It is essential in academia. No mousing around not promoting yourself or attracting dollars and prestige to yourself and your department. I can’t do this, that’s why I’m not there. Wrong side of 40 anyway.

Personalities have a voice, have a history, are very present and imagine the future with themselves squarely in it. If you’ve suffered any kind of trauma these can be the very things that are compromised, stolen, even attacked in your life. This is especially true of the last part, that of imagining a secure and successful future with yourself squarely in the picture. But if you don’t like the one that’s written, an anonymous voice helps you give voice to this so that you don’t have to keep hiding from yourself. Your story, your history, your life is validated through telling. Hence the importance of processes such as bearing witness. Bearing witness allows the truth to be told, to be honoured, and to take it’s place in people’s personal histories lived against the larger histories in which all our biographies take place.

I mentioned the bus stop syndrome. It’s not a real syndrome, but it serves the same purpose as donning a mask or anonymising yourself. You get to share something of yourself in a context in which you are not really known, have no common history with people and are not likely to have them in your life again. So you’re less encumbered, more spontaneous and able to relate more freely. You’ve dropped your shawl and are expressing your reality in a way that is unaffected by the person you normally present to the world.

I met a woman on the bus the other night as I travelled into the city for a night out with a group of women from work. The woman sat next to me and we commented at the number of Greek women getting on the bus at each stop who seemed to know each other, greeted each other and sat together. As I marvelled at this synchronicity, the woman next to me explained that they had arranged to meet on this bus and that they were travelling to church together for the pre-Easter services. We talked about the women’s’ black garb and the woman sitting next to me commented that it must be freeing to wear black. I explained that it was a marker for the community, that it represented an announcement that this woman had been married, was now a widow and had left society and all the roles that had been formerly ascribed to her in her married life. The woman next to me liked this idea and thought that at the very least it would simplify one’s wardrobe. She confided that she’d lost her husband two years ago and that since then she only ever hung out with women in all the activities she undertook these days. I told her that I too had lost someone two years ago, my mother who had suffered recently from cancer but for fifty years had had schizophrenia. I felt like I’d really lost my mum years ago, or even that I’d never really had a mother in the sense that everyone else understood a mother. Therein lies part of the truth of my own and of course her suffering.

Will I find my voice? I’m on the way, but how will I ever own it?
Reprinted from The Word Clown

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Writing, writing, writing

Writing looms large in my life now. I’m getting better at it than I was. I like short form [140 characters] but adore longer form, like blogs. And I recently completed some professional writing that’s rekindled my sense of having a voice in the anthropological world again.

It starts with an idea, then a conference abstract, then you give the paper, then they want an article for a special edition of a journal. Might not be an A+++ journal, but it’s not the local gazette either. I was challenged by the word length, not that it was too long, but that it was surprisingly TOO SHORT. Alarm bells should probably be ringing here… And it included the abstract and references. In the end the article was less than four pages. I don’t get out of bed in the morning for less than five.

So I dusted off my professional voice and found my writing and revision texts (thank you Wendy Belcher!) and discovered the pleasures of writing for a specific audience, for one that I wanted to convince of something that I knew had been ‘wrong’ and therefore something that was amenable to being written about. It wasn’t a research project, it was an ‘opinion piece’ was how the journal defined my submission.
I’ve passed first muster now as its been anonymously peer-reviewed by two international reviewers, the gold standard of academic journals, but it still has to be collated with the other papers and have an editorial attached to it. And then it’s still got to go through the online manuscript submission to the journal and reviewed again through the journal processes and then we’ll wait and see.
But its almost life affirming to see the words in print, “May be published as written”. I like that.

And just so you don’t think I’m gloating, remember that for every yang, there is a yin. My shadow paper is the manuscript sitting in the manila folder somewhere on the bottom of the pile in my ‘Inbox’ with the shameful email attached outlining the two reviewers suggestions for the extensive rewrite of my submission that went to the journal, what, nearly three years ago now. It’s hard to come to terms with the fact that anonymous reviewers have read your work and that without any other context have critiqued it savagely, but with the proviso that with all these great changes, it too is publishable. It is so dispiriting.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do the work of the rewrite at the time that it came back to me. And unfortunately now that I’m a better version of myself, now that I’m my writerly self, it’s really too late to be dragging my fieldwork note out again now. It’s been too long ago. With the focus of reporting now having the urgency of the recent present attached to it, it’s hard to believe that even Clifford Geertz wrote about the Balinese cockfight almost 10 years after the event.

That anthropologists write in the eternal present brings ethnographies to life, makes life seem as if it was always so in this or that place and that is part of the strength of the anthropological tradition. This writing technique makes you feel like you’re there alongside them, looking over their shoulders and seeing what they see, hearing what they hear and so on. We are partly the voyeur, the participant-observer, the ‘etic’ trying to see and experience the ‘emic’ perspective, constantly a part of and separate to the people’s lives whom we study. Fieldwork really is an experience of immersion and trying to ‘write up’ the account afterwards will always be a pale imitation, a partial truth associated with the fieldwork experiences through which one lived.

But fieldwork has a use by date too. And that’s the problem with writing about it, or attempting to, too long afterwards. There is plenty of advice about this, but clearly this wasn’t relevant for Clifford Geertz in his day. For me however, my thesis and my copious fieldnotes will hit the dustbins of history, consigned to a dusty bookshelf in an obscure library where no one will read them. They weren’t that well written anyway, but they were a record of the work that I undertook, based on the idea, the thesis that I developed and this made my work unique.

How many people fail to publish? What happens to their work? Some self – publish, not wanting the angst of having to go through a publishing house. Others rewrite their thesis and produce a book. You are supposed to do this, but even better write and present your work as a series of journal articles so that other researchers can find your work, read it and make reference to it. And write a book too.

Well, there’s not enough jobs in academia to support ongoing research for all, so if you’re not on that trajectory, what do you do with your work? Let me know when you find out please…

Aside from the above, none of this can detract from the pleasures of writing. And this includes writing in various forms. I now take perverse pleasure in writing for my day job, enjoy adding in the flourishes with words that separate the wordsmiths from the technicians. Recipients of my writing will always be surprised by the lack of bureaucratic-speak, the openness and frankness of my writing when they receive it. They remark that a polished report was unexpected, or that a brochure was very highly regarded. But this only serves to remind me of how boring and mundane writing associated with bureaucracy really is.

More than anything it highlights what happens when you force yourself to do more of the thing that you want to do in life. In a past job I was heavily criticised for not having put pen to paper, for not writing about a project that I was involved in. I wasn’t sure what happened, but the climate in academia is not always a friendly one, and I think my voice got stuck somewhere. I look at photos of myself during that period and realise that I was 15kg heavier than I am now. And I never smiled. And I certainly didn’t write.

It’s not just a matter of typing away, there is an explosion of writing happening and we bloggers, we Tweeters, we essayists and academic writers are all joining the conversations, contributing our own thoughts in various forums for consumption by avid readers – yes you have to be an avid reader if you want to write, but that’s for another post. And writers don’t know how their product, how their ideas, how their creations will be consumed, or where, or when, or in how much depth. They don’t know if their materials will be referred to elsewhere, whether their ideas will stimulate more thinking on topics, whether they will offer clarification or lead to new vistas of thinking about how we live in the world. This is unknown, but exciting and I love that I too have made contributions to this world of thought and inspiration.

Go on, write something…

Photo credit: http://wholeselftherapy.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/journal-writing-me.jpg

Identity on the Internet


Identity it seems, is fluid and changeable and depends on a lot of things. How do you see yourself? How do you WANT to see yourself? Where is your family of origin?  What sort of groups do you belong to? And what about the family you’ve created for yourself? Who do you hang out with? What sort of work do you do? What are you studying? What are you learning to become? Or even, what hand has fate dealt you, if that’s what you believe? And the most important question, and one that no one really asks outright, but clearly this forms the basis of what we really want to know about each other these days – how do you choose to present yourself?

If the Rachel Dolezal saga has taught us anything, it is certainly that her identity dilemma is not a symptom of the present age, but has been radically transformed by it. The immediate dissemination of the knowledge shared by her parents about her original(?) identity created the kind of transference of knowledge that anthropologists used to call diffusion, very characteristic of knowledge exchange in the era of the internet where everyone, everywhere finds out at once. It seemed that the whole world was shocked, horrified, and in disbelief that someone who was white would seek to represent themselves as black.  Alternatively, there was also support for this position.

Aside from the inherent racism that these sentiments contain, Rachel Dolezal’s choice of identity and how she chose to present herself in her daily life highlights the fluidity of identity through time, space and culture. Is black still black and white still white? Or has this case pointed to the social and cultural categorisation that identity represents?  What about the essential reality asociated with identity (if there is such a thing) and can this be transformed by culture, by an adoption or appropriation of culture?  Is Rachel Dolezal the first person to adopt another identity in the way that she did? I don’t think that, as we all transform and change ourselves throughout our lives. Clearly the issue at stake here related to the tensions inherent in the power relations between black and white in America and indeed point to the same tensions globally.

I am not a scholar of whiteness studies and cannot offer more of a comment than this, but I am intrigued about the ability of Rachel Dolezal to ‘choose’ blackness, much as we choose a partner, a city to live in, a career, a job and a set of values represented through our social, political and economic choices.

Dolezal herself raises the issue of identity construction as reported here: ‘She admits that the controversy, especially the timing of it, caught her off guard. But her hope is that some good comes out of it, if it changes how some people think about identity. “The discussion is really about what it is to be human,” Dolezal said. “And I hope that that really can drive at the core of definitions of race, ethnicity, culture, self-determination, personal agency and, ultimately, empowerment.”’ http://edition.cnn.com/2015/06/16/us/washington-rachel-dolezal-naacp/

All of this debate is intriguing especially when held alongside contemporary social movements, such as the training associated with modern leadership that make claims about authenticity.  Authenticity stands as the leadership sine que non, at least at the moment, to which all knowledge about how to be a good leader is subsumed. To be authentic, to be real, even to be flawed carries with it the badge of the honest, real, leader. To be found out somehow as false within this, is to fail. So if authenticity is at stake as a value, how do we deal with the dilemma of authenticity that Rachel Dolezal represents? Did she not also have a leadership role in her work as a tutor/lecturer at university?  Do we believe what she claims about her identification with black culture and feeling that she too is black as evidence of authenticity? Or is this far too much of a stretch and a betrayal to the lived experience of blacks in America?  Alternatively, understanding the fluid nature of groups, identity and belonging, do we accept her claim of sharedness?

This is a dilemma that I cannot resolve. However it points me to issues of representation that people experience within their everyday lives, and about how identity can be adopted, modified, reworked, even invented and then presented. If the complaint of the modern era is disengagement, is this not partly due to the compartmentalisation of one’s identity? Is a work persona different to the authentic self that you live in your home and everyday life? Can an identity be authentic and be hidden?

We all carry truths about ourselves that may be shared or disclosed but only within certain sets of circumstances, or with certain groups of people with whom we make claims of having a shared history, a set of shared experiences, a shared sense of belonging and hence a shared identity. The ability to keep aspects of one’s self private in this way does not necessarily point to a problem with one’s identity or an inauthenticity, but may instead be part of a lifeplan to care for oneself. I think here of twelve step programs and Alchoholics Anonymous, or other programs where full names and full identities are not necessary for belonging. A shared culture of dependence, of shame, of falling, hitting rock bottom and redemption through a program of shared stories leads to the development of these strength-based communities who rely on the private identity of dependence and the shared journey of recovery for membership.

But what about our identity on the internet? The recent murder in Melbourne of a high profile AFL football coach allegedly by his son highlighted how identities are created, or rather manufactured from fractured pieces of information available electronically. Journalists attempting to create a picture of the alleged murderer highlighted parts of his prolific online diarising, online videos, his world travels and search for an authentic identity, and it seems most importantly details could be gleaned from his now publicised Amazon wish list,

“His Amazon reading wish list fluctuates from titles like Man’s Search for Meaning, to Building Wealth One Step at a Time, and Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How it Can Help you Find – and Keep – Love”
http://www.smh.com.au/national/walshs-nomad-son-spoke-of-fathers-iron-will-20150703-gi4q9b.html

… when we think about how wish lists are constructed, by hitting the ‘add to wish list’ button available on many online bookstores, can we really suggest that the titles contained there tell us anything very much, anything meaningful at all about the identity of the person who clicked the ‘add’ button? What would any of us look like if our identity were attached to our wish lists? I’m pretty sure that mine would look very expensive, as my wish lists contain only the outrageously priced books that I will never be able to afford to own, but will anyone really pick up on that?

The internet also offers the construction of new identities for authors in much the same way that ‘Anonymous’ or pseudonyms used to function in the print era to protect the identity of both the famous and infamous, or even the sex of the writer. In the same vein, we can now present ourselves as ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’, The [insert adjective] [insert noun]’ or a cute reduced handle on Twitter, or as an anonymised group or page on Facebook, or Tumblr, or with a pseudonym to protect our identity on Instagram and many other forms of social media, not even counting the ones where people try to hook up.

If I could rebaptise myself, would I call myself ‘The Anxious Anthropologist’? Probably not, but would you even find my work if I didn’t tell you something about who I was, what I was trying to write about and what existential state motivates me if I were to simply use my own name?

In academia you trade on your name, people search your work by your name, they quote you by name, attach theories to your name, copy practices ascribed to you and your name, hold discussions and tutorial groups to discuss your work undertaken in your name, and so it seems counter intuitive in many ways to adopt a pseudonym when representing oneself on the internet if you belong to, or aim to belong to and be read by an academic audience. Not everyone does this and there are plenty of websites and blogs set up by people who have become the personification of their product: geography, history, politics, anthropology, writing, all the isms… However, some people do trade on their own name, and I would suggest that this is because they are probably secure enough in their positions, in their disciplines and in their writing to do so. I’m sure that plenty of examples to the contrary exist though as well, which points to the irony of the internet: that both can and do exist at the same time.

So, what does this all come back to? Where can you represent yourself as whole, as complete, as the sum of all your parts? Where can you present yourself, your ideas, thoughts and writings to an audience who will accept the disparate parts that make up your identity? Is personhood a salvo of competing selves? How can we be complete, whole and real in the age of the internet? Or is it silly to imagine that this is what’s required at all, when really, if I’m reading your thesis on gender relations, do I really care about your personal history of alcoholism? Or would this knowledge of your personal history add a depth to your writing and hence my understanding of your perspectives were this public? This is true of so many ‘selves’ that we probably all hold within us.

How to reconcile all of this still remains a mystery to me. Comments welcome please.

Photo credit: http://img.wonderhowto.com/img/14/96/63458281265816/0/remove-your-online-identity-ultimate-guide-anonymity-and-security-internet.1280×600.jpg

How can you lead at work when your power has been taken away?

There is an inbuilt problem with all forms of leadership training. It doesn’t matter which school, which philosophy, which era you’re dealing with, if you’re working with women and if 1 in 4 of those women have a history of sexual abuse (which, according to national statistics they do), then there is a problem with your theoretical approach if it doesn’t take into consideration the powerlessness associated with sexual trauma, women’s attempts to grow through this and the effects that this has on work performance, including the ability to take up the mantle of leadership at work.

Leadership training encompasses a variety of approaches, and often starts early with girls and boys encouraged to adopt representative and leadership roles at school through a number of avenues, including student representative councils, captaincy and heads of sporting teams and the school. The education environment mirrors the later workforce through the promotion and early adoption of leadership philosophies by sending children to mega events at stadiums to hear about leadership from iconic practitioners and embodiments of excellence in leadership from earlier generations. Youth leadership is also fostered through a number of civic, religious, sporting and state organisations with a similar bent on encouraging separation from the pack and building future leaders.

Within the workforce leadership training is endemic. Workplace trainers, specialised consultants, universities and the public sector all offer forms of leadership training and encourage staff to undertake sometimes protracted courses which can last over a period of months as workers fresh from earnest training sessions are missioned to return to their workplaces to put in place some of their freshly honed leadership skills newly learned in order to reflect on the outcome of this in future leadership training sessions.

But who is all this aimed at? To the middle managers? To the upcoming trainees? To those with the sparkle of promise? Are they men? Or women? What happens if you don’t cut it in this regard at work, will you be overlooked and not have your name put down on the list for leadership training? And who determines whether you’re leadership material or not? And lastly, what about the self-promoters that just put themselves down for training sessions to craft and fine tune their leadership potential, because well, they’re always putting their names down for things…

Part of the trouble with this paradigm is the question of whether leaders are born or made. Clearly the industry promoting education, courses and training works from the premise that leaders are made and not born. And therein lies the problem: lots of women are unaccustomed to leadership roles, often not through choice but through circumstances, adverse life experiences and plain old sexism. And that’s before we get to the problem of histories of sexual assault. If you’ve suffered from sexual assault your power is taken away from you. You lose the ability to trust those around you and it’s very hard to put into place and embody the very values that leadership often requires.

Not everyone can wear their heart on their sleeves easily in this way, by professing their status, to mark themselves as imperfect, yet management and leadership manuals will tell you that in an effort to be an authentic and respected leader, you need to do just this. I’m not referring here to histories of abuse, but these too can be included here and are by some women.  You must offer up an imperfection because human nature is such that people will just make stuff up about you and so the theory goes, you might as well give them something because it’s better (and more manageable) than anything that they can make up.

So these days as workers we wear our soiled identities at work with pride. This is the school of authenticity, and authenticity in leadership is highly prized. This is an endearing state in which leaders are modelled on the greatest leaders known to humanity: flaws make leaders human.  There is an honesty, a humility, a frailty and an earnestness about being flawed, being real. And it’s very attractive.  Authenticity is the hipster beard of leadership training.

Authenticity is but one of a number of theories about leadership: we have models of excellence in leadership from the military, from those who think you can have it all by instigating effective habits, we not only have leaders, we have great leaders, quiet leaders, leaders on the line, leaders modelled on leaders from last century (and the one before), tribal leaders, technical leaders, high altitude and inspirational leaders, grateful leaders, servant leaders, wise leaders, principled leaders, values-driven leaders, spiritual leaders and transformational leaders. Where I wonder, is the tome on had-the-life-sucked-out-me-when-I-was-young-leaders? I did spy a volume on bad leaders and wonder if this is a joke (because hey, they’re really good leaders) or whether they’re just bad, in which case, why write a book about them?

For women who are quiet, who lack self-confidence, why are shy, who may be either introverted or extroverted in their social interactions it’s hard enough to play the confidence game in work cultures. But if on top of this women are suffering from the long term and lingering effects of sexual assault in childhood, with a legacy of having suffered the abuses of power, abuses of trust, exploitation by those who profess to care for them, boundary violations, and succumbed to the threats involved in maintaining secrets on fear of death and a misplaced, yet protective loyalty towards the very perpetrators of abuse, well, it’s not a level playing field is it? And we’re talking about one in four women here.  The echoes of this are mirrored in the present.

The trouble with child sexual assault is that the dynamics never really go away. They continue to be felt in far reaching and unanticipated ways as women negotiate their way through their everyday lives, and this includes work. A new manager starts work and asks you for something and you respond in a familiar pattern of subservience and wonder why? Someone startles you at work and you recoil as if you’re about to be hit. Disclosures on the news about the Royal Commission into Institutional Child Abuse cause an abreaction, unusual behaviour and cause you to want to flee. You always seem to take on a lower role than you know you’re capable of, because you’re not able or willing to subject yourself to the stresses involved in taking on more.

Glass ceilings speak to the overt sexism that denies women opportunities to progress but there are far more subtle ceilings that need to be broken through in order for women to really flourish at work. And leadership roles, leadership training and all the insights, benefits and rewards that accompany this are part of this.

The seductiveness of leadership training and its potential rewards in leadership may not be available to all. However there may be a group of women at work who could benefit from all that leadership training has to offer, and in turn would benefit the workplaces to which women are attached. If leadership is part of the road to self-actualisation, then the lessons inherent within leadership training are desirable, even essential for women in the workplace with private histories of sexual assault that prevent them from becoming fully empowered both in their work and in themselves.

Just imagine it.

Image from: http://blog.nus.edu.sg/wpla/files/2013/02/Leadership-1wr0gqz.jpg