I'm teaching Texas Government at the moment. For an exam, I gave my students the option of discussing whether it is possible for Texans to communicate better.
Before asking that, I had spoken in class about what it means to be Texan, reading with them this really thoughtful and thorough post by Steve Lovelace. His writing struck a nerve. Everyone was sure being Texan wasn't simply a matter of being born here. They believed it had to do with culture, values, and experience. But that's where things started getting ambiguous. Being "tough" was mentioned frequently, but do other states teach their residents to be weak?
Moreover, questions of identity are adjacent to questions of media. We played a video game in class about this. How does one moderate content for a social media site? Our language has not adapted to our new reality: content moderation sounds like the furthest thing from learning to be Texan. But once you're moderating, say, what Twitter used to be, you're actually running a bulletin board which the entire world uses to communicate with each other. The decisions you make decide whether people get help in emergencies, whether political movements live or die, whether certain identities can be expressed or not. A social media platform may be a private entity, but in truth, it is the practical instantiation of the First Amendment. American values show whether they can or cannot govern through it.
Obviously, I can't expect someone to isolate an innovative social media practice that worked and call it the future of democracy. I can simply ask if Texans can communicate better and see what happens. I think the students did well. They talked about myths and culture conflicting with newer technologies. They talked about how being Texan itself is a form of communication.
I realized, reading their answers, that I needed to answer this question for myself. Can Texans communicate better? What is at stake if they don't?
Can Texans communicate better?
I lived in Dallas 20 years and felt like an outsider the whole time. Some of this was my fault. There were years I didn't have a car or a stable place to stay; I was angry and insecure and let people know it; I did a lot with books and writing but didn't communicate well.
Some of it absolutely wasn't. I dealt with bullies and racists who routinely broke other people; social spaces for finding new people and building trust were rare; when I did things that were valuable, I was put down for them.
I would love to tell you that I was unsuccessful in Dallas because I needed an attitude adjustment. The truth is that when people were grateful to me for helping make a difference in their lives, I still felt like dirt. I don't think a lack of self-esteem that deep is an individual failing. If we're celebrating people because they hurt others, then by extension we are marginalizing the helpers and anyone who wants to help.
All of this is to say "Can Texans communicate better?" is a personal question with high stakes. There are Texans who will insist nothing is wrong, that we don't need to talk more. That prisoners and guards dying from excessive heat is permissible; that the legislature paying caretakers poverty wages is the cost of social work; that it is okay to lock kids in jail cells for 23 hours a day.
Some of these Texans do not mean badly. They're just a bit dazzled by a certain Texas archetype. Something like the rugged cowboy who is tall, strong, silent, and tough. Able in things like roping steer and defending his property from bandits or the government. Enjoys country music, good barbecue, and can dance. Why does someone so self-sufficient need to be able to talk? Why do they need to care for people in trouble? After all, our rugged cowboy type is so self-sufficient his social skills are built-in. You just have to go to the right honky-tonk to two-step with him.
Tradition and mass media often combine to accentuate our ignorance. The cowboy has evolved in the popular mindset. He probably helps flip houses now while brewing his own beer. These aren't bad things! But if they're all there is–if we're watching the same shows and listening to the same podcasts over and over–then it fosters an individualism so out-of-control that there's no state anymore. We end up with Texans and no Texas.
Also, a funny thing happens when some people are built into hulking images we are told to praise or worship and others are dehumanized. The former become hopelessly shallow, barely distinguishable from stock characters on a TV show. Traditions in these circumstances don't produce thoughtful, moral people who are ready for difficult situations. They start producing people who are perfect for a dating profile and exactly 2 weeks of dating. Real human beings have to be able to see humanity, and that is a work I can only begin to outline.
So, yes, Texans have to communicate better in order to see each other. This is a moral imperative. There are real needs and they have to be heard and appreciated. How do we get there? We can't just say "social media," because there is plenty of social media and still not enough help for those that need it. We need a particular kind of media, one that looks for others to shine the spotlight on them. A media that works for inclusiveness instead of the opposite.
This requires more than saving local and regional media, both of which are in steep decline. We've got to think on a fundamental level about how media operates. In sum, they're chasing fandom right now. They go after what's trending, the "creator" or the "star," and they're rarely highlighting other voices. In this, they're mimicking social media, where everyone hopes to be retweeted by Taylor Swift or something, where everyone hopes to go viral responding to someone who has already gone viral.
We have to break that cycle, as it's vapid in the extreme. We've got to get back the ethos of public media, of media that serves the public. That ethos entails being profoundly counter-cultural. You've got to document voices others may not want to hear and try to explain their importance. You've got to think about success or failure in terms of how you're serving your audience. And that gets weird because media that looks for other voices takes risks. It's funny to think about: the cowboy archetype is the least risky vision of Texas there is. That cowboy rests eternal.
As for me, I'm realizing that sometimes, the message is the medium. I can imagine ways I could have communicated better in Dallas. I don't know that I would have been able to address all the needs I saw. Sometimes, you yourself are the risk, and others have to work to accept you.