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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

What You See Is What You Get

Yesterday in my YA materials class we discussed humor, including Louise Rennison’s very Brit Angus thongs and full-Frontal Snogging. One running phrase in the book is 14-year-old Georgia Nicolson’s terror that she might be a lesbian, along with her hyper-dramatic projections that her (could she be a lesbian?) gym teacher is oggling her. This is all done in such a 14-year-old voice that the author plainly means it as raging stream of consciousness YA froth, not some actual view of sexual preference. But one student brought the larger question of why the fantasy/fear is that teachers whose own sexual preference is for their own sex are more likely to prey on young people? That reminded me of the Lavender Scare of the 1950s where hundreds of people were fired from the State Department on the grounds that they had, at some point in their lives, perhaps decades earlier, expressed sexual interest in a person of their own gender. Thus, the logic went, they were possibly subject to Soviet blackmail and should be fired. How many proven cases were there of the Soviets blackmailing a US govt. employee based on same-sex attraction?

Zero. Indeed the Soviets happily collected blackmail information on heterosexual affairs aplenty, yet that was not the narrative of the day. All of this brings me to this article in the Times: As the article explains, “One in five black boys and more than one in 10 black girls received an out-of-school suspension. Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers.” If there is a reigning belief among the administrators in a school that young black males are dangerous, that will be reflected in how they are — differentially — treated. To give one perhaps random anecdote, I know of a very liberal public school where three 5th graders organized a protest movement over what they considered to be unfair treatment during lunch hour. Almost as in a movie, one was white(ish), one was hispanic, one black. The school did not take kindly to the criticism, and one student was hauled into the principal’s office and threatened with disciplinary action. Can you guess which one?

I keep thinking about the Daniel Kahneman book — about the narratives we build quickly in our minds, and convince ourselves are true: the oggling gym teacher, the blackmailed State Department officer, the dangerous black male. Vicki Cobb skyped in to our Nonfiction class yesterday, and she described science as “replicable discovery”: if I do the same experiment you did and in the same way it will produce the same result. Maybe that is ultimately what we offer in nonfiction — an approach to knowledge that does not rely on the narratives we tell ourselves but challenges those fantasies, at all points, with evidence. Fiction can perhaps mirror our inner stories (wow, that is just like me). But nonfiction forces us to go beyond them (wow, I was wrong, I have to change my mind).

And that pointed to the even larger point of the categories of projection — the narratives all of us build which then have concrete results in the world