Penny Arcade, Isms, Phobias, and the Zone of Proximal Development

This is going to be one of those posts where I take apparently unrelated things and talk about them together because that’s how my brain works.

There have been a lot of kerfuffles about race, gender, sexuality and privilege lately. From Paula Deen, Exodus International, Kickstarter’s “seduction manual”, Tony Jones’ fiasco, and Penny Arcade’s transphobic episode, there has been an epidemic of foot-in-mouth disease and ensuing apologies. I’m not saying these things are all equivalent. Some of the offenses were worse than others, and some of the apologies better. I’m just noting the trend.

One recurring pattern in this trend is that some of the criticism has been counterproductive. By this I mean the criticism didn’t prompt a change of heart, but caused the target of the criticism to dig in their heels, take on an embattled mindset and even become a subject of pity. People who thought Tony Jones’ post was terrible ended up defending him from @EmergentDudeBro. People who had criticized Penny Arcade for their “Dickwolves” jokes found themselves defending Mike Krahulik when his family was threatened on twitter. Weird bedfellows everywhere.

I’m not trying to create a false equivalence here where calling someone a bigot is just as bad as speaking or acting in bigoted ways. Nor do I think we all just need to play nice, or that it is incumbent on injured people to control their emotions. It isn’t the responsibility of the oppressed to come alongside people of privilege and gently take our hands and guide us to right behavior. It’s perfectly legitimate just to shout “ouch!” (or whatever expletive variant you prefer) and hope that is adequate to prompt change.

All I am saying is that if the goal of criticism is to get someone to change, then there are better and worse ways of accomplishing this goal. Perhaps the total condemnation that characterizes a lot of progressive speech around race, gender, and sexuality isn’t the most helpful toward this goal. Nuance might be called for, not only because it is more truthful, but because it is more effective at reaching the very people we are criticizing.

This brings me to Early Childhood Education. My wife who works in Head Start and Preschool administration has taught me about something called the Zone of Proximal Development. The Zone of Proximal Development is defined as that area of mental or physical progress that is bounded at the lower end by what the child can accomplish independently, and at the upper end by what the child can accomplish with assistance.

As a teacher working with young children your goal is to help a child move further into their ZPD by a technique called “Scaffolding”. Scaffolding is setting up the environment to support the development of a skill by giving hints and clues, offering indirect help, providing examples, or giving them the necessary tools to practice. For example, providing writing implements and paper, letting them observe you use these tools, and even having them trace letters are ways to scaffold them toward basic writing skills. At the simplest level, an adult who offers a single finger to a toddler not quite able to walk independently is scaffolding that child – helping them move into their ZPD, from something they can already do without assistance (crawling & standing), to something they can’t quite do independently (walking).

I would like to suggest that our goal as progressives shouldn’t be to get everyone to the same end-point, but to encourage people to be moving into their Zone of Proximal Development. If I started this morning entirely ignorant of systemic racism in the prison-industrial complex and therefore spouting offensive things about people of color and criminal inclinations, people would be justified in calling me bigoted and all sorts of things, but it probably wouldn’t help me move into my ZPD. However, if this afternoon someone took the time to teach me about sentencing disparity between crack and cocaine in a way I can hear – I certainly won’t have eradicated racism from my heart, but it’s a good step.  That teacher would have scaffolded me into a higher level of discourse.

Mike Krahulik from Penny Arcade made some ignorant and offensive transphobic comments this week. A lot of people challenged him on twitter and he inappropriately escalated the situation. The next day he posted (with permission) a private email conversation between him and a transgender friend. Many have criticized this move as well, saying he doubled down on his ignorant gender comments and used this friend as a variant of the “I have a black friend” defense. Some have criticized the transgender friend in the email saying she was too obsequious. Perhaps this is true, but I would like to suggest that she accomplished what none of the people on twitter did, which was to actually move Mike into his ZPD.

Few people seem satisfied that Mike made enough progress, though he did issue a much more thorough apology later and donated $20,000 to the Trevor project. The question, though, is whether he would have made any progress if he hadn’t been scaffolded by people capable and willing to do that work rather than yell at him. (Once again I stress that this work cannot be considered an obligation of the oppressed – but it is definitely a possibility).

I wonder if we can’t stretch our imaginations to think of ways we can scaffold people in our lives toward more just attitudes. When we see or hear something offensive is there a response we could give that would lead to development rather than entrenchment? Are we willing to celebrate progress (even if it seems little and late), while still holding our highest ideals?

As we look at history the racist, sexist and phobic attitudes of even the most admirable persons stand out to us. Even great saints were flawed. None of us have arrived at the endpoint of the arc of justice. We all have a Zone of Proximal Development we need to be moving into and through. The question we should be asking ourselves and each other is not “are they as right as I think I am” but “are they improving?” Because a person capable of repentance has greater possibility than a person who, for the time being, has all the right opinions.