Time for leaders to admit error

What happens when lens and voice collide? Every human has both a lens to see life and a voice to describe life. Often as a breath, lens cultivates meaning which cultivates voice. It’s something inherent.

But is it healthy?

Just recently, I had the urge to re-read a short story by the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Written in 1892, “The Yellow Wallpaper” has always been full of intrigue for me.

I first read the story as a senior in high school for my AP English course. Following in the wake of painful heartbreak as well as peer-to-me bullying, my lens was that of liberation. My emotional state carried heavy weight as I looked upon the story’s husband and doctor with contempt.

In college, I studied the story once again. This time, I was newly married and trying to understand my role as wife. With that lens in place, it was hard to balance my desire to be a good wife with the implied danger of a submission that so obviously trapped and destroyed an imaginative woman.

When I read the story last week, I recognized the narrator’s depression right away. Her plight brought out my empathy, having recently walked a similar path. Struggling with depression is hard. And lonely. And husband and doctor, while only doing what he had been taught in regard to women and depression, broke her spirit. I don’t believe he did it on purpose. But his disregard—in the name of medicine and culture—pushed her past despair and into madness. While I now understand his behavior, I cannot look the other way, nor excuse it.

So which evaluation is correct? They all are, depending on what lens I look through.

In a nutshell, I just applied a literary analysis called reader-response criticism. It is not widely used in academia because of the broad scope of opinions it can exude. I happen to like the ability of using lens to respond to literature, but I understand the intellectual hesitancy.

It can be confusing to separate fact and opinion. Social media is a prime example of unfiltered use of reader-response criticism, particularly Facebook. What has struck me most recently about lens-based opinion is that of the current state of affairs in Kansas.

Kansas schools are the center of debate once again. The courts have ruled over and over that the Legislature needs to equitably fund schools, and current distribution is unconstitutional. And over and over, that ruling has been largely ignored.

How frustrating that must be to the people charged with upholding the integrity of the constitution. Frustrating enough that the court felt it necessary to play a serious hand—a school shutdown if action isn’t taken.

People are taking sides in the ruling, and lots of opinions are being tossed around in op-ed pieces and on social media.

Some things I’ve read have left me seething and shaking.

Other things have left me nodding and amen-ing.

But more often than not, I’ve pictured Adam and Eve taking a bite out of the forbidden fruit.

“Who told you that you were naked?” the Lord God asked the man. “Have you eaten from the tree whose fruit I commanded you not to eat?”

The man replied, “It was the woman you gave me (emphasis mine) who gave me the fruit, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God asked the woman, “What have you done?”

“The serpent deceived me,” she replied. “That’s why I ate it.”

The age-old blame game. Adam blamed God and Eve. Eve blamed the serpent. Bet you can guess what lens they spoke from.

I’ve wondered what might have happened if Adam and Eve would have said, “We messed up. We made a bad choice. We’re sorry.”

But that’s not the story.

Could it be this time, though? Could we learn something from history and stop the blame game? Before we post derogatory, blame-shifting articles on Face­book, could we check our lens?

Our state is in trouble. Our schools are in trouble.

We need leaders willing to step up and step out of the blame-game. We need leaders and Kansans to realize that all areas of our government are necessary for checks and balances.

It’s time for our Kansas leadership to say, “We messed up. We made a bad choice. We’re sorry.”

And then we can all move forward with a fresh lens and a big voice.

Malinda Just has been writing her column for the Free Press since 2008. She can be reached at malinda@justs.org.