I didn’t know that the little icon next to a web address is called a favicon until mid-August when I set up this website. I have always noticed these symbols but never thought about how they got there. Needless to say, it took me more than just a few minutes to get the favicon (as pictured here at the left) onto this website.* Using the Faviconer website was smooth sailing. But then I had to figure out how to put my favicon.ico file in my theme folder using FTP clients. I had to learn how to use filezilla before I could even get started. The reality was that I had no idea what these nouns and phrases even referenced. I would go to the wordpress help sites and then have to google each sentence to find out what they meant. Nothing was intuitive. All alone in my house, I kept working at adding a favicon until I got it, hoping to accumulate yet more proof for my more digitally resistant students that if I can do this, really anyone can.
This story might seem rather silly and irrelevant, but I present my pursuit of a favicon here as a lens into how I think about self-esteem and the refusal to give in. What might seem even stranger here is that I connect these issues of self-esteem and perseverance to Sylvia Wynter’s work and the grounds on which she has always helped me to challenge the unhealthy, dominant logic of liberalism.
At moments like my favicon creation, I do not label or understand myself as unskilled, bad at something, deficient, or remedial. I simply did not know how to add a favicon right then, nothing more or less, and I did not attach any meaning to that. This seems like such a trivial and small thing, but really it isn’t. I say this because, as a teacher, I can see when students begin to run a script in their heads that they are dumb or slow when they bump up against something unfamiliar or challenging. What I suppose I got from Professor Wynter is that these moments require more than the usual protocols of self-esteem workshops, confidence boosts, and self-help guides. You simply need to forego a system of thinking rooted in liberalism that makes you think your success or challenge is about YOU and just go on ’bout your business. No drama, no second-guessing, no frustration.
When I talk about liberalism, I mean the classical ideas about the individual, equality, democracy, and meritocracy: the idea that if you work hard, the fruits of your labor will shine like a pot of gold; the idea that individuals are the key foundation of everything and so laws and institutions exist solely to cater to the desires and needs of single individuals. Of course, the history of the collision of liberalism and Western empire is long and complex but a central axis is still: opportunities are everywhere and so it is the individual’s job to decide which opportunities to pursue and how and when. This means there is never a focus on equality of outcomes, actual social histories of oppression, or perpetrators of inhumanity. Why would there be? It’s all about YOU and YOU alone. This also means that if you are poor, then it is your own fault because you did not pursue the opportunities that everyone has; you are, in sum, cognitively/genetically deficient. Whatever you don’t have or don’t do well, it is your own fault: you did something wrong, because, after all, life gave you nothing but positive chances to get whatever you wanted and needed. With this kind of mindset and system of being, it becomes easy to see how someone sitting alone on a computer making mistakes with favicon uploading can simply think they are stupid. It is what liberalism trains you to feel and think, regardless of whether this represents any reality. This is the moment that I think many of my students often face: where they doubt themselves. Schooling is,of course, the prime example of where the virus of liberalism can be caught. Liberalism provides that thought and feeling of inadequacy as central to what school actually achieves.
Of course, students are not only up against liberalism today, but also neoliberalism. I use neoliberalism to focus on the uber-glitz of free markets, choice, and efficiency. So if you ARE good at getting that favicon up there, you are supposed to use that to make money and more money. This is success and this is a new aim of schooling. Institutions of higher education are expected to have and market themselves with the ability to turn YOU into a consumable product. I think Professor Wynter has most brilliantly called this the social creation of a species that has been determined solely as homo-economicus.
At the end of the day, liberalism and neoliberalism are not inevitable ways of being that we must simply resign ourselves to. They are simply one choice amongst many. It seems to me, with my favicon generation as just one example, that you can go so much further without liberalism where there is no doubt that as a Human, in the way Professor Wynter means it, communal achievement is already there!
*My favicon is the adinkra symbol for ANANSE NTONTAN (“spider’s web”). It is a symbol of wisdom, creativity, and the complexities of life and makes its nod to Ananse the spider, a well-known trickster character.