Featured Reviews

David Dark – We Become What We Normalize [Feature Review]

David DarkLetting Our Loves Overcome Our Fears

A Feature Review of

We Become What We Normalize: What We Owe Each Other in Worlds That Demand Our Silence
David Dark

Hardcover: Broadleaf Books, 2023
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake

We all know that moment. We see something wrong and have a brief time to speak up. At our worst, we’re silent; other times we act with what writer David Dark would describe as reactivity, a thoughtless flight in shame. As difficult and risky as it can be to speak out, whether in a small social group or on a broader stage, we can find ways to do so. For Dark, we must, because not responding properly poses a threat to our very selves. In his new book We Become What We Normalize, the author looks at the causes of our silence and the systems that run on often hidden but unholy power. He wants us to speak like prophets in a difficult age.

The book takes a bit to get going, but stick with it. Dark uses a casual tone throughout, and he can sound at times as if he’s thinking through a given concept, but as he proceeds, it becomes clear that these are well developed arguments presented if not conversationally, at least intimately. His personal examples that open the book introduce us to Dark as much as to his thought, but once the wheels grip the road, he moves quickly and strongly. He has a clear objective for the book, “to set down what I’d like to think of as my developing understanding of the reigning deceptions, within and without, in our heady but sometimes hopeful present” – and he applies it first to himself as part of a process. By the time he works out his ideas, he constructs productive possibilities for difficult times.

Dark explains, “We become what we sit still for, what we play along with, and what we abide even as we hold on to what we have (or think we have)” (26). When we stand aside for moral abjection, we don’t simply witness it or allow it. We become complicit in it and, in doing so, we become inherently tied to the very act in which we silently participate. The point has an Augustinian ring to it, with a twist (James K.A. Smith would say you are what you love), further developing concepts about how our attention and our loves – and now our fears – can affect who we are on some sort of ontological level.

That argument adds a new level to questions about when and how we should speak up. The typical arguments rely on questions of justice and ethical behavior. Dark wouldn’t shy away from that aspect of the conversation (looking over his career, one gets the sense that Dark wouldn’t shy away from many honest conversations), but his insights expand the main point. In a moment of moral crisis, you are responsible not just for abstract ideas of “justice” or “right,” or even just for your fellow humans (both important concepts), but also for your own spiritual well-being. As he says when discussing the bystander effect, “If the price of admission within my peer group is the frequent suppression of my own conscience, I wish to assert that the price is too high” (30). We’ve all heard Nietzsche’s old adage that when you hunt monsters, you should be careful not to turn into one. Dark might add a corollary: Whoever watches monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.

Knowing you should intervene in a situation and knowing when and how are separate issues. Dark sees great importance in arguing not against people but against systems. Throughout the book he remains careful to distinguish between institutions and the people within the institutions. In that regard, he creates a metaphor that, once it’s made clear, makes great sense: the “robot soft exorcism”. The book suffers a little when Dark first brings up the idea. Although its strength lies largely in its simplicity, the metaphor would be more helpful more quickly if Dark just spelled out his idea, rather than work it out through a series of examples and musings. When Dark gets to his description, he talks about it like this,

“The robots are concentrated forms of human effort, whether reactive, responsive or something in between. They are akin to what the apostle Paul referred to as principalities and powers” (106). The idea at times sounds like a tangible and wieldy approach to the issue that builds on Walter Wink’s work. It also helps us separate flesh and blood people from principalities. We can think of the robots as having people inside them, driving them, but as beings utterly distinct. Society needs robots – our institutions that help organize life – but they can turn into something that runs away from itself or becomes an idol to those inside them. Dark’s aphorism carries weight: “[A]n institution is a myth with a budget” (107-8). 

These systems have true functions, but they often become something else, with money and power behind it. At that point, they can feel untouchable.

The idea of a “soft exorcism” stays a little foggy. Much of it involves naming and calling out the robots. This prophetic action can help reveal truth and create a better culture. In short, we are to “[f]ight the system. Love the people. Name what’s happening” (172).  Some of this action involves freeing ourselves, helping us to “see, now, and understand our own situatedness, overcoming the myth of critical detachment” (113). With that start, our freedom allows us to do the difficult work of dismantling these systems/powers/robots while maintaining respect for the humans inside them, opening the possibility for a more just future. “Exorcisms,” Dark writes, “have a way of heightening the awareness of all involved parties” (115). Bringing truth to light serves all concerned.

Dark names a few robots, some more or less malevolent than others. He dedicates a full chapter to one of the most prominent in contemporary US culture, which he names “White Supremacist Antichrist Poltergeist.” It’s unclear why this robot is also a ghost, and how this “antichrist within the poltergeist” exactly fits into the larger robot metaphor, but Dark writes well on this topic in its discrete setting (92). Whiteness as a construct serves as the ideal example for his larger argument. He says, “Whiteness is a way of not seeing, saying, or listening. A form of group denial thought up, set up, and armed to the teeth for centuries” (85). The concept of whiteness in the US is a pervasive and controlling influence, and the robot/antichrist of it has become an idol. Naming the idol exposes it, prompting its defenders to rush to its cause, so the central idea is to bring out the truth while respecting the people (who are in but are not the robot).

To maintain that level of respect, Dark considers his own changing ideas, noting, “I’m a process, and so are you” (84). We’re all in motion, changing and growing, which is part of why understanding our own “situatedness” becomes so critical in speaking with others. We recognize various contexts we move within and the challenge we have in seeing our own strictures (and thanks to the people who lovingly expose those binds for us). With the right attitude, metaphor, and heart, we can embrace the challenges of speaking truth to power (or to robots or poltergeists), struggling forward together. As Dark says, “May our loves overcome our fears” (191).

Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.

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