wholepeace

“I’ve Changed!”: Why expecting forgiveness for past bigotry is just another form of privilege.

In PeaceAble, Politics on February 11, 2019 at 12:50 pm

If you are a white person over the age of 30 in America (I’m trying to be generous here.) you need to accept, understand, acknowledge and learn to deal with the fact that you were raised in a culture that supported, even promoted, racism and white superiority as normal. It was normal for real estate agents to direct people of color away from white communities. It was normal for businesses to reject black job applicants. It was normal for advertising and film to make their heroes and heroines white; their servants, their inferiors, their attackers, their enemies non-white; it was normal to see things like blackface as harmless remnants of minstrel shows and the memory of performers like Al Jolson, and Amos and Andy. It was normal to see native Americans portrayed as either villainous or noble savages. It was normal to assume that non-whites were less intelligent, more violent, poorer, and generally less civilized than whites.
If you are a male of the same age you need to also accept, understand, acknowledge and learn to deal with the fact that you were raised in a culture that supported, even promoted, misogyny and male superiority as normal. It was normal to assume that a man would get paid for his work and a woman would not. It was normal to assume that when a woman was paid, she would be paid less than a man. “The weaker sex” was a normal thing to say about women. It was normal to expect that strong, virile men would be sexually active and non-monogamous, but that only immoral, wicked women would be. It was normal to believe that women were less intelligent, less mechanically inclined, less interested or credible in matters of politics or the world in general, and more suited to domestic duties than men. It was normal to believe that women were intended to serve men, not compete with them.
Because of these things, if you have always been a normal, ordinary white person, it is quite possible that you have, sometime in your life behaved in ways that reflected what that culture was teaching you. Perhaps you went to a Halloween party dressed in blackface, saying “yesiree, boss” as you shuffled along in too-big clothes with patches. Perhaps you went as an “Indian,” with leather fringed clothing and a feather in a head band, saying “kemo sabe” or using “me” instead of “I,” giving out “war whoops” as you did a “war dance” around the room. Perhaps you found it funny to dress up as Charlie Chan and pronounce your Rs like Ls. Perhaps you thought you were not affected by racism because you had some non-white friends or co-workers that you liked. Perhaps you told yourself that it wasn’t Malcolm X’s, or Muhammed Ali’s, or Martin Luther King’s race that was the problem, but their politics.
Because of what the culture had been teaching you since your birth, as a normal, ordinary male, it is quite possible that have, sometime in your life, behaved in ways that reflect the culture’s misogyny and chauvinism. Perhaps you found it disturbing that a woman was put in a position of authority over you. Perhaps you thought that putting a woman on a pedestal was the same as respecting her. Perhaps you thought that being able to seduce a lot of women into sex meant that you “love women.” Perhaps you thought that getting a woman drunk and having sex with her was consensual. Perhaps you thought that a woman you met in a bar should have expected to have sex with you. But you wanted your wife to be a virgin the first time you took her to bed, and you vowed to “kill” any boy who tried anything with your daughter.
If any of this is true, perhaps you don’t see that it should be a big deal now. It’s unfair that there should be consequences now for how things were then. You’ve changed. Times have changed. All that was a long time ago. You apologize, explain, seek redemption and forgiveness, what else can you do?
The argument has always been that human beings are products of their time and their culture, so we should excuse their past behaviors and only judge them on who they are now. The problem with that is that who we are now are products of our own past, and that includes our past prejudices, our past behaviors, and our past privileges. And the people who were subjected to who we were then are also products of that past. Expecting forgiveness is just another expression of the normative privilege we have always enjoyed.
And here’s another thing. The normative rules haven’t really changed all that much. Racism persists. Misogyny persists. Religious bigotry persists. Xenophobia persists. Homophobia persists. Fascism persists. The class system persists. And we are still raising generations of white men who believe that they are the normative measure of all things, who are being taught that cultural change is an assault against them, not just culturally, but individually. They are being taught to fear the change, to see themselves as the victims.
So, what can we do?
We can embrace our own past and learn from it. We can learn to empathize with the other, to see our past in the context of the other’s experience of it, not just our own. We need to become who we say we are now not in spite of our past, but because of it. We need to take personal responsibility for cultural privilege.
We need to shift our focus from proclaiming that we support progressive change in spite of our past to understanding how and why we can support progressive change because of our past. It’s not enough to apologize for past sins and promise that you are a different person today. You need to be able to explain how those sins changed you then, are changing you still, and how they inform your actions today. And if you can’t do that, then expect neither forgiveness nor redemption.
The truth is, it will be difficult for white men to present themselves as the champions of changing cultural norms that have benefitted them for a very, very long time.
Is that unfair? Is it more unfair than the historic injustices suffered by people of color and women?

All Grown Up

In No Particular Path, Uncategorized on December 31, 2018 at 9:11 am

The old man asked the child.
What do you dream of doing in your life, what would you like to be?

The child responded.
Do you mean when I grow up?

And the old man shook his head gently, but smiled, remembering.
Grow up? Why on Earth would you want to do that?
Listen to me. I have become old learning this.
Some day; at eighteen or twenty-five or forty or eighty years of age, perhaps; you may get up out of your bed, or linger wistfully over your breakfast, or stop halfway through chewing a bite of your sandwich, or see yourself mirrored in a darkened window, or sit alone in your chair, and suddenly see that you are grown up. And you will wonder, oh my god, when did that happen? You may even feel a bit of panic, wondering if you’re ready yet, or if it is already too late.
But the truth is that there is no time or place in life where you will be grown up. For growing up is the work of your life, not the end of it.
Choose well who and what you want to be today, do as well as you can what you want or need to do today, grow a little more today than you were yesterday; and you won’t have to think or worry about what you will be when you are as old as I am now. You will simply be what you have always been and what you have wanted to be.
Whatever you choose to do; whatever goals you set; whatever your accomplishments, large or small; whatever titles or labels you accumulate, and whether you wear them with pride or humility or uncomfortably or with regret; don’t let them trap you into being all grown up. Don’t let them define you, for definitions can become limits.

And the child looked sad then, and the old man wished, for just a moment, that he had not asked the question.

Why, the child asked, have you never told me this before now?

And, alone in his room, sitting in his chair, looking out the window at the new day, the old man sighed deeply. And a tear ran down his cheek.
Finally, he stood up. He put on his jacket, opened his door, and stepped outside. He turned around and looked for a moment at the walls within which he had been living for so long.
Today, the child said, I will be brave. Today I will do something new. Today I will stop being grown up.
And tomorrow I will, if I can, be whatever tomorrow offers me to be, and I will do whatever tomorrow brings me to do.
So, the old man, with the child guiding him, faced away from the walls and stepped into the world.

God, Biology and Choice: Perhaps I Simply Had to Write This

In No Particular Path on November 13, 2018 at 12:04 pm

It is possible that every choice we make is freely made at the moment we make it. This isn’t to say that our choices aren’t influenced by our biological make-up and our present physical conditions, our past experiences and knowledge, our perceptions, our psychological and emotional states, our beliefs and our relationships with others who are involved in the choice; but all those things are simply data we use in making a determination about our choices, not the choices themselves. And the degree of influence any one factor may exert at any moment will certainly vary. In the end, though, we choose, and the choice is ours to make.
Another possibility is that our choices aren’t choices at all, but are predetermined by the path set for us by a deity or deities. In that case, we are simply puppets of the divine, who is working out some plan beyond our influence or understanding. All the influences that may affect a free will choice would be part of the overall experience, but wouldn’t change the choice itself. We may ask ourselves why we chose as we did and what plan the divine is using us for, or why the divine has directed others to behave as they do; but the responsibility for the choice itself isn’t ours or anyone else’s. We also have to consider whether everything is predetermined: every triumph, every tragedy, every disaster and every celebration.
The third possibility is that our choices are biologically predetermined; we are genetically pre-programmed to behave in certain ways. In this case, there may be a certain randomness in the universe itself; the movements of the cosmos, for example, are events which may affect us, as are all the influences under free will, but our specific response to those influences at any one moment is predetermined by our biology and the biology of all our evolutionary and ancestral history. As with divine predestination, we have no personal responsibility for our choices, nor does anyone else; we are simply leaves tossed on the wind, vulnerable to the forces of nature, but unable to make a deliberate choice about what is happening to us. We can, if our biological make-up predisposes us to it, question how those forces led us to this place, but the questions and any answers we arrive at would simply be an extension of our biological predetermination.
It is also possible that we have some free choice, but it is limited. Either the divine or our biological nature gives us the ability to make choices, but only with regard to the details of the trajectory, not the trajectory itself. We have freedom to choose, but only within predetermined limits set for us according to our biological make-up or our assigned place in god’s plan.
In any event, the larger question, for me anyway, is “so what?” Does it really matter whether all this is “real” or not? If I walk out the door and decide to turn left rather than right, does it really matter in any practical way whether that choice was an event in the moment or a predestined action. I will, in any case, experience the action according to what I believe to be the reality. If I believe I am making the choice I will experience the process of consideration, weighing the relevant influences, thinking about the possible consequences, deciding on my course of action and acting. And while the discussion of the possibilities makes for a wonderful philosophical exercise, and is certainly useful as a way to try to understand what it means to be human, unless I am able to separate myself from my perceptions, it makes no difference.
In other words, there is really no practical sense in which the reality of free will or predestination changes my responsibility in this life for my actions.
Suppose I believe that everything I choose is predetermined. Then that belief would also be predetermined. If I then use that belief as a reason to leave my life to whatever happens, without trying to deliberately choose a course of action, telling myself that nothing I do is in my control, then I have a dilemma. The rest of the world may still assign credit or blame to me for my actions, and generate consequences based on that. I may not like the consequences, but really have no complaint, because all of this would have to be part of the same predetermined reality that I claim to believe in. If I believe that I have a choice, on the other hand, then I can certainly examine my choices to see if they fit some standard of ethics, morals, or logic; and use that to argue for their rightness.
In the same way, debate about god’s existence can make for an interesting exercise in trying to understand the nature of the universe and the place of humans in that universe, but my beliefs will be part of what creates my experience, and they will help to shape my choices, the consequences of those choices, and the direction of my path. I cannot, of course, no matter how devoutly I might wish it, impose my belief wholly onto anyone else and make them see the world as I see it, or expect them to act in the world according to my perceptions.
In other words, either god exists or does not. There are no other possibilities. The differences between beliefs are only in how we define god. Our beliefs are in our definitions and vice-versa. There are a great many ideas of god in which I do not believe; and I suspect that a great many people would not believe in my ideas of god. So what? We are all human beings, limited by our humanness to flawed perceptions of any god that might exist. And since our definitions and perceptions are limited and flawed, so are the choices we might make based on those perceptions. We can use our idea of god to explain our actions, but we cannot expect others to see things our way just because our beliefs are sincere.
If my actions lead to consequences that are harmful to others, it is unreasonable to assume that my religious beliefs and convictions are exculpatory. I am still responsible for my own actions in any practical interpretation of what that responsibility is. To come to any other conclusion would be to treat my religious beliefs as a form of mental illness (a conclusion to which far too many evangelical atheists are willing to leap), in which I would claim that I am not responsible for my actions because my god made it impossible for me to understand them, to make rational choices about them, to understand their consequences, and to choose to act any differently.
A belief in free will, the ability of humans to make choices as independent individuals, is necessary for any sense of morality, personal responsibility, ethics, and judgment. It is also, of course, the foundation of guilt, blame, shame, and regret. But it can be used, as well, for conscious change, for correction, for discipline, for redemption. Absent free will apology is just a mindless exercise, an illusion. Without free will, punishment is simply cruel and pointless. Without free will, we do not affect our existence, it affects us.
It doesn’t matter at all whether all of this is an illusion. It is within the illusion that we must live, by the very nature of the illusion itself and our limited ability as humans to perceive it (as opposed to theorize about it) or to act outside of it.

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