Archive for July, 2014|Monthly archive page

The Balance Myth

In PeaceAble on July 31, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Today I saw a Facebook meme that contained the following quote: “Every girl deserves a guy that can make her heart forget that it was ever broken.” The site it was linked to had added this comment: “And every man deserves a woman who accepts him for who he is and respects him for his character and not his net worth. Let’s keep it balanced.”
Now, quite apart from whether you agree with either quote, the posting illustrates a persistent problem in our contemporary media culture – the idea that if I say something supportive of one idea or belief or position on an issue or group, then I must immediately make a balancing statement about the opposite side, or I am somehow not being fair. This suggests two things with which I take issue.
First, it suggests that everything is bipolar, with rigid placements for good and bad, right and wrong, positive and negative. If I say something positive about women, I must also mean to say something negative about men. If I say something positive about my personal belief in god, I must mean to simultaneously say something bad about other beliefs. If I say something critical of Israel in its actions in Gaza, then I am required to say something critical about Hamas as well or I will be accused of hating Israel and being an apologist for its enemies.
These are, however, false dichotomies. It is possible for both sides of an issue to be right about some things and wrong about others; and to point out something good or bad about one side is not necessarily related to what is good or bad about the other. It can be simultaneously true that women as a group need something from men as a group and that men as a group need something from women as a group; but stating one without stating the other doesn’t change that. The two things aren’t even necessarily related. In the comment above, for instance, the male response doesn’t even address the issue raised by the original statement; unless we make the assumption that a man can’t be sensitive to a woman’s emotional needs unless she “respects his character.” I’m also not sure what that means. Do women not also need to be accepted for who they are and respected for their character? Are we still living with the idea that women want men for their money? Even if you believe in this idea of balance, the response doesn’t balance the original because it doesn’t address the issue raised. It’s as if I said I really like chocolate cream pie and you responded with, “yes, and lemon meringue deserves to be served, also.”
It also suggests that balance is nothing more than making sure we make equivalent statements. But some things don’t need to be said because they are generally understood as part of our cultural norm. This is the invisible privilege of the norm, and the fallacy of “reverse discrimination.” If, for example, we say that it is well past time for the election of a woman as President, do we really need to “balance” that by declaring that there are also a lot of men who are qualified? If we point out that Eric Cantor, who just lost his primary bid for re-election, is the only Jewish Republican in the Congress, do we need really need to point out that Ralph Hall, a Christian Republican, also lost his primary? In fact, was Hall’s religion even a footnote in most stories about his defeat? The most commonly mentioned of Hall’s traits was his age (91). Having mentioned that should I point out that younger men also lost primary votes? If I wish to make a statement about Black History Month, does “balance” require that I also say that white people have a history, too? There are some things which are so much a part of the norm that we have no need to bring them into the discussion. And talking about achievements outside the norm, therefore, is already providing balance.
Reverse Discrimination is the idea that, as historically disadvantaged groups gain greater power, acceptance and influence, anything they do to achieve those things is discriminatory against the historically advantaged norm. The problem with this is that discrimination – in its meaning as actions which create a disadvantage for others on the basis of their membership in a disadvantaged group – cannot be applied to the advantaged group because nothing the disadvantaged group is doing actually changes the advantaged and privileged status of the norm. One example of this can be seen in the recent #NotAllMen meme, which was a reaction to increasing awareness of the incidence of male perpetrated rape against women that gave rise to the #YesAllWomen hashtag. But even if it is true that not all men are rapists, or that some men are also raped (though more often by other men than by women), or that there are other problems men face that women do not; those things are simply irrelevant to the fact that virtually every woman has suffered some form of sexual harassment or violence, that 1 in 6 women have been attacked by a rapist, and that 9 out of 10 rape victims are female. And pointing out those facts does not discriminate against men.
Cultures generally change more slowly than the day-to-day reality of life within those cultures, and those who represent the norms in a changing culture become fearful of changes that might mean giving up some of the privileges, both visible and invisible, that they have come to see as their right. A male-dominant culture will resist changes that give women more power. A heterosexual culture will resist changes that give homosexuals greater status. A white-dominant culture will see advances by other races as threatening. A culture which defines itself by the tenets of a dominant religion will see the growth of other religions or of secularism as both unnatural and immoral. But the change comes anyway. A lot more can be accomplished in valuing every human being, in meeting the real challenges facing us, and in coping with change if we reject the idea that every statement about an issue must be qualified by some reference to an opposing idea, no matter how irrelevant or discredited.

Truth and Judgment

In PeaceAble on July 25, 2014 at 4:48 pm

We all do it. And when the people we do it to do it, we declare that it is a terrible thing and no one should ever do it. Perhaps it is simply a vestigial trait from our evolutionary past. Perhaps it is one of the things that make us unique in the animal world. Perhaps it is essential to our survival and perhaps it is the thing which may ultimately cause our extinction.
We judge.
Now let me clarify for a moment. Judging, as I mean it here, is not the same as assessing or evaluating. If we look at a person’s actions and perceive those actions to have some fault, and we can address that fault in terms of the action itself then we aren’t judging, we are assessing. An assessment or evaluation may be wrong, but we should be able to somehow express the basis for it. A judgment applies the standards of a personal moral code to the assessment and, simultaneously, to the person or entity whose actions we are assessing.
Moral codes are an essentially human trait. As far as we can reasonably tell, no other creature besides the human has or needs a moral code. But we do have and need one. Because humans have the capacity to ask abstract questions about things like purpose and motivation and intent; questions about possibilities and consequences; and questions about the nature of our own existence and our relationship to each other and the rest of the universe; we need to have some set of standards to guide us in finding answers to those questions and acting on those answers. Some of us have highly personal codes and others have codes that more closely align with the moral/ethical teachings of some agency, institution, group or system of belief outside of ourselves, but nobody has a moral code without uniquely personal aspects.
The problem with moral codes is that they have elements that we believe so strongly that they are treated as Truth (note the capital “T”), and these truths are the core of our moral code. When we encounter others who do not share these truths, we feel threatened by that, and the only way to protect ourselves and our truth is to decide that the other person is wrong. So far, so good. There is no harm in that. But we also have to ask ourselves how the other person cannot see the truth that is so clear and so important to us. And the answer often is that they are somehow lacking something we possess; some ability or insight or sensitivity that allows us to see the truth that they cannot see. And that is the beginning of judgment because it is the beginning of self-superiority.
None of us is immune to this. As I sit here writing this, I am reminded of my very short career (one day) as a door-to-door salesman. What I realized after that one disappointing day was that I was completely unable to convince myself that anyone else actually needed what I was selling. But I am writing a blog and posting links to it because I have somehow convinced myself (though not without regular bouts of uncertainty) that other people might have some need for my ideas . . . for my truth. Also, I must confess that my ability to see this truth and express it make me feel somewhat superior to those who cannot see what I see. Also, the moment I proclaim that I am, at least, able to see and admit that I am so self-aware and honest, I set myself apart from those poor folk who still struggle in the darkness of their own self-ignorance.
I used to tell my students (only somewhat facetiously) that self-help books were designed to tell us exactly how flawed we are and how our awareness of our flaws could help us become more nearly perfect human beings. We could than go forth and tell everyone else what we had learned about not just our own flaws (which we were working hard to correct), but also theirs (which they clearly were not working on); and if they told us that we were mistaken we could triumphantly declare that they were in denial. We, you see, knew the truth.
As our country and our culture struggle through this time of significant social and political polarization, we are seeing people struggle to find some truth of sufficient size and power and certainty to help us feel safe. And there is no such truth. There are too many gods (or, if you prefer, ideas of god) for any one or two of them to provide that truth. And the actions of those who most loudly proclaim their adherence to some godly truth are often so clearly wrong to everyone else that the truth itself is called into question. Science and reason provide one kind of truth, but it is a mundane, manageable truth, lacking the grandeur and mystery and transformative power of (for want of a better word) spiritual truth. We want something more than the assurance that the world makes sense. And we want some reason to believe that we’ve got it right; that more than just the universe, our lives, our very existence makes sense.
I believe that we will only learn how to really listen to one another, really work together to make a more peaceable world, learn to love one another, when we really understand that our truth can imprison us; but it can also set us free. I am not, by the way, saying that we should tolerate one another’s truth. I dislike the idea of “tolerance” as a way of dealing with human differences. Tolerance suggests superiority. We tolerate what we believe is inferior, but we can live with it. I am suggesting acceptance of each other’s truth. We need not and should not, however, accept or tolerate harmful acts of any kind based on anyone’s truth. We need to learn, I think, to evaluate the impact of our actions and the actions of others so that we can mitigate the harm those actions cause, but to reserve judgment.

Cultural Norms and the Invisibility of Privilege

In PeaceAble on July 3, 2014 at 3:47 pm

George Will writing about the privilege that comes from a woman claiming she’s been raped is like the spider writing about the privileges of the fly. Sure, says the spider, the fly is inextricably snared in my web, and there’s a better than even chance that she will be eaten someday, but isn’t the fly’s squirming still just a big show for attention and sympathy, after all?

When was the last time that we specifically celebrated “the first white man” to do something? If you aren’t sure how to answer the question, or if every example you can think of for the first time a white man did something is also the first time a human did it, don’t be surprised. Because the white male is the dominant racial/sexual image in our culture, there is simply no need to identify it specifically. Go ahead. Google a few firsts. If the person was not white or male, it will be mentioned specifically. Specific firsts might say “the first man,” but the usage is more in the sense of “man” as “human,” rather than a concern that you might mistake the person’s sex.
Even when non-whites or females have done something first, we often overlook those events or treat them as anomalies. The “discovery” of the American continents, for instance, is attributed to white European males even though there were great indigenous civilizations here centuries before the earliest white men arrived. When a white man does something first, his race and sex are simply not newsworthy. It is also true that centuries of white male privilege have meant that access to the means to do certain things first was denied to or made vastly more difficult for non-whites and/or females.
Culture defines our expectations for what is “normal” and what is not. These norms of culture are created, reinforced and expressed through our common language and usage, our common images, and our normative relationships with others as we live our lives. This is not to say that we all slavishly follow the norm, but only that when we, or others, don’t do what is normal we know it. It also doesn’t mean that the norm is based on what is most common or likely. The “normal” American nuclear family (a man, his wife, and their natural children) is not now and never has been the most common family structure; and there are more women than men in the general population.
And it is not just the general culture that generates norms. Every co-culture creates norms for its members; and if you, or your status in life, or your behavior, or any other aspect of you is consistent with the appropriate norm in any circumstance, then you are privileged in that instance. If you are, by sex or race or religion or wealth or any other characteristic, consistent with the more general norms of the culture, or if the culture provides you with special privilege because you differ from the norm in some significant and valued way, then your privilege is multiplied. In the same way, of course, the degree to which you differ from the norm in any situation is the degree to which you lack privilege.
I used to ask my students, as an exercise in understanding the effects of prejudice, to identify as many co-cultures as they could to which they belonged, and what benefits or privileges they received from being part of each co-culture. At first, it was difficult for many of them to even recognize that they did belong to any co-culture at all; and once they had identified some, to recognize any particular benefits. But they had little trouble finding examples when I asked them to identify a way in which their membership in a co-culture had caused them to suffer discrimination or disadvantage. It is, of course, natural that we should be especially aware of the things that harm us, but the other side of awareness of disadvantage is the invisibility of privilege. Because certain characteristics are “normal;” and more importantly, normative; we simply do not recognize the privilege that comes from not being “different.”
The privilege of the norm is expressed in lots of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but the principal privilege is that you, as the norm, are the reference point for any consideration of the other. To be “color-blind” in this culture is to assume everyone is white until you know better. To be “gender-neutral” is to assume that everyone is male until you know better. To be Christian is to be able to proclaim that “God,” with a capital “G,” is simultaneously the proper name of the god you believe in and a neutral term that doesn’t specifically refer to that god. When we say “In God We Trust,” we are saying that everyone is a Christian until we learn differently.
This assumption that the world is like us until we earn that it isn’t gives rise to two dangerous related ideas. The first is that the same things that we accept as our rights we can see as privileges for others. Those who represent the norm try to say that women, or people of color, or homosexuals, or any other group is seeking special privileges when they want the same things that normal folks already have as an accepted right, but we fail to see that those things are either rights for all or privileges for all. And this leads us to the idea that granting others the privilege of access to what we have as a right is to take something away from us. And this is partially true. When we lose the exclusivity of the norm, then we lose our own privileged status. If everyone has a privilege, then it’s no longer special. Privilege defines us in ways that rights do not.
The second privilege of the norm is to be able to talk about “tolerance” of the other. We always talk about tolerance as something to be done about those who don’t fit the norm. When have we ever been asked to be tolerant of those, for instance, who are in heterosexual relationships? We are tolerant if we allow same-sex couples to show affection in public, but heterosexual couples showing affection in public is normal and doesn’t require tolerance. We have been asked to be tolerant, at various times, for all sorts of mixed-marriages, but we would be considered weird if we suggested that we need to show more tolerance for those who marry others who are of the same race, or ethnicity or religion as themselves.
Tolerance, however, is a trap. We should never get too comfortable with our tolerance of others, because tolerance is a judgment of the self-superior norm about the aberrant other. Tolerance at its best is only accommodation, not acceptance; at its worst it’s a conscious insult. Who am I to tolerate you? Would I not be insulted to learn that you tolerate me? How dare you? I am the norm. Tolerance for the other is a privilege of the norm.
This invisibility of privilege blinds us to inequity and injustice, and interferes with our ability to solve the important social, economic, political and spiritual challenges of our time. The invisible privilege of the norm is a barrier to the creation of a peaceable life. There are two solutions to this. One is to acknowledge the privilege and have an honest discussion about it. If, after all, a privilege is justified, then we should be able to say why. This is the reason that the opponents of same-sex marriage are losing that battle. They simply cannot convincingly articulate any reasonable justification for the privilege they are claiming. The second is to unmask privilege wherever we find it hidden, and encourage those who are not part of the “norm” to claim those privileges as their own, as rights. We need to seek self-awareness, acceptance and a new “normal” rather than self-superiority, tolerance and the defense of invisible privilege.

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